What’s an American?

Paradoxically, I have thought more about “being American” in the past few months than I had in my entire life.

It’s what I introduce myself as. As such, it’s become one of my most well-known identities.

“Hi, I’m Anne! I’m American.”

It’s usually replied to with a comment about Americans. I can’t say that everyone I’ve met has had the same opinion on the United States. I can say that everyone I’ve met associates something with the U.S. and its people.

Some people assume I own a gun. Some people ask me if we only ever eat hamburgers. Other people think I spent my college days partying away in a dirty frat house, like the ones in the movies. Some people revere our pop culture, expecting that I meet celebrities in the street on a regular basis. Some people might assume I’m arrogant and entitled, overenthusiastic, naive, or that I didn’t learn French before coming here because “everybody speaks English.”

I have been met with all of these reactions, communicated to me in various forms. What this tells me is nothing conclusive about the views of Europeans on America, other than everyone I’ve met seems to have a view on it. What that tells me is that we have a privileged (or maybe not) position on the world stage, in that many people are watching us (but many others aren’t, let’s not get too assumptive).

There are, in my mind, two extreme approaches to process an incident through which one discovers a stereotype of the U.S., neither of which are all good or all bad:

A) Reject the USA, or its role in the world, and send everyone back home the message, “we need to improve our reputation abroad.” I have adopted this stance once in a while. It’s tempting for critical thinkers who enjoy reflecting on identities and the issues facing our nation/how we can eliminate them to work toward a better society (aka, liberal arts future grassroots movement champion kids). This position leads to becoming an expatriate and/or extreme political activist and/or considering oneself “basically French” at heart.

B) Reject everyone else and decide that life in America is better, compare everything to it and become immensely dissatisfied, count down the days until home. Argue that nobody sees the true diversity in America and that therefore their conclusions are untrue. This person moves back and criticizes the “other countries” that don’t have it as good as we do in the US of A. There is value to this viewpoint as well, in that the person recognizes what our privileges are as US citizens. (However, just so y’all don’t get me wrong, I do find this 2nd view pretty problematic.)

Here’s the approach I’ve eventually settled on:

There is truth in stereotypes. Question it, without rejecting or accepting it. Where is the truth? What does it say about US culture? What does it say about French culture? How can one inform the other?

I find myself staunchly between the two camps, trying constantly to see both sides. Maybe Americans think French people are rude because they try to give a French person a hug (like we do back home), not realizing that French people reserve hugs for intimate and familial relationships. Maybe French people think Americans don’t speak French because they’ve only met Americans who don’t speak French. Even if a stereotype has become generalized and extreme, it must have arisen from some primordial stereotypical act that someone witnessed at some point, and that analysis by an external source could be a window for us, as we travel, into what it means to be “American.”

We are all our own kinds of American. Sometimes my particular kind might confirm a stereotype, and sometimes it will disconfirm it for some unsuspecting Frenchman. But I’m not worried anymore about being or not being American, I am using how people analyze me to figure out my kind of American.

I do think that, back in America, we think that French people eat baguettes and cheese all the time, drink copious amounts of wine, and that rudeness and snobbery are somehow more common in France (but so are romance and sexiness). In short, all of France is reduced to Paris. There’s truth in that too, and falsity. They do eat a lot of cheese and baguettes, but most of the French people I’ve met have been just as warm and friendly as we’re used to, maybe even more authentically so sometimes. It’s all complicated.

The most important thing, to me, in coming here, was not to confirm or disconfirm these assumptions, but to gain a richer understanding of how and why we’re different. Sometimes I encounter the illusion (in Americans) that Western Europe is culturally the same as us, and that in going there we will not encounter as much difference as we might in a more exotic place. This is true in that our lifestyle was at some point based on theirs, and a lot of us have ethnic roots in Western Europe so we look similar. This is false in that even countries within “Western Europe” are, culturally and linguistically, vastly different from one another. Different languages bring different cultures with them. Different aristocracies, histories, roles in world wars, political and economic systems, culinary traditions…all of these make “Western Europe” vastly diverse, and totally different from the United States of America.

It is so fun to think about why those differences exist. Being here is about encountering difference, for me, for one reason: it makes us reflect on “the other,” reflect on ourselves, and come to new understanding of both. We can be more informed people about both sides. Being here is precisely about “thinking more about being American than I ever have in my life.”

And my identity conclusion? I’ll keep my “American” enthusiasm. But I could do with being more choosy about my cheese. 😉

What’s an American?

