When In France, Do What The Typical American Doesn’t

“To really feel like a Parisian, you have to walk, get a little lost,
and open yourself up to opportunities to speak French,” Pomona College French professor Peggy Waller told me.

To me, this is horrifying on an instinctual level.
As a definitive Myers-Briggs “I” (for introvert), I do not particularly enjoy
the idea of interacting with strangers at home in my mother tongue, let alone
in some language I don’t really speak in Paris, a city allegedly full of the world’s
most judgmental humans. That said, a part of me knew that my professor was probably right and that I should attempt to pursue interactions with French
people for the laudable objectives of language learning, cultural
understanding, and P3r$0n@l Gr0wth.

In many ways, I don’t have a choice. Between
courses at three campuses, choir rehearsals, and attempts to feed and entertain
myself, I am constantly traversing the city of Paris. Getting lost is easy. As it turns
out, getting “found” isn’t so hard after all.

I must magnetically attract tourists and
other lost souls, since I am disproportionately asked for directions in French,
English, and every other language under the sun. My apparent approachability
means one of two things: I either look local and competent, or I am so clearly
not French that people know that they will not incur the wrath of Parisian judgment
by asking me for help. Given the inordinate amount of time I spend wandering in
circles looking for a street sign while simultaneously gorging myself on
patisserie, I’m guessing it’s probably the latter. You’re welcome, tourists of

But what of the Parisians themselves? What of
the fabled wrath? 

When Parisians talk to me, they can obviously
discern that I’m not French, but often have trouble placing my accent and
general aura. 

“You just don’t have an American attitude,” insisted the man who
sold me my civil liability insurance. “When American students come in here they want to speak English.” He shook his head as a look of abject horror flitted across his face. 

For better or for worse, from librarians to “boulangers” to my
fellow university students, the Parisians I have interacted with have, to
varying degrees, a perception of Americans as uninterested in
learning foreign languages. Paradoxically, this can yield positive interactions
if one speaks French.

To celebrate being insured, I stopped for a beer
amidst a sea of regulars at a 14th arrondissement cafe, striking up a
conversation with the older Algerian bartender. When he asked if I was Québécois
(and therefore a native speaker), I was overcome with language-learner’s joy. At
that point, I revealed my nationality, ushering in a half-hour conversation about
his recent trip to New York, complete with a viewing of his iPhone photos of
Times Square. This knocked several euros off my tab, and I left floating on a
cloud as fluffy as a “Ladurée fleur de sel macaron.”

On the way home, I (completely
unintentionally) stumbled across a panoramic view of the city from Montmartre
just as the sun was setting. My soul ascended to Francophile nirvana. 

someone was speaking French at me, commenting on the unusually clear sky. While
Myers-Briggs “I’s” generally do their sunset-watching alone and in silence, I
decided this was an exceptional case. I let myself reply, asking if it was unusual. 

And there it was, the moment of discovery: “You’re not from here, are

I gave the standard spiel—American, studying abroad, history major, California (north and south)—then tried to turn the
conversation back to the view, but he was caught up on the fact that I was an
American in France speaking French.

“But why did you even start learning French?
Why did you keep going? Americans just don’t want to learn other languages!
You’re all wrapped up in being American and exporting that, shutting everything
else out.”

These critiques and questions launched us into a
40-minute discussion. As I finally started down the steps of Sacré-Coeur to
catch the metro, he shook my hand. 

“I am so glad I met you,” he told me. “You
have single-handedly changed the way I think about Americans and their approach
to language and culture.”

My dear friend Graham assured me that my new acquaintance was
undeniably hitting on me or creating a diversion while someone robbed me. While
both of these are highly plausible scenarios (yes, the City of Lights also
happens to be the City of Pickpockets and Wannabe “Dragueurs”), I am choosing to
disregard them and believe that I have done my part to help the world forget
freedom fries. 

There you are, Pomona Office of Study Abroad—I have
played my part as ambassador of America, and participated in transformative
linguistic and culture exchange. I guess I can go home now.

 Actually, no thanks. With this newfound
openness, this vulnerability to being found, I’ve decided that another four months of Parisian
wandering doesn’t sound half bad.

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