Paris 2015: The Unexpected Joy of Not Fitting In
I’m an American taking a sojourn in Paris. As a remote-working freelancer, I have the benefit of being able to work anywhere there’s wifi (or “weefee”). I haven’t been to Paris since a semester in college in 2007.
During my 4 months of study abroad, I thought I was living in Paris. I had a bed and clothes and classes and friend in the city. But I was wrong — I wasn’t living in Paris. I was living the way one does in school, with many of the freedoms of adulthood, but without much concern with the details. Housing happened. Schedules were arranged. Food arrived. My friends were all Americans. And I wrote in my journal about “nuit blanches” (all night parties) and men playing the accordion on the metro.
Today, on my second day in a Parisian coworking space, I sat at a lunch table with four native French speakers and tried to blend in. I think they were talking about the mystery of non-alcoholic beer at one point? Swedish culture and Belgian roads also came up. My French is okay enough to pick up about 75% of what a fast-speaking Parisian is saying, which is enough to laugh at the jokes, but not enough to add my own. So I laughed along and asked what I thought were great questions, though maybe a minute or so after the moment had passed.
I did do one better than my first day, when I arrived at the coworking space (which you need a code to get into). Without a France-working cell phone to call someone inside, I waited for a fellow coworker to come by and blurted out something like “je suis nouvelle!” She actually laughed in my face before letting me in. (I would too if someone were standing outside of my office, saying “I’m new!” in a heavy foreign accent.) I’m quite nouvelle, okay?
I realize that my experience in moving to a new country is many times easier than it’s been for others. But even though I’m okay with the language and familiar with the culture and have a rough map of the city in my mind, being a foreigner feels like riding an asymptote. Like I’ll get get closer and closer with practice, but will never quite fit in. I may come to understand how, for example, the French view marriage (much less traditionally than in the US), but will that make my views on relationships less wedding-focused? Probably not. I’ve been told to see the world a certain way for 27 years — it’s not easy to change.
Being native to a culture means that you don’t remember learning customs; they feel just as natural as your own body, as your own family. So even the process of memorizing “how to be French” intrinsically sets me apart from the French.
But I like the feeling of being inside of a challenge. It’s harder to succumb to the daily grind if you can’t coast your way through every day. And that’s why I enjoy being a foreigner. The process of constant culture and language translation is a nice distraction from my normal neuroses; it feels like I have a reason to be hyper-alert. Not fitting in for a distinct reason is refreshing. I’m nouvelle! I have an excuse to be awkward! Because really living in a foreign city, dealing with the details and accepting sole responsible for every misunderstanding can feel disheartening (at worst), or it can feel ingloriously awkward. And I’d rather laugh at myself than experience the alternative.