Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why I was asked to leave le Musée de l'Armée (roughly translated "Museum of the Funny Hats")

[WARNING - I was upset with my treatment by French museum authorities when I wrote this blog so you will have to excuse my sarcasm.  We apologize to our French friends.]

Perhaps it was inevitable that I would get in trouble in Paris, but I really didn't expect to get kicked out of the first museum that I visited on my own (without Bronwyn). Generally, I have tried to be extremely sensitive to French customs and I have tried hard to disprove the French stereotypes about loud and rude Americans. In fact, just last night Bronwyn was telling me that I was going overboard in my effort to be respectful and deferential to the French.

Today I failed.  This morning I visited the Musée de l'Armée ... until I got asked to leave.

The Musée de l'Armée (the Army Historical Museum) is gigantic museum in a beautiful 18th century military hospital.  It presents a very French spin on world military history. It is also a shrine to Napoleon. The museum is filled with lots of display cases with brightly colored uniforms and funny hats. Because of my fascination with funny hats (see blog on the parade of funny hats, the museum was a "must see" for me.

Napoleon with a new hat
A large portion of the museum is devoted to Napoleon, his various uniforms and hats, as well as his colossal tomb. There is also a section of the museum that covers World War I through the end of World War II.  If there is a portion of the museum that covers French military victories after World War II, I didn't find it, ... But of course, my visit was cut short when I was asked to leave.

Not surprisingly, the focus of the museum is French military victories, and very little time is spent on other aspects of French military history. For example, the last part of Napoleon's campaigns and the first parts of WWI and WWII are dismissed by saying "there were some setbacks."

In truth, the museum is excellent and I don't begrudge the French for focusing on French military victories, or even the role of the French in winning WWII.  However, the French spin on world history is an interesting contrast to what I learned in school.  It makes you realize that what we are taught is not necessarily true and that sometimes nations have very different recollections of history.

Rochambeau (center with sash) and Washington (tall guy on right)
This is not the first place in France where I have encountered a very different spin on history. Yesterday we visited Versailles where the audio guide describes the role of France in the American Revolution and emphasized that General Rochambeau was the overall commander that defeated the British. Certainly, the intervention of France played a key role in the American Revolution, but I was surprised to learn and that Rochambeau was the architect of the victory at Yorktown and that Washington merely assisted him.  This is very different spin than the version of history taught in America. Even the French paintings of the victory at Yorktown show Rochambeau in the center with Washington and Lafayette in subservient positions.  I am not exactly sure which version of history is correct, but it is interesting.

Unfortunately, my visit to the Musée de l'Armée was cut short when I was asked to leave. I was asked to leave because  I wanted a refund when the audio player that I had rented for six Euros repeatedly failed to work.  Unfortunately, the audio player rented to me displayed a message that it had less than 10% of its battery life remaining shortly after I began my way through the museum.   I tried to return to the desk where I rented the audio player, but the nice guard told me (in French) that I could not exit through the entrance and that I would need to go through the museum and out the exit (a zig zag path that required me to go through three floors of exhibits).  He described the up and down path that I needed to take with elaborate gestures so I am pretty sure that I understood him correctly.

I decided that I might as well see how long the remaining 10% of the battery would last before trying to return the audio player.  Eventually the audio player died, and I quickly passed through the rest of the exhibits without the benefit of an audio guide in English.  When I got back to the desk where I rented the audio player I was told that I could not have a new audio player because the intervening 30 minutes that it took me to make my way back to the audio desk had apparently allowed the battery to revive enough so that the player could be restarted.  I protested that the player was likely to die again but my advocacy and language skills were inadequate to convince the clerk to give me a new audio player.  Thus, I returned to another section of the museum where the player lasted for about two minutes before completely dying.

When I returned to the audio player rental desk again there was a different clerk and I tried to explain the problems that I had experienced with the audio player. She seemed sure that it was an error on my part, and (using the condescending tone that the French reserve for stupid Americans) she gave me a lengthy lecture on how to operate the device. I asked her to demonstrate.  When she was unable to restart the player, she became much nicer.

Eventually, I was informed that the player had died because I had stayed at the museum too long (less than two hours since I entered the massive museum). I am not clear if she meant that the battery failed because it was not intended to last for a full tour through the museum or whether I had simply overstayed my welcome by complaining about the audio player.

Since the scornful tone no longer seemed appropriate or effective the clerk switched to a tone of innocent powerlessness.  She sweetly explained that now that she understood the problem she would love to help me but that she was powerless to help me.  I asked whether there was a supervisor who might be able to help.  


I asked if there was anybody in the massive museum on their busiest day of the week that might have more authority.  


At this point, the clerk switched defenses again.  Her ability to speak English evaporated and she hit me with a barrage of French.  I had no clue what she was saying. I tried to respond in French, or at least my version of French (Frenglish), but she expressed innocent puzzlement.

After retiring to a corner and consulting my online French dictionary I made a third attempt to explain why I deserved a refund and or at least an audience with a supervisor.  This quickly degenerated into sentences of three words or less that might or might not have been French.  (At this point I was playing to the large crowd that had accumulated around me.)

"Ces audioguide est mort.  Le batterie est mort. C'est défective. C'est merde (crap)."

[Polite laughter from the crowd.]

"C'est incrédule. C'es vol."  [I intended to say this is robbery, but I might have said something else.  In any event, the crowd thought my French monologue was very funy.]

"Je voudrais mon 6 Euros, si vous plait."  (I would like my 6 Euros back, please.)

I am not sure if the crowd was laughing at me or with me, but they were definitely laughing. The laughter was giving me time to dredge up another French word from my brain and fire off a new salvo.

The guards started conferring and they seemed to be calling on their radios for instructions or perhaps reinforcements. The chatter on the guards' radios was beginning to distract the audience, but I still got a few laughs from the crowd and a lot of polite smiles from the clerk.  Eventually, I used up my my entire arsenal of French words. I think that the clerk felt sorry for me so she gave me a business card of the person that I think she said might have been her supervisor. She told me to call the name on the card on Monday.

I decided to retreat to a corner to look up a few more words to restock my arsenal for my next attack. However, suddenly it was no longer a war of words.  I don't know if it was a coincidence, but guys with machine guns now entered the lobby and I was flanked by guards.  My audience dispersed.  One of the guards suggested politely that it might be time for me to leave.  Initially, I protested that it was raining outside and I did not have a raincoat or umbrella, but since the museum guards had backup with guns, I decided to do as they suggested. Score another victory for the French.  Much like the Germans after WWI, I plotted my revenge as I walked home in the rain.

Oh yea.  I also watched the finish of the Tour de France this afternoon.  It was pretty much a parade, but still fun to watch.  You've got to love Paris.

The Tour de France

1 comment:

  1. Mon happy that you got home unscathed.