Interview with Arnaud Servignat
Arnaud Servignat is a Parisian with a passion for sharing his city — and all of France, really — with American visitors. He's been featured as a local expert in Rick's TV shows, and also in the newest edition of our Tour Experience video. Arnaud goes beyond being an expert on his country's rich traditions, history, art, wine and cuisine. He truly "gets" how to fully engage Americans with the attitudes, perspectives and values of a culture that has much to offer, yet is so often misunderstood. Meet Monsieur Servignat:
During the 20 years that you've been a licensed guide in France, you've helped many Americans understand and appreciate your culture. What keeps you motivated year after year?
I have such a love for our heritage and its diversity. And over the years I have seen so many improvements to our historic sites, such as Versailles. Americans have a young history, so their immersion in another, much longer history can be a challenge for them. So I enjoy the challenge of making it all connect for travelers. I always tell them our history is your history; thinking about it this way makes it less alien and more engaging.
Americans are famous for fearing the French and being certain they would be mistreated in your country. Have you found American attitudes toward the French have changed during the 20 years you have guided tours?
I used to think this was a legend, but it is true. Many Americans have come to France thinking they would be mistreated — often because they have been taught this by friends, who have never been to France! Of course, we French do have an attitude due to our pride in our language. Who in the world does not? Travelers of any nationality always have preconceived ideas about different nations. To me it is because human beings, generally speaking, are afraid of the unknown. Many Americans seem afraid to make any attempt at speaking a foreign language, so they fall into the trap of speaking only English without making any effort. A French person may see this refusal to simply try as impoliteness, and so it gets a cold reaction. There is the problem!
Have you noticed any changes in French attitudes toward Americans over the years?
Many more French people speak English today, so perhaps being addressed in English rather than in French doesn't get such a negative reaction as it did before. France has become more open to the world, a consequence of globalization, more people traveling, and all that.
You've led nearly all of Rick Steves' France tour itineraries — including Paris and the Heart of France, the Paris city tour, Loire to South of France, and Wine Regions of Eastern France. From a guide's perspective, characterize the differences.
France is a large country — the largest in Europe after Germany — so it is very diverse geographically. It is also located at the crossroads of many other countries and cultures. These influences have modeled our country, and so the diversity of France hits you in so many ways. Each regional tour within France provides its own set of history lessons, architectural discoveries, local specialties, and more. No tour looks like the other. You could come to France three years in a row, and hop on a different tour each time, and perhaps feel like you are in a different country. Personally, I think our Paris and the Heart of France tour might be the best choice for a first visit to France, then returning for a week-long Paris tour after having discovered this magnificent city (and feeling frustrated by not having been able to see enough after two days)! Then you could later catch a Loire to the South tour, in order to discover that incredible diversity I am talking of, and to finally see this Riviera which is so famous around the world. Finally you would end with the Wine Regions of Eastern France tour, to feel the atmosphere of smaller villages and towns, get some German influence, and experience the beautiful Alps that Americans had thought could only be seen in Switzerland!
Who do you find to be the most interesting person in French history?
Without any doubt, Napoleon! Everyone knows a little about him, so as soon as you start talking about him on a tour, people really open up their ears and eyes. What a character — charismatic, egocentric, and a megalomaniac. Perhaps I would also include Marie-Antoinette. She is connected to the revolution, a princess, a queen, a prisoner — both guilty and innocent — and a martyr. Who could not feel empathy toward her and feel some emotion regarding her terrible fate. Americans are always excited to talk about the revolution. It reminds them of their own, and the liberty they got after a long fight — which happened in collaboration with the French. As I said earlier, they feel that French link, that link to old history, and feel like they are a part of it.
The big Mont St. Michel project that removes the parking lot and the road to the abbey — making it a true island again — seems incredible. Are there other exciting changes planned for France?
Back in the 19th century, the Mont St. Michel suddenly became a big, big tourist destination among Europe's well-to-do. To spare these bourgeois visitors the chore of walking to the site, a causeway with a train track was built. The consequences have been disastrous. The huge, flat bay has the highest tides registered in the world, after Canada's Bay of Fundy. The result is that, for more than a century, this causeway has blocked the naturally strong flow of sea water, so all the sediments brought in by the high tides could not be flushed away by the low tides. Step by step, the area has become silted-up to the point where one can only see the Mont as an island once or twice a month! The causeway demolition will allow the tides to make the Mont a true island twice a day, as it was in historic times. Reaching the site will be well worth the extra effort. Believe me, the exercise will help keep our visitors in good health!