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

On Monday the 22nd, my journey through the west continued via train to Vannes, where I met up with Solena, my second former native speaker friend! (For those who don’t know: I met both Solena and Lise at Whitman, where they were Native Speakers and lived with me in the French House).

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Solena invited me to spend Christmas with her family before I even knew for sure I’d be coming to France, and I was so excited to get to know her homes and families and experience a real French Christmas! Little did I know, I’d be celebrating three of them…

Christmas 1:

I spent Christmas Eve with Solena’s mother’s family in Elven, near Vannes (post on Bretagne to come). Here’s a breakdown of the evening’s festivities:

6 PM: Start getting ready by getting dressed in Christmas best

7:30 PM: Christmas Mass at l’Eglise d’Elven, full of songs and small children. The small children made it that much more entertaining, because we all agreed that it dragged on a little…but it seems like Mass is a pretty widely attended pre-Christmas celebration and I wanted to experience it firsthand.

9:00 PM: Get home from Christmas Mass, indulge the children’s fevered cries to open presents (Père Noel came while we were gone).

10:00 PM: Begin Christmas dinner with an apéritif — Martinis, vegetables and dip, and a variety of nuts.

IMG_060111:00 PM: BeIMG_0599gin the first entrée course — Fruits de mer (seafood) and vin blanc (white wine). This was a big vocabulary lesson for me. Pictured are some of the entrée options; there were shrimp, crayfish, spider crabs, oysters, clams (live), and some kind of sea snail. I tried everything!! I still love shrimp, and crayfish are delicious, but I had more trouble with the raw oysters. They tasted a little too much like the sea for me.

I think 12:30 AM: Second entrée course — Foie Gras on toast. I also tried some of this. I think foie gras  is really delicious, it’s just sometimes a psychological struggle for me to eat it.

Sometime after 1 AM: Main dish! — Poulet marron (chestnut chicken) and vin rouge (red wine). I had never tried this dish, a Christmas specialty, before, and it was DELICIOUS! It’s my new favorite. Unfortunately at this point it was getting really difficult to eat anything due to fatigue and stuffed-ness.

After that: Fromage — cheese! I skipped this course accidentally because Solena’s 4 year old cousin came to sit on my lap and I couldn’t reach the cheese (at least that’s my excuse…)

3:00 AM: Dessert — the traditional French Christmas dessert is ice cream cake, or Buche de Noel. It’s in the shape of a Yule Log. Ours was an atypical flavor: mango passionfruit! The most common is chocolate.

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4:00 AM: Not over yet! The last course: coffee and chocolate. I had hot milk for fear of never again being able to sleep if I ingested caffeine. Although I bet it would’ve been absorbed before it hit the bloodstream…

BEDTIME!

The next day, we got up and packed and drove to Port Louis.

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Port Louis will be featured in my Bretagne post as well, but here I will talk about Christmas meal number 2! This time, it was Solena’s father’s family, and it began around 1 in the afternoon. I’ll just briefly describe the menu:

Apéritif: a variety of toasts with mystery seafood spreads (her grandmother had us guess what was in each one), and champagne!

Entrée: Oysters for most people, but another woman and I split the cooked palourdes (clams) with garlic, parsley, and butter, because neither of us like oysters. They were delicious!!

Entrée: Coquilles St. Jacques. These are some of my favorite, favorite things. It’s basically a variety of seafood treats in a deliciously rich beschamel-style sauce, and it was served to us in a shell. Homemade by Solena’s grandma and grandpa!

Main Dish: Poulet Chataigne. The same dish with a different type of chestnut, and I liked this variation even better. I ate a lot of it this time.

Fromage: I ate this this time.

Dessert: Chocolate Buche de Noel!

Café and Swiss chocolate rounded out another delicious meal.

This meal ended around 6 PM, and Solena and I went for a walk by the sea for digestive purposes. A beautiful end to a beautiful day.

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The third Christmas dinner, I will be brief about, because the company was more important than the food. We dined with Solena’s family of friends the night after, for a soirée that lasted from 7 PM til 4 AM and was full of joy and laughter and friendship! To me, that is what Christmas anywhere is all about: family and family-like friends, coming together and eating and drinking and enjoying each other’s company. I was so grateful that I was welcomed with open arms into these families when I couldn’t be with my own! I have a hard time really putting into words how much I enjoyed the love and joy and Christmas spirit that I encountered on this vacation…here are some pictures of new and old friends instead!

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Merry belated Christmas to friends and family, near and far!

Next up: Bretagne, the tourist post!

