Demystifying the French: Tip #4


Tip #4: Shhh!!! 

This is one of the tips that is perhaps both hardest to understand and (probably consequently) hardest for Americans to remember. But it is a very important one, both in terms of improving your own experience in France, and in terms of improving our national reputation there. :-)

There is a New Yorker cartoon I often share with my study abroad students in their on-site orientation in Paris. It shows an American couple with a little boy, probably about eight years old, standing on a city street clearly in France somewhere. The man is studying an open map. The woman is leaning toward the boy, who is holding a toy airplane and looking bewildered. The woman, with finger to lips, is saying, “Not so loud, sweetie. We’re in Europe.”

Generally speaking Europeans–well, at least French people–speak at a much lower decibel level, and in general make much less noise when in public, than we do. Because they do, it is first of all not necessary to speak as loudly in public places as Americans are used to doing. (Why? Because if everyone speaks more quietly, everyone else doesn’t have to bellow in order to be heard. It’s kind of amazingly wonderful!)

You will no doubt find, if you are ever so lucky as to ever spend a good deal of time in Paris that one day you will be sitting in a cafe somewhere, enjoying the soft murmur of nearby conversation, the quiet clinking of silverware and glasses, the ambient noise of the nearby street. Or you may be strolling along the Seine, enjoying the beauty of the view, the river barges passing by, the beautiful, luminous open sky. And gradually, for some reason you do not initially understand, you will feel your brow furrowing, and you will begin to feel irritated, you know not why.

And then suddenly you will know: it is a group of your countrymen (or women) that has burst your bubble of quiet contentment at being in this beautiful place: they are cackling, they are shouting, they are saying embarrassing things at the top of their lungs.

“Ay-yay-yay…” you will sigh.

So. Just know this. We all tend to talk more loudly than we need to. We don’t mean anything bad by it, we can’t help it, it’s just a bad habit. And it’s not a problem at home. But it is when we are traveling around Europe. It’s actually kind of obnoxious.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to do when we find ourselves in a place that has made us so happy, so excited! And we are among friends, whether new ones or old!

But. Try to remember to keep the volume down, okay?

The payoff? You may see–and hear–things you wouldn’t have seen or heard, if you hadn’t taken the trouble to follow this tip.

So try it! Pourquoi pas?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). This spring she will be teaching “A Literary Journey into the Heart of France” and “Parlez-Vous Anglais? Survival French and French Travel Tips” at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. 


March 5, 2015 at 7:00 pm Leave a comment

Lafayette (et Charlie, et Ahmed) nous voici!


Nous sommes Charlie, nous sommes Ahmed. Nous sommes juifs, nous sommes musulmanes, nous sommes chrétiens, nous sommes tristes. Et détérminés de faire de demain un jour mieux qu’aujourd’hui…

Last Sunday, several thousand of us who probably would have rather been in Paris, but were instead in or near Washington D.C. accepted the French Ambassador’s invitation to join him and other dignitaries in a silent march to honor the victims of the massacre in Paris last week.

It was also, of course, an opportunity to show our solidarity with and love of the French people–all of them, from the irreverent (and brilliant, and brave) journalists at Charlie Hebdo to the Muslim policeman who was brutally murdered while defending them, to the (also Muslim) “hero of Vincennes” whose courage and quick thinking  saved the lives of customers in the kosher grocery store that was attacked on Friday. And to show our support for the millions of Frenchmen and women in grief and shock over the violent and brutal attack on their beautiful république, and the values they hold most dear.

So we did. We gathered at the Newseum (a museum of journalism) and walked half a mile or so to–quite appropriately–the National Memorial to Law Enforcement Officers.

Many of the people were French. Many were Francophiles. Some were just people–young, old, and many in-between–who were appalled at the attack on humanity in general, and who wanted to take part somehow in the healing.

Of the many creative ways people found to express their grief, their convictions, their love, I think I liked the ones about drawing the most. One little girl being carried on a parent’s shoulders held up a sign that said, “J’ai le droit de dessiner” (“I have the right to draw”).

Then there was this one, reminding us of just how far back our debt to the the French people goes:



Some artists, characteristically, used no words at all to express themselves. This is the sculptural tribute a friend mounted outside his home in Silver Spring.



And then there was this. Probably a good note to end this post on.


“There are some new ones over there, who would like some paper and pencils…”


Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). This spring she will be teaching “A Literary Journey into the Heart of France” and “Parlez-Vous Anglais? Survival French and French Travel Tips” at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. 


