Visiting French Family Shares Perception of Americans

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The Moraels, a family from Marnes la Coquette, France, recently visited the United States to experience the culture and spend time with their extended adopted family, the Nichols of Princeton. Back row, left to right: Thierry Morael, Nancy Nichols, and Jeff Nichols. Front row: Berengere, Alix, Blanche, Marie, and Laurence Morael. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

When living in a society, it can be difficult to consider what that society is like until one has the opportunity to share in an external perspective. That opportunity arose recently when a French family visited America, making their way up from New York City to Big Lake in Princeton to spend a week with the Nichols family. 

The Moraels, who ordinarily make their home in Marnes la Coquette, a small suburb west of Paris, didn’t come to Maine by chance. 31 years ago, the father, Thierry, came to Maine as an exchange student. He stayed with Nancy and Jeff Nichols and their young family and the group formed an unassailable bond. While they have been in touch throughout the years via letters and photo exchanges, and some family members of the Nichols have visited the Moraels in France, this is the first time that Thierry had the opportunity to bring his wife, Laurence, and their four girls, Berengere (9), Blanche (10), Alix (12) and Marie (14), to the United States.

Thierry was glad to return to Maine, and for the reasons that brought him here. “It is quite a pleasant place,” Thierry said. “We came here today because it is our 20th anniversary. That’s why we said ‘this is quite exceptional, we have to come.’ It was a good reason to come.”

The Nichols were similarly overjoyed to reunite with Thierry, whom Nancy describes as “another son”, and to meet the girls in person after having watched them grow up in photos. “They’re our extended family,” said Nancy.

The bond between the two families – though typically distanced by 3,180 miles – goes deeper than that forged between adopted son Thierry and the Nichols themselves. The Moraels feel very strongly that the United States is their “second country”, as Laurence expressed. Her father was in the Second World War, and there he became close friends with two Americans during the liberation of Paris in 1945. “They often came to see us after that,” said Laurence. “For our family, for my family, the U.S. is our second country.”

The connections go much further than that. Thierry has become the deputy mayor of Marnes la Coquette, a town that hosts the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial. The memorial was erected in honor of the 250 American pilots that flew in World War I under the French flag before the United States officially entered the war. Every year, American troops, the U.S. General commanding the American air forces in Europe and the ambassador in Paris comes for a ceremony to honor the relationship between the U.S. and France. As deputy mayor, Thierry speaks at each of these occasions. 

Yet another connection between the Moraels and the American armed forces exist. The family has an apartment in Normandy, near where American forces landed on D-Day in World War II. Two years ago, during the 70th anniversary, the family was at the beach. “We had a lot of soldiers and veterans come in and talk so we could say thank you,” recalls Thierry. “The girls met some soldiers, and the soldiers cried.”

With so many evident reminders of the role that the United States played in Europe in the last century, it becomes clear why Laurence refers to it as “our second country.” It was from this perspective that the family arrived in August in New York City and began to get to know America from a firsthand view.

Perceptions of Modern Americans

While New York City can hardly be considered to be a typical location in America, it does represent a dense cluster of Americans living their everyday lives. In the Big Apple, the Morael daughters were wowed at the crowded city streets, the huge number of televisions in the open air and the size of the buildings that soared into the sky. Aside from the notable differences in proportion sizes at restaurants (much larger here than there), the family witnessed several occurrences that struck them as unusual.

“My feeling, since we’ve arrived in the U.S., is that it’s very easy to talk with people,” said Thierry. “In the subway, in the streets, in the restaurant, you have people next to you asking ‘where are you from? You have a beautiful family.’ It’s pretty unusual in France to talk with somebody you don’t know.”

On the subway, the family saw an old man speaking with a young man that he didn’t know. “He was saying you can have a good life, if you work hard, you will succeed,” said Laurence. “It was like what a father would say to a son. In France – we love France, of course, but it’s not the same situation. People are more afraid of each other.”

Elsewhere, the family interacted with a woman. “We saw an old, old lady, and she said ‘God bless you’,” Laurence said. “It’s very unusual for us to hear that. We were very touched.” She explained that the family is Christian. “For us, it’s important, but in France you never hear that. You can hear it if you are with a nun, but not in the street or the subway.”

After spending time in New York, Boston, and Cape Cod, the family arrived in Princeton. “In Big Lake, everybody knows everybody,” the daughters expressed, with Thierry’s help in translating. “This is the first time we really feel the American way of life. It’s a very ‘family’ place,” Laurence shared, referencing how the Nichols have a sister as their neighbor on the lake.

Other differences between France and the United States were more apparent in the rural setting. “We are very surprised with all the flags in each place,” Laurence said, explaining that in France, flags are only seen hanging from residences and businesses after terrorist attacks.

The daughters remarked that they were very surprised to see Indians sitting in the diners in Princeton, a sentiment Laurence echoed. “For us, we just see Indians in movies with Gary Cooper,” she said. “It’s incredible to imagine, even for me. There are so many Indians in the different states.”

Having already done so much touring in such a short time, the family took the opportunity to relax at Big Lake. The girls particularly enjoyed tubing, kayaking, and swimming in its waters. In their last week here, the family went to Ganong’s chocolate museum, Raye’s Mustard Mill, the St. Croix Island Historic Site and to Quoddy Bay for Maine lobster. 

 

For the Nichols, interacting with Thierry over the decades has given them an extended family that they will continue to cherish and bond with. For the Moraels, the trip was the opportunity to see the relationship between the United States and France in a solidified light. “We share, between the U.S. and France, the same values: Democracy, liberty and Christian way of seeing things,” Thierry said. “These are very important for us.”