Confessions of a Born-Again Cowboy in France

Speaker's Corner: At home in the United States, Peter Wortsman is more Woody Allen than John Wayne. But to his adoptive French family, he is "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance."

07.18.07 | 9:01 AM ET

cowboy bootsA funny thing used to happen every time I set foot in France. Striding down the dusty tarmac at Orly Airport back in the days of cheap charter flights, the sweat-soaked seat of my jeans clung to my limbs like a second skin, my face felt leather-like, a mask tanned taut by sleep deprivation and in-flight tippling. Jet-lagged joints crackled as my compact five-foot-five-inch frame realigned ligaments and cartilage, converting to metric. I pursed my lips and primed my tongue, preparing to converse with the natives.

And then it hit me, that deliciously unsettling sense of displacement, like I’d stepped out onto the wrong movie set. Everything was strangely elongated and set at an odd tilt and timbre, the caps on the heads of the baggage handlers, the muffled rumble of the bus waiting to took me to the terminal. I scanned the bleak suburban scape where aircraft roamed like mechanical cattle and factory smokestacks loomed like giant Gauloises cigarettes. The dislocation was complete. I was ready to saddle up. This was my Post-Modern Monument Valley and I was the Marlboro Man sans cigarette.

A curious metamorphosis, I admit, for a short, introspective New York Jew of distinctly sedentary habits, whose mount of choice is an ergonomic desk chair, his six-shooter a PC laptop. A guy who rides rough saddle on the IRT and ropes yellow cabs at high noon—I’m more Woody Allen in “Bananas,” for Christ sake, than John Wayne in “Big Jake!” But travel fosters a fluid identity, like the character with interchangeable faces and bodies in the split pages of a children’s flip art book.

It all started when I met my French wife-to-be at a New York party. A petite professor of bookish bent and girlish figure, she asked me what I liked in life. “Sex, food and travel,” I confessed in drunken French, as I never would have dared do in sober English. In the early days of our experiment in international relations, we would rise at odd hours (a compromise on time zones) and stumble naked to the kitchen wrapped in a single blanket. She craved her nightly dose of chocolate and I my Coca Cola, though I have since converted to Calvados.

To the folks in her ancestral French Alpine village, my beloved second home for 20 years and counting, I am still affectionately referred to as l’Américain. My first appearance on the scene is the stuff of local legend.

The family half expected me to ride up on horseback, when a rented Renault 5 rolled in, a vehicle so small the Duke wouldn’t have been able to fold in his knees, let alone fit his ten-gallon hat. This being my first experience at stick shift, I promptly stalled on the village square disrupting a game of boules. As I swung myself out of the driver’s seat, the entire village blinked as one—not unkindly, just a bit bewildered, clearly wondering if I hadn’t left half of me behind. Compact Americans seldom made it to the silver screen. “Get you a little whiskey, you’ll be alright!” a guardian angel growled in my ear. Then and there, as if reading the subtitles in my mind, Uncle Joubert, since deceased, to whose memory I shall forever be grateful, took me in hand. Popeye’s spitting image, this pint-sized, frog-throated, retired seaman from Marseille pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker and filled his special whiskey glasses to the rim, the kind that when drained dry dissolve the bikini off the bathing beauty at the bottom. “Eh, Américain!” He winked and we clinked.

imageThe family took me in with open arms. To these most gracious country folk, hunters all by avocation, I am automatically linked to their trusty Remingtons and prized Smith and Wessons. Raised on G.I. liberators and John Ford Westerns dubbed in French, they cannot help but superimpose the myth on me, and I am happy to oblige. For whereas, at Paris cocktail parties, I have on occasion been ribbed for tacit complicity in the seemingly unstoppable spread of McDonald’s, Disney and bio-engineering—all my protests notwithstanding—to my adoptive southern French family, I am “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and helped run the bad guys out of town and give France back to the French.

Am I an imposter? Perhaps. But what a liberating alias it is!

In New York, I was strictly an “indoorsman,” all work and no play. In France, I let loose, rode horseback and shot target practice with my late father-in-law. “Ripped it to pieces, the American did!” he boasted to his brothers with a semi-serious grin, holding up the target I’d riddled with holes. And in my heart of hearts, I longed to one day join the men of the clan in their annual wild boar hunt.

