Vive La Liberté: French Me is New Me
A reflective piece on living abroad and finding my place.
I came into my abroad stay armed with only two phrases of French I could rattle off without a stutter: the first, “Parlez-vous français,” and the second, “Brosse les donts.” I quickly found that inquiring whether someone could speak French was a dead end, considering I was left dumbfounded with what to say after that, and commanding that my fellow frenchies brush their teeth was not Cannes everyday conversation. My laziness to study beforehand was probably some sort of long-standing protest towards my elementary school French teachers, well-meaning people who even with the enticement of Nutella and Orangina parties, had failed to reason to an 11-year-old why a bathtub has a gender.
So, I was stuck using Google Translate before I entered stores, preparing what I would say almost like an actress studying a script before she walks on stage. Avoiding both past and future tenses and stringing together tricky verbs to form such sentences like, “I am in store and buy postcard I want to please,” I was trying so hard to not seep into the category of American that thinks that all culture belongs in their little corner of Cascade, Idaho, raising their voices to yell to waiters, “Hamburger PLEASE.” As a proud inhabitant of the other category of speakers, I would raise my eyebrows in solidarity with fellow restaurant goers, as to say, “Well get a load of this guy,” then go on to order quietly, pronouncing my crêpes dish, still tinged with a southern drawl.
My desire to fit into French culture only grew as the trip wore on, and I quickly became more and more fascinated with this place. What do you mean women’s pants don’t have to be skinny jeans? Wait, bread can be a meal? And a people who had a specific time planned in their workday to nap, well I can get behind that. After seeing Le Redoutable, a Cannes biopic on French Director Jean-Luc Godard, I was tempted to go into my bright apartment bathroom and take a dulled kitchen knife to my hair, just so I could look like the posh, banged, French lead Anne.
My favorite part of my newly adopted French life was riding the train everyday to and from Cannes. The winding track along the seashore looked out into a water filled with sparkling yachts, and my pictures of the view looked like they’re about to be pulled and featured on some vacation promo for the Southern French coast. As the train approached the station, I would jump at the chance to press the green button to open the door and would always feel a rush of adrenaline doing so. It’s like with one slide of doors, I transformed into my French alter-ego, maybe a fashionista who rides the coastal train every morning to meet with her hard, but supportive editor for pitch meetings over coffee and baguettes spread with apricot jelly. “Floral scarves are in,” I’d say with a sip of espresso, and she would nod that I’m onto something, but maybe it’s more an ascot year. I dreamt about my European life often, against the soft sway of the car moving along the tracks.
One morning, I walked to the train alone and sat at a bench beside the tracks and watched a shaggy, flip-flopped, Australian surf bro emerge on the other side of the platform. He was clutching his arm almost as if he was holding an invisible baby to his chest. Looking out of place already, he was frantically pacing up and down the platform, and I was unable to take my eyes off him. Every once in awhile, he would turn to an unknowing newcomer climbing the stairs to his side and meet them with a detailed monologue about his booze-fueled night that took his arm as victim. Earlier that morning, I was sad that I left my headphones in my apartment, but it was all lost to the live theater I was recieving across the platform; In between him yelling, “Fuck fuck fuck fuck,” and, “Please take me to the hospital,” I realized his arm was the size of a pool noodle, squishy and swollen.
My benchmate, an elderly French woman, turned to me laughing and said something to me in French. In that moment, I was on her team; no longer the doofus American who can’t seem to make out the difference between pizza tourist traps that serve wet, cheesy dough on the boardwalk and real European cuisine that your grandmother has been working on all afternoon, I was a local. I like to imagine that my benchmate said something along the lines of, “HA! Tourists make me laugh. I’m glad I have a friend like you by my side as we embark on this commute together.” She said something about the wild Australian again, and I tried to nod knowingly. I felt like we had an inside joke.
Maybe my desire to assimilate is some kind of primitive coping mechanism to being in a new country, or possibly it’s just due to the cheap wine, but I like to blame it on the unavoidable romantic feeling that floats through French air. Leaving on Thursday feels premature, but as my craving for Mexican food grows stronger every day, it’s only natural that I return to Georgia. But, I’ve booked a haircut, packed some French novels, and bought up almost every single Kinder Bueno bar in the country. I’m determined to bring back the spirit of France with me; And with that, I guess it’s time to learn why my bathtub is masculine.