I made a timeline of my 10 years in France and realized that I cannot stuff those years into a 700 word blog post. Impossible. Maybe a book. Would you read a book about what it happened after I left leafy Boston and arrived on the ancient shores of the Mediterranean ( I know, tough life)? I can only write about now, what it feels like to have lived in a foreign country for so long.
And it is still foreign, after 10 years, though not foreign meaning strange. Just foreign as in not-where-I’m-from. France is a foreign country. I am a foreigner. This foreignness has become the backdrop of my daily life, which is full of my accented and grammatically incorrect French. I fill in forms for school, I buy groceries, do laundry, take the cat to the vet, go to church, do my banking, go the dry cleaners and tend to a thousand other details of daily life. All in another culture, with its very own language and maze of hidden rules. It took a very long time for me to feel that this was in any way normal. For the longest time a trip the hairdresser filled me with a deep dread – I mean, I just wanted to go get my hair cut and relax! Instead, I had to deal with making the phone call and not mixing up 2pm and 4pm on my calendar, and then once I arrived at the correct time figure out how to ask for the hairdresser to cut my hair just.a.little.bit. Just make me look good, please. And don’t talk to me.
Yes, yes, I speak French. I can say, now, finally, that I am bilingual. But I’m always not-from-here. I’m usually mistaken for being British, and I know after years of looks that people prefer that I’m American. It’s more hip to be American than English (no offense to my lovely, wonderful, British friends). Immediately I can see the imagination whirring in the eyes of the questioner (new colleague, taxi driver, shop keeper, bureaucrat). They picture movie scenes of New York, or LA. They ask where I’m from. Sometimes I say: California. Sometimes I say: Nashville. Both are true and helpful. California, is, well, California. They imagine the bridge, and the Bay, or remember the time they went. Nashville is a mythic place, full of the best music in the world (as far as they are concerned). At least I have that going for me. People (in both countries) often ask what I miss most about the US. I’m sorry, but this is an impossible to answer question. I usually say fish tacos. The truth is that I miss my scattered family and friends and wish I could have them all around me all the time. Fish tacos is an easier answer, a believable and painless sacrifice to live in France (I mean, it’s fricken’ France, people! )
When I fly “home”, that is, back to the United States, usually to Nashville, I’m also, just a little bit, foreign. I speak another language. My kids hop and skip between the two. We, just a little bit, carry our other culture with us, how we eat, how we talk, how we carry ourselves, what we wear (though, honestly, and every Frenchman knows this: The US is THE shopping paradise in the world. I almost never buy clothes in France). At work we speak a special kind of English; mixed with the accents and syntaxes of all kinds of languages, mostly European though not exclusively. I call it International English. This English has messed with me. It started very early on when a colleague, who knew me before the move, told me I was speaking English like a French person. Which was true, sadly. I had adopted the syntax of a French person speaking English to be better understood. My vocabulary became simpler. Whenever I go visit the US, it takes me several days to find my ‘regular’ accent again to sound and talk like those around me.
I used to think that I’m a mix of Tennessee and California, with a little dash of Boston thrown in So Tennessee, California, dash of Boston, and France added like a muddled herb. I’m a mix, now. Like a perfect cocktail.