When I first moved to Paris nearly ten years ago, I arrived as a bubbly, vivacious college student from sunny California. Years of saturating my brain with romantic clichés of the city of lights from Sabrina and French Kiss to Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir had convinced me that my “year” in Paris would transform me into a chic, pouty, Parisienne. In fact, throughout those first few years of what would evolve into a decade of French living, I did all I could to shed my gregarious American exterior. I read French grammar books while on vacation with my family in the Costa Brava, I surrounded myself with French friends, and I shunned the loud Americans who just didn’t understand the allure of a “less is more” mentality. I longed to rid myself of my petite but curvy frame so I could wear a little black dress à la Marion Cotillard or Audrey Tautou. I sat for hours at café terraces in the pre-hipster days of the canal saint martin, reading Bourdieu and Baudelaire, complaining about, well the French, with the French. Yet, somehow even years of perfecting my “très bien" and chic black wardrobe couldn’t hide the fact that, fundamentally, I was just not French.
Many of you who have lived abroad for an extended period of time may recognize yourselves in this pattern. Wanting so badly to fit in and _become _a part of our new world, we desperately seek to hide our accents, mannerisms and even personality traits that could give away our foreignness at any moment. It becomes personal when we let it slip, or worse if we are “discovered” and those cute blunders that our local friends find so adorable, become the bane of our existence. I remember a night, years ago, when I was hanging out with a group of friends in my flat and I politely requested that my boyfriend please “f!@” the music! What I meant to say, in a much less vulgar way was “please turn down the music”. You see in French, all that separates the verbs to f!@(baiser) and to lower (baisser) is an ‘s’, so in this case a little 's' makes a huge difference! Needless to say my friends laughed so hard they broke out in tears, meanwhile I nearly cried of shame (ok, I might have actually cried a little in the bathroom after they left). I doubt those friends even remember my “traumatic” moment, but if you ask my boyfriend who is now coincidentally my husband (I guess I’m not that embarrassing after all) if I ever say the word “lower” in French, he’ll probably think a little and then realize, no, I don’t.
Six years later, there is still a part of me that is horrified of making a mistake that would mark me as an outsider, an alien in my local environment. But why? Gone are the days when I made every effort to reject my Americanness, in fact, years of emulating la vie Parisienne gave way to a period of intense anti-frenchism, when I practically tattooed I AM NOT FRENCH on my forehead. Lord knows, I thought about it. Today however, I consider myself a fusion, a subtle mélange of Californian candor and Parisian reserve, and I practice this dance with my inner self daily: choosing the attitudes that best work for me from moment to moment. I suppose that I am no longer afraid of being marked a foreigner in a foreign place, because the same feelings come up when I am “home” in California. Perhaps, we all want to feel “at home” in the environment where we live and yet the real lesson we as globetrekkers are learning is that “home” is a state of mind, and so, French, Spanish, Zulu or American, we all have a choice in the attitudes and ideas we adopt as our own and those that we accept as foreign.[gallery]