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French Connection 

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In a private room above Blackbird restaurant at noon on a recent weekday, the French Government Tourist Office regaled a group of American freelance writers, French diplomats, and travel professionals with lamb vol-au-vent, pinot blanc, and a TV ad that featured a string of celebrities squawking "J'aime la France!"--the office's catchphrase for 2002. Between courses, while presenters from Rail Europe and Maison de la France gave their pitches, the only sounds from the attendees were the clinks of forks and the stage whispers of Shirley Higgins, an award-winning travel writer from Wilmette. "You notice," she hissed, "the dessert is Alsatian!"

During the meal, junketeers were encouraged to converse. Higgins, each of whose fingernails was painted a different color, listed the World War I artifacts she's collected in Alsatian flea markets for the benefit of Jean-Pierre Tutin, Chicago's genial French deputy consul general. "We bought the most thought-provoking thing," she told him cheerily. "It was a helmet with great pieces of shrapnel right where it went through the brain. It really shows you the futility of war!"

Alsace was one of the three eastern provinces especially played up at the event, and Higgins, an expert on the region, was in her element. "We go to Alsace every year," she said, pronouncing it "al-sass."

"Ahl-sahss," said Tutin.

"We always want to discover something in France that nobody goes to see," Higgins went on, "things the average American will never hear about. When you write for a wealthy audience that's explorers, you can just go wild."

She said she "had the good fortune" to win a Society of American Travel Writers award last year for a five-part series on Nepal and Tibet, and launched thus into tales of her travels in the Middle East; then she bounced back to Alsace. She also had "a fascinating story" to tell about the time she tried to get some antique artillery shells out of Corsica: the security alarms went off, and Higgins was horrified when she tried to explain to the youthful French guard that they were collectibles she'd purchased in Verdun. "He didn't know where Verdun is! I mean, I'm an American, and I know!" she said, smiling. "The whole article is based on how soon we forget. So now I'm going to Verdun to start the next article."

Perched down the table from Higgins was Timothy Young, 22, public relations manager of Chicago's French Government Tourist Office, who'd greeted guests at the door with fresh-faced charm. He was telling a freelance writer that the average American tourist in France is middle-aged and has a disposable yearly income of more than $100,000; he said the office wanted to make tours of France more accessible to younger and less well situated travelers. The brief, thin speeches between the courses each made reference to September 11; William Rodabaugh, a stout, tassle-loafered sales manager for Rail Europe, said travel professionals had made "dire" predictions about drop-offs. "We're glad to say they were all wrong," he said; what slowdown occurred was "more influenced by the economy than by 9-11."

Higgins weighed in on the matter, saying she had faith in her upscale audience. "I just know those people are not going to say, 'I'm staying in Wyoming this winter.' You don't want to be a prisoner!"

She said Americans should always keep a low profile anyway. "It's very hard to convince a terrorist, when you have an American passport, that you're not a typical American, that you have an open mind. I'm very unusual--our family came here in 1836, our relative was Ralph Waldo Emerson, that family--and our father, who happened to be Catholic, told us never to judge people by labels."

She told Tutin that if she could get a French passport on the black market she'd jump on it. "It must be wonderful to have a French diplomatic passport--it must open the world to you!"

"Except in the U.S." said Tutin. Though he'd remarked earlier that he'll miss Chicago when he goes back to Paris this fall, he told Higgins diplomats have a harder time getting around the stateside bureaucracy than ordinary French citizens.

"Ludicrous!" Higgins squeaked.

The diplomat just smiled.

"Ralph Waldo Emerson had a wonderful statement: 'A man is not a man until he's a nonconformist.' We have always believed we're nonconformists. Of course, then you're slightly out of step with the rest of the world. But we don't care."

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