I used to walk down the street terrified someone would talk to me, and lemme tell you: that is a tiring way to live. Whether it was shyness about my accent or the fear of looking someone in the eyes and understanding absolutely nothing they were saying, in France I largely kept to myself.
Though I loved speaking French, I only really spoke French with friends, peers, people I trusted. In public, it was purely perfunctory.
So when I got to Lyon last week, my excitement was mixed with the familiar stress of being l’étrangère. I remembered answering the phone, buying groceries…in French, it all made my heart pound. Sometimes (rarely), it was exhilarating. Many days, it took a lot of willpower to even leave the house. I wanted to curl up in a ball, beam myself back to the land where I wasn’t always lost. I loved France, but I didn’t love who I was there: I was fearful.
I mentioned this to Stéphane and Aline and discussed my unease about what the year ahead would hold. They told me I was welcome to spend the weekend at their house whenever I felt like it, which I really appreciated. Montluçon was still only an idea and a Google image search. Aline told me I was courageuse. But I didn’t feel brave. I felt like I was going to cry.
Then, on the subject of language, being understood, getting everything right, blending in, pressure… Stéphane said something that, while simple, really helped to change my perspective. He switched to English to say: “but Jess-ee-cah, you are not a French girl. You are an American girl in France.”
I thought about that. And I realized: I have long been too hard on myself. I walked around like I was apologizing for my foreign existence. For my accent. Or incomplete French lexicon. Or for not understanding something. I walked around like I didn’t want anyone to know I was from somewhere else.
I don’t know what I was so afraid of. Cultural diversity is a joy. When I hear someone speaking English with a foreign accent, I don’t laugh at them. Rather, I’m intrigued by them. What’s their story? I’ve always enjoyed hanging out with people from other countries, people that have somehow found their way to Clinton, Missouri or Mizzou. Friends from France, England, Norway, Montenegro and more…I realized that what I always liked about foreign exchange students was their confidence and grace. I realized I could learn something from these friends. They don’t act ashamed or embarrassed when they don’t know something, but they’re always happy to learn. They’re proud of where they’re from but they love to discover new places. I decided: no more. No more acting or even feeling apologetic. No more tiptoeing around. I will go boldly.
I will take my brand of Americanism as an asset: I like smiling at strangers and I like making friends in five minutes and I like eating pizza with my hands. I like making messes, walking barefoot outside, taking road trips and taking long showers. I don’t always act French, even in France, because, oh yeah, I’m not.
Accepting this, enjoying this, has made for a lovely first week in Montluçon. On the first day here, I realized I had a choice. I could either do what I’d always done: avoid people, avoid doing things, avoid asking for help (anything to avoid embarrassment), get stuck in a cycle of self-loathing, or I could simply…not do that.
It became surprisingly easy once I was cognizant of it. All week, I spoke to strangers in France without a second thought. I asked questions instead of resigning to figure it out myself. It was fun! I had many lovely interactions, not a one was unpleasant. People here are very friendly, and it’s freeing and motivating to know that I’m so far away from home and I have a limited amount of time to make the most of this, so pourquoi pas get out of my comfort zone?
It’s funny, all week I had a line in my head from an old children’s book I read while nannying this summer. “Anywhere you go with a smile and a wish to like people, you will find someone who will be glad to see you.”
It has already paid off. Friday night I met Mary, another American language assistant. She also studied English and French in school. She’s friendly and smart and I like her a lot. We drank wine at a brasserie and we decided to speak only French. I noticed that we were being noticed, and it didn’t bother me. We stayed for dinner, and ended up sitting next to a group of people curious where we were from. We sat outside and ate tagliatelle, protected from the pouring rain by a tiny awning, and talked to them for two hours.
Saturday, courtesy of our new connections, we visited some popular bars and then went to a discotheque. (We actually had the occasion to use French textbook-line “où est la discothèque,” which we found quite funny). We were the first Americans a group of people had ever met! It’s a chance to rep our country in a big way.
I’m excited to be an American in Montluçon, France.