GUEST COMMENTARY: Recognized or not, Missouri and France have connection

Thursday, November 22, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST

As a French expatriate, I would have never imagined looking at an Eiffel Tower in the middle of the country. But it happened on one of those still-warm fall Sundays in Paris.

Paris, Missouri.

I was driving north on Main Street, past the courthouse, when I saw an old school made of bricks on the left side of the road. I stopped. The surrounding tall, half-naked trees contrasted beautifully with the colorful painting featured on the building.

The artwork by Kansas-based muralist David Loewenstein depicts two hands on a typewriter at the bottom of the wall. They are the hands of the former editor of the Monroe County Appeal, Jack Blanton, who collected his columns in a book titled “When I Was a Boy.” From that typewriter stemmed a vibrant world that captured the essence of Missouri.

On the left side, a horse rears up on its hind legs while on the opposite side, a wolf howls. The center section is symbolic of important cultural icons — Mark Twain, the county fair, wheat, corn and the covered bridge.

Paris is in the middle of the countryside.

But it’s the elegant, tall red Eiffel Tower on the top right of the wall that caught my attention. The locals use it as an icon around town, giving the place the feel of a tourist destination.

I was interested in knowing what significance the Eiffel Tower, or France in general, has in the lives of these Missourians.

The clock struck noon, and I was hungry for some traditional French cuisine. The foie gras with mustard seed and green onions in duck jus was still haunting me from my last visit to the homeland. But the only restaurant in downtown Paris served Mexican food. Despite the disappointment, I was excited to talk to the locals, who just finished Sunday Mass.

I approached a table of 10 people, dressed in church clothes, and I introduced myself without mentioning that I am French. My accent did it for me.

Baguette, beret and the bicycle

“I imagine France in black and white,” Kenzie Dye said, as she daydreamed. Her typical Frenchman would be wearing a sailor shirt and holding a baguette in his arm while riding his bike. “French are much more stylish than Americans,” she added.

Dye is still in high school, but she dreams of traveling the world. She wishes she had learned French, but there were no classes offered at her school.

Since I arrived in the U.S. more than a year ago, I have tried not to behave stereotypically. Let’s say I have avoided wearing my favorite blue- and white-stripped nautical T-shirt more than twice a month. The French have a constricted view of Americans, but I have noticed that Americans definitely have a narrow view of the French, too.

“French people have a holier-than-thou attitude,” said Clarence Beal, referring to the remnants of the aristocratic heritage in today’s Frenchmen. “But I have nothing against French people,” he added, making sure not to offend me.

Originally from southern Missouri, Beal worked across the U.S. for General Motors. He served his country in the Vietnam War, but the only European country he has visited is Germany. He didn’t travel to France, but there was no reason because, according to him, the wine is better in the U.S.

I did not have the courage to undermine his spirits by telling him that a lot of the best wines in this country are imported from France.

If he had been an exceptional wine connoisseur, he would have argued that Missouri vines saved the French wine industry from ruin.

The insidious parasite, known as phylloxera, assaulted France’s roots in the late 1870s. Missouri’s entomologist Charles V. Riley found that French vines could be grafted to some immune rootstocks to produce healthy grapes. Millions of cuttings of Missouri roots were shipped overseas to save European vineyards.

“But look, I’m eating french fries,” he immediately added, changing the subject.

Beal probably would have not hesitated calling them Liberty fries back in 2003. I actually wonder if Beal would have also changed the name of the town, wary of some ridiculous stereotype that the French were not as patriotic as the Americans were.

But what does it mean to the locals to live in a town with a French name?

Dye remembers confusing people on the once popular chat website Chatroulette when she told them that she was from Paris, Mo.

“I thought you were American,” unknown encounters would tell her on the chat, bewildered. Dye has always thought Paris sounds pretty and classy.

She had the same experience during her three-week immersion program in Spain last summer. When she mentioned her hometown to new friends, they would be amused that Americans used French names.

Interestingly enough, some Americans wouldn’t directly make the connection with France when talking about Paris. Rather, they might think of Paris, Ky., or Paris, Texas.

I was disappointed to learn that Missouri’s Paris was named after the city in Kentucky. Virginians and Kentuckians built the hamlet, and it was nominated as the county seat in the early 1830s. Kentucky, however, named its town, Paris, in honor of French assistance during the American Revolution.

The French influence in Missouri is even older. French explorers traveled through the Mississippi River valley, claimed the region for France as part of French Louisiana and founded St. Louis in 1764. The city was named after Louis IX, King of France, commonly known as Saint Louis.

The U.S. acquired France’s territory in 1803, and today more than 50 towns in Missouri carry a French name. It is always amusing to hear Americans pronounce Ste. Geneviève, Versailles, Rocheport or even Bonne Terre.

But history isn’t proof enough for some Americans to acknowledge Missouri’s French connection.

There is no French influence around here, persisted a short, blond, middle-age woman who refused to be interviewed while shopping for groceries at the locally owned minimart.

I found it ironic that despite the presence of France’s most iconic landmark in the heart of America, the French influence was lost and had no significance in the lives of most people here. But then I thought to myself that maybe the Eiffel Tower was not as much a symbol of French culture as an allegory to a foreign element penetrating new scenery.

Thomas Jefferson famously said: “Every American has two countries — his own and France.” But I have come to realize that the second country of these Parisians was in fact their American version of France, an impression far from what reality held in store. Dommage!

Kevin Dubouis is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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