The first thing that Remy Rault and Julien Harmel, our French friends here in Cebu, warned us before we left for our exhibit and residency in France, was not to smile too much at people there. Unlike Pinoys who never fail to smile even when they are in the middle of a calamity, the French tend to misconstrue a smile as a kind of flirtation or, worse, a form of mockery.
Indeed, a lot of foreigners think the French are too serious, in fact, sometimes a bit unfriendly or unwelcoming. You can’t blame them. There have been too many foreigners coming to France. Some have managed to stay for good, becoming French citizens or hiding as illegal immigrants.
Locals may thus look at foreigners with suspicion. Sometimes you can sense from the way some people look at you in the Metro or subway in Paris. Is this guy thinking that I’m here to get his job or that I’d soon join the growing number of people he indirectly supports with his taxes to enjoy free health care, pension, etc.? You wonder what that look is saying.
In fact, a few days after we arrived, while walking like a hiphop posse in our oversized hoodies in a desolate street near our studio, we were stopped by policemen who frisked us and checked our passports. The patrol car came near us and a Chinese girl peeped through the window to see if we were the ones who had snatched her cellphone. She shook her head and we were immediately released. Some of the cops didn’t even say, ‘sorry’.
“It was a typical experience in Paris,” one of the local artists said when we told her about it.
“Everyone here has had some bad encounter with the French police.”
It is with most of our hosts, themselves artists who run Le Cent, the public studio offered to us by City Hall of the 12 arrondissement (district) for our month-long art residency, that we found assurance that it could be just another stereotyping about the French. They themselves prove to be examples of French hospitality.
Aside from Remy, who turned his apartment in Paris into a kind of dormitory to accommodate some of us, there was Frederick De Beauvoir, the director of Le Cent, who defied his doctors in the hospital where he was confined for heart problems, to help us go past the lines in the Louvre and enter galleries for free. Frederick also came to the opening of our exhibit in Le Cent and even helped wrap our paintings at the gallery the day before we left for Cebu.
Among the Le Cent staff who were most friendly and helpful were Caroline Abolivier, who took care of our financial needs, and Karen Ganilsy who, with her dog Douchka, walked us around the 12 arrondissement, where we were staying to bring us to her favorite boulangeries (bakeshops), cafes, and budget restaurants.
The French are not typically fond of karaoke but Karen gamely sang Edith Piaf songs with Magic Sing during a dinner hosted by a Cebuana living near Le Cent. She also enjoyed all the Filipino food offered to her.
Then there was Patrick Woolf, another Le Cent artist who broke the stereotype of the brooding French, by always greeting people with his big smile and hugs. He would even share his earphone to let us listen to his music and sometimes drive us around in his car.
Cyril Rouge, a famous sculptor and video artist from Toulouse who shared our exhibit in Le Cent, joined us for rounds of beer at the carnival near our studio after the opening of our show. He stuck with the Cebuano artists and our Luxembourger friend Emile Bartz, trading jokes and downing beer as we watched people dance and party in the street with a brass band until daybreak.
Not members of Le Cent but always with us were the couple Laure and Manu. Laure, a doctor-photographer, offered a room in her apartment for the two women artists in the Mugna collective. She also volunteered to document our activities in beautiful black and white photography.
As soon as we were done with studio work, Laure and Manu invited us to their house in Oudeuil, a quiet farming village with a population of about 60 people. There in the early 19th century farm house, we experienced the warmth of French country life as the couple treated us to the typical long French meals that always had local cheese and wine coming from the cellar. The couple even gave one of us a surprise birthday party, with fine champagne and cakes.
The couple’s friend Francoise invited us to his farm where, after we enjoyed eating organically-grown apples and other fruits, offered us rounds of white wine served on the table outside his centuries-old brick farmhouse.
Admittedly, we broke the rule about not smiling too much in France. But perhaps, there’s something in the Filipino smile that is infectious.
Denial and despair