My French friend Jean-Marie Jacquième today e-mailed me one of his intriguing travelogue posts, from Marrakech, Morocco. Describing a ticklish conversation with a Moroccan who had proposed a trip to attend a wedding, Jean-Marie wrote: “Je fais donc direct, ‘à la américaine’ et pose une série de questions.” Or: “So I do it directly, in the American way, and pose a series of questions.” I loved this. Taking on the way of an American, Jean-Marie asked the man how they would get to the wedding, how much it would cost, and if it was clear that Jean-Marie would pay his own way there, but not that of his acquaintance. This information, conveyed “à la américaine,” led to “une échappatoire magnifique,” a magnificent way out, when the Moroccan suddenly decided that a weekend trip was too short to bother with and that he didn’t want to go to the wedding after all.
Of course, “à la américaine” means different things in Denver as opposed to New England, where I find myself today, at a Starbucks in Harvard Square. A Westerner, à la John Wayne, would pride himself on speaking directly, the fewer words the better, and he’d no doubt be suspiscious of the tricky locutions of a pointy-headed Harvard intellectual. But compared with France, America does seem to represent directness. This can be refreshing and useful, as it was for Jean-Marie, or it can be naïve and crude, depending on the circumstance. For myself, I would often do better to back off from my steely purpose and take the time to connect “a la française,” with small talk, with a bit of graceful ingratiation.
This spot where I’m writing this morning is a little brick building that 40 years ago was a store called The Prep Shop. I remember self-conscious, awkward visits here with my mother to buy new gray flannels, shirts, ties, and a blue blazer with the Belmont Hill School seal on the pocket. How I would love to see that little guy walk in here today, so worried about his future. I’d tell him, à la américaine: “Don’t worry, kid. Your life will make Riley jealous. Work on your French.”