I live near a popular metro stop here in Paris so I see a lot of tourists. Sometimes it’s an exciting reminder of home when I hear American accents but when they’re coming from “ugly Americans” — yelling English at bewildered French ticket sellers, lugging a suitcase large enough to contain a Christmas tree –I worry that this is how the rest of Paris sees me, too.
Just like the average French citizen doesn’t want to be thought of as a cheese- and wine-guzzling buffoon who rarely showers, I’d prefer not to associate myself with the much-hyped, sheer American-ness that my country eagerly exports. Every now and then I’ll stop to help these loud American tourists at the metro, but usually just join the locals in rolling my eyes and emitting an exasperated “oh la laaaa” or “putain“. Lately, I’ve even started making the very French ‘tsk ‘tsk’ sound along with my eye roll, just so everyone knows I’m firmly against this sort of behavior.
But I get what they’re going through. The first few days after we arrived in Paris, we had the growing sensation of paranoia that everyone was staring at us. Were we not wearing enough black? No one seemed to understand exactly what we were saying. Were we speaking too loudly? Too softly? Soon we figured out the problem: things work differently here–just enough so that it’s frustrating but not so much that you remember to expect it.
I recently had a break-through. I was chatting with a French friend who, all of a sudden, began to look me up and down with a critical eye. “You look Parisian,” she said. I told her that New York City and Parisian fashion is pretty similar. “No, it’s something else–I can’t put my finger on it. But you look Parisian now. You carry yourself like a Parisian.”
This is pretty much the highest compliment she could have given me.
But she continued: “And when you speak French, you don’t have an American accent. I mean, it’s obvious you’re not French, but it’s not quite clear what nationality you are. I can tell you’re an Anglophone from the way you construct your sentences, but that’s about it.”
Since I’m now parisienne, I didn’t outwardly show the sheer joy I was feeling. Instead I shrugged modestly and muttered a restrained “ah, c’est cool” and left it at that. But inside, I was thrilled beyond belief that I can now navigates the streets of Paris without feeling like a total outsider.