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Oregons image is in a world of hurt

PERSPECTIVE • Trip to France yields some bigger truths about the sad state of our state

It's surprising how far word of Oregon's financial woes has traveled. I learned firsthand on a recent trip to Paris.

'You're from Oregon,' the cab driver mused as we joined the fleet of vehicles crazily rounding the Arc de Triomphe. 'Oh, things are really bad there, aren't they?'

I was quick to tell him that the state has problems but was not about to collapse, and in fact is a most beautiful place in which to live.

His remark was only the first such reaction I got during my 10-day visit when people learned that I was from the Oregon area. Shop clerks, hoteliers and others whom I ran into at cafes and museums all had the same impression about Oregon.

'Oh, lˆ lˆ, life is tough there' was the message.

It struck me that this single-minded obsession with the idea that all was bad here in Oregon had a direct parallel with the French-bashing among some Americans because of the French resistance to the U.S. war with Iraq.

The French-bashing has translated into a huge drop in tourism among Americans, who usually make up the majority of France's tourist trade. The French government's tourist office says its research shows more than 40 percent of Americans planning to travel to France have modified their plans. It projects that France will lose $500 million in American tourist business this year for a variety of reasons, including the anti-French feeling.

Despite the flowering chestnut trees and gorgeous flower gardens all over Paris, I ran into only three Americans in Paris during my visit Ñ a couple who climbed the bell tower at Notre Dame (she had balked at the trip but relented after her husband said he would travel with a buddy if she didn't go) and a young man I met in a cheese shop.

This lack of American tourists in Paris made me realize just how much a tarnished image, oversimplified or not, can affect a place and people. France has lately taken a number of steps to try to correct its problems, including the recent meeting of its president with President Bush.

Oregon is just beginning to see how widespread its bad image is.

The lesson, it seems to me, is that Ñ like France Ñ Oregon must work to correct its image. It must remedy its fiscal unsoundness and then publicize those efforts worldwide.

Only with this kind of focus can the state reassure the world and quit paying such a heavy price.

Sonja Zalubowski is a freelance writer who recently visited France, where she once attended school. She worked for many years as a journalist in Europe. She lives in Vancouver, Wash.