#470: The French Mistake

April 29th, 2015

The short, middle-aged woman with the sandy, close-cropped hair pulled her phone-on-a-stick closer, frowned and extended it again to take another photo at the base of the State Street bridge.

She and the equally sandy-haired man with her were getting nowhere with their selfie stick, so I offered to help.

“Merci,” she said.

The French. Again.

The day’s first French had been just a few blocks earlier, a group of beauties that could apply for the collective noun “bevy,” happily chattering away.

I would run into a total of four groups of French people wandering around the Loop that morning.

It must be April.

It’s not the big congés annuel evacuation of Paris the first two weeks of August — perhaps closer to the vacances de printemps of le calendrier scolaire. But whether the invasion française is my imagination or l’histoire d’aujourd’hui repose largement sur Google Translate, it doesn’t feel like spring to me until I run into laughing travelers horrified by the size of our coffee cups.

It fit my memories from my years as a tour guide, at least. Two summers giving boat tours and one giving walking tours. The French come in April, the tide of Irish J-1s in summer, Germans in August and Japanese in the later months.

A former riverboat captain of my acquaintance, one well-familiar with the ebb and tides of the tourist trade, thinks I’m full of nonsense.

“I don’t really remember the trends, but my guess is it has a lot to do with the strength of the dollar versus the native currency. I remember at one point there was a huge influx of German tourists because you could hear them coming because of the swish swish of the silk shirts and the stench of too much cologne,” he said.

Another old friend, Dr. Kim Singletary, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on black identity in German culture, said there are no particular months Germans go on holiday, although both summer months and Christmastime are popular.

As for silk shirts and too much cologne, she said “maybe the old dudes trying to hit on me in the bar because I look ‘exotic’ and ‘Brazilian.’”

Back to the French, I dropped by Alliance Française de Chicago to ask the guy working the door at a free public lecture on the joint European Space Agency/NASA Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko if it was “like French vacation or something.”

“Not that I’m aware of,” he said before asking me if I was interested in Thursday’s lecture on climate change and the hydrological cycle.

“Wine and cheese!” he called after me as I left with a brochure I would shove in my pocket at the bus stop.

I fished it out waiting for a Blue Line transfer.

As a subway musician with an amped acoustic around his neck and tambourines on his feet played an endless circular medley of “Tequila,” “La Cucaracha” and “The Girl From Ipanema,” I read about the asteroid lecture.

It was part of the French-American Science Festival, itself part of the ongoing French Innovation Week @Chicago 2015.

So was the selfie stick lady a physicist, the chattering beauties tech entrepreneurs? Were all, part or none of the bits of Gallic flittering about the air connected to this innovation extravaganza, or just coincidental tourism?

Two things chilled me. One, I had turned down a free lecture by the people who harpooned a comet from a rocket ship (in fairness, I had dinner plans). Two, my other memories predate the conference. Where the hell had they come from?

Have I actually had years of Franco-Aprils, or had I retroactively twisted a few random incidents into a narrative I thought was cool?

I do know the Irish come in summer. And I can confirm the existence of at least two French tourists in spring. But as for the rest, I really can’t know. I’m going to wonder about all my memories now. What can I trust from a mind that conjured a horde of French invaders each year?

Quel dommage.

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OK, yes, the title was a Mel Brooks reference

[Update, 10:09 a.m. April 29: Another friend who works in the tourist industry said the French do come in droves this time of year because they get a month off for Easter. I don't know what to think anymore.]

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