The real payoff came at our outdoor feasts of venison and boar prepared, as per ritual, by the hunters themselves, the ribs stewed in a rich civet of blood and wine; the head severed, sliced and simmered, topped with a rich sauce gribiche flavored with brains; the tusks passed out as trinkets to the kids. Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone would have felt right at home. Hardly kosher! you say.

From my mother, whose family ran a poultry stall in the marketplace in pre-War Vienna, I learned how to pick fresh chickens. Contrary to my squeamish contemporaries who purchase their pullets pre-parted and under plastic wrap, I have no qualms dissecting my dinner, cooked or raw, though I do draw the line at buying it live in Chinatown.

French and Americans, we are literally of the same cloth. Let us not forget that the paradigmatic emblem of the American West (and by extension, of contemporary Western Civilization) was stitched together on American soil out of French fabric and Jewish thread. Levi Strauss—the peddler, not the anthropologist—turned a ream of tough material from Nîmes (de Nîmes, “denim” for short) into the iconic American garment that would later bear his name.

A born-again American cowboy in France, I have gladly returned the favor. With my French in-laws, we traveled Out West. Together we trekked through the real Monument Valley, the unmistakable setting of every Western worth its whiskey, from “The Searchers” to “Thelma and Louise,” not to mention the popular French cowboy comic strip, “Lucky Luke.” We gazed in awe and wonder at the towering red fingers of rock and, elsewhere, stared breathless at forests of cacti, and true to our shared celluloid dreams, went ga-ga when we pulled into a roadside saloon to find a serious poker game in progress. On another trip, this one to Texas, we bowed our heads (I, with tear-filled eyes) before the fabled Alamo.

Surely I’d been training for the part since early childhood, when I wouldn’t have been caught dead outdoors without my holsters packed with six shooters and a rubber Bowie knife stuffed in my belt for good measure.

But there was a hiatus.

John Wayne, I owe you a posthumous apology. I who shamelessly appropriated your persona as the key to the heart of my Gallic in-laws, betrayed you in life. I was there in the crowd, back in 1974, when you rolled into Harvard Square in an army tank to accept the “Brass Balls Award” of the Harvard Lampoon. I did not come to greet you, but to stare at the tarnished symbol of warmongering you represented. They pelted you with snowballs. And though I did not join in the jeers, it was fear, not conviction, that held me back, lest you leap out and throw a punch.

How strange to see the Duke again on TV years later, still scanning the horizon with the same deadpan squint, but with all the feistiness dubbed in French. About to laugh out loud, I wiped a tear from my eye.

Going to France to find yourself is a longstanding American tradition. From Benjamin Franklin to Josephine Baker to Ernest Hemingway to Levi Strauss jeans, we’ve buffed our image on the whetstone of French panache and style.

After 20 years of annual hegiras, the exotic edge of France has worn off a bit. I drive stick shift, play boules, drink pastis and swear like a native. Last year I even accompanied the clan on a wild boar hunt, though our elusive target leapt by in a flash and the only shot I took was with my 35-millimeter lens Minolta, and that one I missed. Still, the thrill lingers. My French and American personae have evolved a free trade agreement: I let a little Gérard Depardieu into my Woody Allen, with a glass or two of Bordeaux at dinner to lighten up and cut my cholesterol, and keep my John Wayne primed for sunset gallops in the Alps. My venison civet, prepared according to my father-in-law’s recipe, makes mouths water in Manhattan. My Texas chili thrills tongues in old Gaul.

John Wayne himself might have been flabbergasted to learn (as I did from my wife, an expert in 19th century French fiction) that John Ford’s classic Western, “Stagecoach,” in which young Wayne made his starring debut, was inspired by “Boule de Suif,” a short story by the French writer Guy de Maupassant. Don’t tell me the Duke of Monument Valley actually earned his spurs on the Champs Elysées! I can just see his ornery ghost squirm, purse his dry lips and spit out a dubbed ”Ç‘est pas pour demain! That’ll be the day!”

Photo by Omar Omar via Flickr, (Creative Commons).