January 14, 2015 at 4:27 am 2 comments

Today, just three words…


Thanks to Gary Lee Kraut at France Revisited. (


January 8, 2015 at 5:50 pm Leave a comment

On the Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations

Janet Hulstrand:

Update on Cuba: A Pre-Christmas Gift for Two Nations?

I have always had a bit of trouble reconciling the hopeful phrase “peace on earth” with everyday news from around the world. But this year, amidst abundant distressing and worrisome news there was one bit of long-awaited good news to brighten the season. Today I am pleased to reblog this post from an American student who shares his thoughts about the implications of this news. Full disclosure: the author is my son, who has spent a significant amount of time over the past three years learning about, thinking about, and spending time in Cuba. Thanks, Phineas!

Originally posted on Havana Special Period:

I woke up to an unexpected text message from a friend last Wednesday morning. She wrote: OH MY GOD, CUBA FREED ALAN GROSS. Or something like that.

I knew right away that this piece of news would turn into an avalanche. And a look at the New York Times corroborated my premonition. In a breaking news story it outlined, along with the freeing of Gross from a Cuban prison, the impending release of three Cuban spies/heroes (depending upon whom you ask) from their detention in Miami and the promise of normalized bilateral relations between the U.S and Cuba.

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December 28, 2014 at 4:59 pm Leave a comment

The Great March for #ClimateAction: From LA to DC



Back in March, in Los Angeles, a group of idealistic, realistic, determined, devoted, concerned citizens who wanted to DO SOMETHING about climate change set out on a 3,000 mile journey–by foot–with the goal of raising awareness about climate change, and inspiring climate action.

Today they arrived in Washington DC.

These marchers–who range in age from 18 (or younger?) to 80-something–are nothing short of inspiring.  A handful of the marchers, including a 71-year-old woman, walked every step of the way. Others dropped in, dropped out, dropped in again as their schedules or their health allowed, did as much as they could. Most of the way there were 25-50 marchers, walking step by step across this nation, talking to people along the way, listening to their stories, hearing their concerns about our earth and what is happening to it.

I joined them this morning for the last leg of their journey–from Bethesda, Maryland to Lafayette Park, across from the White House.

Please meet just a few of the marchers on the Great March for Climate Action.


This is Liz Lafferty. Back in February she heard about the Climate March from some friends and agreed to learn more “out of courtesy.” When she saw a little girl holding a sign that said “What are you going to tell your grandchildren you did about climate change?” she says, “I didn’t like the answer.” That was the moment she decided to walk away from her typical southern California lifestyle and do something about it.

Meet Kelsey Juliana, a vibrant bundle of positive energy, and a wonderfully articulate spokesman for the cause. (You can see her appearance on Bill Moyers earlier this year here).


I don’t know this boy’s name, but he and his Mom kindly let me take his picture as we were marching along.



After the marchers reached their destination, Lafayette Park, across from the White House, Ed Fallon, the man responsible for this inspired action, along with other of the marchers, addressed the crowd. “There is a force developing and an energy building,” he said. “But time is NOT on our side. We need climate action now!”


Then the marchers took turns reading some of the messages they had gathered from Americans young and old along the way, that they had promised to deliver to Washington. Some were addressed directly to the President (or to Michelle Obama). Some to the Congress. Some were polite, some were pleading, some were blunt and to the point. Here are just a few:

Jobs don’t matter if there is no clean air and no clean water.” 

“I’m tired of having our planet treated like a trash can. Can you please do something about it?”

“I have an 11-year-old son. Please take action, for his sake and for his peers.”

“Please please please stop the destruction of Mother Earth.” 

“We need to get away from fossil fuels. Hopefully you will do this so we don’t lose our planet.”

Miriam Kashia, at 71 the oldest marcher to have walked every step of the way, held up an eagle feather she was given by the Zuni pueblo, and a special stone from the Navajos. “They asked me to bring these to Washington, and ‘Tell them to protect our sacred land,'” she said.

These generous individuals have given up months of their lives to draw attention to climate change and call for climate action. They deserve our gratitude, and they need our help–all of us!

One of the chants shouted on their march today was “The people are rising: No more compromising!”

So what about it, people? Are you ready to do something too?

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of literature and writing. She is also a human being, a citizen, and a mother who is deeply concerned about the fate of our earth. You can find out more about the Great March for Climate Action, and about how you can help here

November 1, 2014 at 8:39 pm Leave a comment

What Should I Do When I’m in Paris? (An Anti-Tourist Guide)

Sandwich Jambon, Vin Ordinaire

Be sure to take the time to indulge in a favorite Parisian pastime–just doing “nothing” for a while…

Because I am lucky enough to spend a month in Paris every year, people often ask me what they should be sure to see or do while they are there.

