An American in Paris: Diplomacy in the era of Freedom Fries

Lance Armstrong Texan Lance Armstrong celebrates winning the Tour de France.

Cheering on Lance, completing my own Tour, and talking about "ugly Americans"

For years and years I've heard of bicyclists going around France, but never truly cared — it was just like any other sporting event. But this year, simply because I am here, I actually paid attention to the Tour de France. I found myself tuning in to the appropriate sports station on the television or radio to see the standings, and learn who fell? who was leading? were the bikers in the mountains?

Of course, all eyes were on Lance Armstrong, the Texan who ended up winning the Tour and tying for the most consecutive wins (five) in history. Many employees at the U.S. Embassy cheered him on. The conclusion of the Tour happened right before my eyes at the Place de La Concorde: like the Bastille parade, it was an experience I never expected to have. Thousands crowded the Champs Elysées — vendors, children, families, and many people were painted with or draped in American flags — to see what France considers an annual cultural tradition. That day, a Texas flag soared above the Hotel de Crillon, the hotel next to the U.S. embassy, as the family of Lance Armstrong welcomed his arrival in Paris.

While patriotism supported each of the participants of the Tour, the race was less obviously partisan at the end. The whole crowd enthusiastically congratulated the hundreds of bikers who had ridden around the whole country for a month. Being in the receiving line (thanks to the perk of working in the center of it all), I didn't see any country divisions among people. It was more of an international celebration, a time and place where everyone came together to appreciate athletes who had accomplished so much!

Inspired by what I had seen the week before, I went to Bordeaux, in France's wine country, and did my own "Tour." Every Sunday, the mayor of Bordeaux makes bikes available for free and shuts down the city to cars so that people can enjoy the day biking, walking, and rollerblading (very similar to Paris). My friends and I decided to bike out into the countryside and the vineyards … a nearly 40-mile, five-hour excursion that would take us through serene landscapes of vast fields of grapes. A local resident of Bordeaux had overheard us making plans and politely asked to join. It was the perfect opportunity to meet someone new.

The woman had been a resident in France for just a month, after having worked in Germany for three years and studying business at college in Spain. She was involved in the private sector, and was planning to visit America. Instead of talking about what she thought about U.S. foreign policy and Europe — a subject I feel I've exhausted — I asked her what she thought about Americans. She said she believed that one couldn't make a judgment about Americans because the country "is too diverse to make one statement." Her experience working for an U.S. company in another European country had exposed her to the wide range of Americans that there are.

At the same time, she told me that prior to her experience in Germany, she'd thought that Americans do not concern themselves with their surroundings, even when they're not "on their own territory" — a perception that many Europeans share. For example, she talked about the loud presence that many Americans exhibit while traveling. She asked me, "How do you treat a big group of people speaking another language in your country?" While I said that many were tolerant, I had to admit that, of course some people stare, some mock, and others find it annoying. "The same is true for us," she said. "But the fact that you guys do it but then get mad when it happens to you ... makes it seem very hypocritical."

Since I felt that being "obnoxious" doesn't warrant scrutiny, I decided to ask her what she thought about the U.S. presence abroad at the national level.

"America obviously doesn't choose diplomatic channels. America tends to take action, action, action — and not seek peaceful means. War could happen any day," she answered. Later she amended that statement somewhat, saying that "this is what people at the extreme often say … for me, I think it's becoming passé that all people think what happens between Europe and the U.S. is just politics. If you live in that world, then maybe that's all you can think about. But keep in mind that 80 percent of the world are 'normal' people who really don't toss and turn in bed because two countries don't get along."