TFH Part 2: The Three Christmases

Cats, Kindness, and Paperwork

Overdue skypes with Mom & Dad this evening reminded me that I have not posted ANYthing about my daily life this week!

Full disclosure: it is not all glamorous adventures.

In fact, there has been much down time, during which I’ve been mostly doing what I would do at home: Netflix (it works in France now! Life changed), books, or just lounging around with the cat.

In her defense, she is pretty entertaining. Meet Moon! (yes, Moon in English)

And she already loves my lap:

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Enough cat pictures. I do not need to make my adoration of felines more well-known to the internet world than it already is. (BUT ISN’T SHE CUTE??)

 

Somain ( hint: it’s not the second one in that wiki link) is a very small town in the North of France. I’m currently there, being hosted by one of the english teachers I’ll be working with! She is amazing. I (very unfortunately) can’t stay with her and Moon forever, so I’m looking for an apartment in a neighboring larger city, accessible by commuter train.

Looking for housing is one of the many administrative and logistical tasks that make up my to-do list at the moment. Here they are:

  1. Find a phone
  2. Find an apartment to rent (accomplishment of today!)
  3. Open a bank account 
  4. Fill out some school paperwork to get my salary on time (with my address and bank info)
  5. Fill out a transport reimbursement form
  6. Get some apartment insurance
  7. Validate my visa so I don’t become illegal in a month or two
  8. Apply for French social security
  9. Apply for French welfare
  10. Whatever else the government comes up with to put us through

As you can see, less than half of these are taken care of. Most of them can’t be done without the others, so it’s sort of a rat’s nest of stuff to keep track of. Real World Boot Camp, I call it. The first three days were the most stressful, as all of the scary looming things suddenly got really real. But I think the worst part is that most of it takes a lot of time (e.g. weeks and months) and is relatively out of our hands. No control = long lists without the possibility of checking anything off? So fun, right?

To pass the time between apartment hunting and other logistical things and sleeping and recovering from jet lag, I’ve been exploring.

Readers, meet Somain!

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Yesterday, I found the market (and my cheese man!!), and POOF lunch:

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I’ve also been wandering around in Valenciennes. Here’s the Hôtel de Ville, and a random cute house:

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Yesterday I attended the Language Assistants’ Convention for the Purpose of Acquiring Free Wifi, aka I was loitering outside of MacDo (French McDonald’s) and ran into everyone that I’d met from TAPIF and then some. New friends are exciting. So is free wifi.

Also, a somewhat unexpected and really beautiful thing about this place: everyone is SO NICE. I mean nice in the fullest sense of the word, encompassing kindness, warmth, generosity, welcoming-ness. The people at my school prepared a folder for me and went through each document in it explaining how to fill it out and what I needed for it. My teacher liaison went with me to my bank appointment to help me get things sorted out. One of the jr. high teachers I’ll be working with offered to drive me to school with him from Valenciennes. And my teacher host has let me live in her house and eat her food for a week, and is going to help me supply my apartment with some things. My gratitude level is off the charts. One of the stereotypes of Northerners is that they’re especially warm; it’s been proven. For other assistants too, it seems!

I’m moving into my new digs on Monday, so this weekend is all about laundry and photocopies and making lists of things to get to make the new appart feel like home. It’s a room — a furnished room — with a sink and a closet and shelves, and I share a kitchen and bathroom with the other people in the building, including an assistant/new friend who I live right above. And it is well below my anticipated budget! My landlady is the most intense person I’ve met here — in a super-efficient super-organized super-on-time kind of way, which are all awesome traits for a landlady so far.

This week, I get to go to the TAPIF orientation, in Lille, to meet all of the other assistants in the region and learn more about how to BE a language assistant. (Important?) Meanwhile, my teacher contact is working out my schedule for my “observation” weeks, which will start right after the orientation day (Thursday I think). I’ll be observing class and introducing myself to students and teachers, and finally getting a feel for what my teaching life will be like!

And, because a post from me would not be complete without a Reflective Thought:

It’s weird to be here and not be supposed to try to be French. In study abroad with Middlebury, it was all about blending in and cultural immersion and becoming part of “la masse” and getting intense French practice. This time, I am here to be American. I’ve been brought here to share my American-ness. So instead of asking myself if I’m French enough, now it’s…am I American enough? Am I representing it well? Am I being a good ambassador? Are people thinking something new about America because of me? This does not mean I am abandoning my goal of learning France. I’m just always asking internal questions. Like a good liberal arts grad 😉

Here’s a good summary of my life! In punctuation form.

!?!!!??:…

Cats, Kindness, and Paperwork