Of course the answer to this question depends a lot on who you are, what interests you, and how long you will be there.

But there are a few things I tend to recommend to most people who ask.

1) If you only have a short time in Paris, consider going to the Musée Rodin instead of the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay. Why? Because the Musée Rodin, despite being one of the most wonderful and most famous museums in the world (it is hands-down my favorite) offers what many of the world’s great art museums do not: pleasant, relaxed surroundings and uncrowded conditions in which it is easy to actually do what you are (at least theoretically) there for: to enjoy the artwork.

In addition to the pleasure of strolling through the very rooms where Rodin and a stellar list of other turn-of-the-twentieth-century artists lived and worked–Isadora Duncan, Rilke, Matisse, Cocteau among them–the beautiful grounds offer the chance to study Rodin’s sculptures from multiple distances and perspectives. Inside, don’t forget to notice, in addition to the sculptures, beautiful drawings and paintings by Rodin, and the friends and fellow artists he admired–Van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Edvard Munch, to name a few. And be sure to spend some time looking at the magnificent work of Rodin’s student, lover, and sometimes protégée, Camille Claudel.

If you are determined to go to the Louvre no matter what, be ready for the crowds. And consider looking at the Mona Lisa from a distance, instead of up close with a bunch of other tourists toward whom you may find yourself having irrationally murderous thoughts. And take the opportunity to view some of the literally thousands of other beautiful artworks there, the ones that are not drawing crowds.

2) Consider skipping the ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. This experience is expensive, time-consuming, and very crowded, and the view from up there is in my opinion not that exciting for anyone who has ever been in an airplane. Instead, consider walking up to the first level. (You still have to buy a ticket, but it costs less, and the line for walking up is usually quite short.) Or just sit on the Champ de Mars and enjoy the view of the tower and the relaxed yet lively scene around you. There are other, less crowded places you can get panoramic views of Paris if that is important to you, for example from the top of Sacré Coeur, the Arc de Triomphe, or the Tour Montparnasse. There’s some good advice about a few alternative spots for viewing Paris here.

3) Read David Downie’s wonderful collection of essays, “Paris, Paris: A Journey Into the City of Light” before going. You may well develop some ideas for things you’d like to see and do while you’re there by reading this book. You will also learn fascinating things about the history of Paris, its architecture, and many interesting, “off-the-beaten-track” spots and idiosyncratic subjects, with Downie, your travel companion, offering his own unique, witty, intelligent slant on things. (If you like this book as much as I do, you’ll probably want to also bring it with you to Paris.)

4) Have a wonderful French meal somewhere. For reasons ranging from a limited budget to a lack of sufficient interest in cuisine, I am not the person to try to advise you on where to eat. My usual recommendation is Le Train Bleu, which offers, in addition to very good food, visual opulence and historical interest. However, there are many people who can do so, including my friend Gary Lee Kraut–journalist, editor and publisher of France Revisited, professional tour guide, and a gourmand who has spent many years learning about, and writing about, French cuisine. His “list beyond the list” of restaurants in Paris is a good place to start.

5) Whatever else you do, make sure to leave some time to do nothing but stroll, and spend some unhurried time in a Parisian café, and/or in the beautiful parks and gardens of Paris, watching the world go by. The French even have a word for spending time this way: flâner, which is translated in various ways. But it means, mainly, to enjoy relaxing: an activity that has a much more positive connotation in France than in Anglo-Saxon countries and cultures. So, ditch that  mentality that has you furiously checking off sights on your list and fretting about how much you are “accomplishing.” Kick back and relax. (Go ahead–you can do it! And to experience life this way, even for a short time, can be transformative.)

Finally, in order to make your time in Paris as pleasant and as safe as possible, two more bits of advice: hang onto your bag, especially when you’re in crowded, touristy areas (and on the Metro). While Paris is generally speaking at least as safe as most American cities, pickpockets do work the crowds, and apparently one of the latest things is plucking cellphones off of café tables. So, be aware!

And take a look at this post, which will give you some very important, very basic advice about how to get off on the right foot with the natives. :-)

Alors, bon voyage, et bon séjour en France!

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog (you’ll find more posts on Paris here). This fall she is teaching “Parlez-Vous Anglais? Survival French and French Travel Tips” at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. 



August 19, 2014 at 1:20 pm Leave a comment

One American Veteran’s Memory of the Battle of the Bulge

Uncle Lewey, Back from the War

Uncle Lewey (center) with his brothers Jim (left) and Dave (right) c. 1945

“One thing I noticed, that the Argonne Forest, so many bullets had gone through there that the trees were mostly stumps. Very few branches on the trees there…”

The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by the U.S. in World War II. At the age of 20, my Uncle Lewey left his home on the family farm in Wisconsin and, along with hundreds of thousands of others, played his role in that battle. 

Seven years ago my son Phineas interviewed him, as part of a school project he was doing on World War II.  Here are some excerpts from that interview…

PR: Before you left, what was the Depression like, back at home?

LP: Oh, way back in the 30s?

PR: Oh. No, I mean, just before you were about to leave for the war, what was it like in America?

LP: Well, it was about the same as usual. Farmers were farming, and people were working, it wasn’t that bad. I wouldn’t have had to have gone, but I just thought maybe I should.

PR: When and where did you arrive in France?

LP: When did I arrive in France? Well, let’s see. I went in in 44 and I had my basic training, and I went to France in 45. 1945. Then from France we went to Germany. We went over on a boat, it was the Mariana. It was an English luxury liner. There were, I think 5,000 guys on that thing, and they each had hammocks to sleep in, and there was six of ‘em in a row, one on top of the other. And the one on the top one, he had the advantage because the ones below, there, it wasn’t so good. One time I was going through the chow line, and I got my food and the guy ahead of me ate his, and he came to the barrel where they throw the scraps and got to the barrel, and he threw up right there. Y’see, bein’ on a boat can make some people seasick. And it was a big one, but…it was kind of interesting. And then another thing that happened is, on the way over there, they realized there were some submarines around there. But they threw bombs over  the side at the submarines…The submarines didn’t get us. I don’t know if we got the submarines or not…but they didn’t get us. Cuz we didn’t have any other ships around us to protect us. So that was how they did it…

PR: So, what was your job in the Battle of the Bulge?

LP: I was a radio repairman. And do you know how we checked the radios?

PR: No, how?

LP: Well, that was when they had tubes, y’know? And I would feel them to see if it was warm. And if it was warm it was working, and if it was cold it wasn’t working, and I’d replace it. That’s all I had to do. So, I really didn’t fix any. But there was other things going on…

PR: Did the American soldiers, did their impression of the Nazis before the war influence their fighting during the war? Do you think their impression of the Nazis and their being all, like, scary and everything, did that make their fighting better or worse? Or do you think it didn’t matter…

LP: I don’t think it mattered very much. It just depended on the situation at hand.

PR: Did you ever have any encounters with the Nazi Army yourself?

LP: Well, in a way. I was walkin’ through the woods one day to get back to camp, and a sniper shot at me. I didn’t see him. But the bullet went about two feet from me. So I walked a little faster and hoped I was going in the right direction, and he didn’t get another shot at me. So I was pretty happy about that.

PR: Oh. Whoa. (pause) What was the most difficult part of being there, in the Battle of the Bulge?

LP: Well, one of the most difficult parts was, one of the guys I took Basic with, didn’t come back. And another interesting thing that happened was, one of the guys I took my Basic training with, he was in a Recon company and I was in Headquarters company. And they were going between two big hills, and there was a camouflaged machine-gun nest that shot out the front vehicle and the back vehicle. And then they were gonna get the rest of ‘em. But my friend, he had a jeep with a 50-caliber machine gun on it, and he backed off the road, and he kept them pinned down until everybody got out. He saved that whole recon company. I thought he did pretty good…

PR: Yeah…

LP: He got the Bronze Star for doin’ that…(laughs)…One of the interesting things was when we went, they called us reinforcements. And the reason we went there is because quite a few of them had been killed. And instead of calling them “replacements,” they called them “reinforcements.” (laughs) Yeah, see it was a tank destroyer battalion that I was in. They had tank destroyers that were a lot like a tank. But they didn’t have much armor on them. And…I didn’t drive any of the tanks, I didn’t feel bad about that….they were big creatures!

Then one of the interesting things that happened when we were over there, we even got a vacation. We got to go to Switzerland, and there it was amazing. They had hills of alfalfa that were at 45 degrees. And the women would cut the hay, with a scythe, and rake it up, and put it in stacks, and it was sure different than it is here.

PR: At the time of the war, how did you feel about America’s situation? Were you confident, or worried, or what?

LP: Well, see, Hitler, he was gettin’ his way with things and y’know, it only takes 10 men out of a hundred, to control the other 90. And if they get control, there isn’t a very easy way to stop ‘em. And I thought it was time I should help in getting rid of ‘em. And I did.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of literature and writing. This post is one in a series of her personal tributes to those who contributed to regaining Europe’s freedom in World War II.

August 9, 2014 at 2:22 am Leave a comment

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