An American in France: On transcending nationality

With the 4th of July being tomorrow I feel an internal fire of patriotism the flames of which are being fanned by the voices of the scores of Americans who have recently swarmed Lyon, France.

 It’s the week of the FIFA women’s world cup and as the host city for the semi-final and final matches Lyon has overrun with visitors most of whom appear to be Americans.

As for me, I haven’t felt this American since I landed at Charles de Gaule last August and the border agent smiled at me when he saw my passport and said ‘Americaine? Bienvenue!’.

And so seeing all these smiling temporarily tattooed faces and all the baseball caps with USA in red white and blue has me feeling like i’m at a giant american family reunion. I chuckle at all the cargo shorts –  the american man’s summer uniform and the American University-logo-emblazoned t-shirts, the more high ranked the school the more visible the self satisfaction of the wearer.  Among the supporters I notice there are a lot of lesbian couples, also in cargo shorts or running shorts – the American women’s casual uniform – Nike if you’re chill, Lululemon if you’re extra.  Everybody is happy and France is happy to welcome them.

It’s interesting to be an American abroad. Especially when nobody can tell that i’m american, least of all other Americans. I go to a cafe and I speak French. I hear the American tourists launching straight into English after an awkward mispronounced ‘bon-joourh’. I chuckle to myself the way one does when they realize how far they’ve come. I remember my days of sufferation due to mispronunciation and stress induced vocabulary amnesia. Everything gets better with time.

Overhearing the conversations of american tourists make me feel like a fly on the wall. People speaking a foreign language in a host country often do so as if nobody can understand them. So they speak more freely about things that maybe they would be more conservative about at home. Or maybe not. Eavesdropping is rude but it’s also entertaining. There’s always a lot of talk about how much money was spent on XYZ and how expensive or cheap ABC is ‘in comparison’.

 Increased police presence in Vieux Lyon and throughout the city due to excessive crowds for FIFA World Cup tournament. Increased police presence in Vieux Lyon and throughout the city due to excessive crowds for FIFA World Cup tournament.

It’s no wonder French people (and everybody outside american in fact) seem to think that all Americans are rich.  Almost all the French people I’ve met have never been to America.

‘It’s very far, quite expensive,’ they say.

If I didn’t know better i’d think the same thing after seeing all these Americans with the nonchalant swagger after paying an arm and a leg for tickets to fly across the ocean just to see a football match. And still have money leftover to enjoy like a real holiday while snapping photos of everything. While maintaining that carefree attitude of someone who is not at all worried about the possibility of being forced to file for bankruptcy upon returning home and all the costs of the trip finally add up.

Today I was feeling quite nostalgic for my old American life. So when some Americans came into my favorite cafe and sat next to me, something overtook me that made me feel the urge to strike up a conversation.  Very American – the urge to make small talk with a complete stranger.  Except not really since to me -we had something in common – that of being Americans abroad.

I started by pointing at his cap – khaki colored with USA embroidered in  red white and blue. We chatted about the game, I asked if he knew anybody who had extra tickets for sale as all the online outlets have fun out. He was ‘traveling with the team’ but suggested there might be people outside of the stadium selling tickets. And then the fateful exchange:

‘Are you American?’


‘I’m hearing an accent……?’

*Crickets chirp forever*

Alas, this statement/question is one I have not had to answer for the past 10 months. It is one I have spent more time than I care to remember answering, and then answering some more when the follow up questions pounce.

‘Yes I grew up the Caribbean.’

Voilà, I am american but still with an explanation.

The small talk continues for a while more with them asking me their share of questions.  They tell me that Lyon is like a small scale Paris. I disagree (it’s so much better there’s no comparison) but I don’t say it. I just smile and say ‘yes, yes’.  It doesn’t matter.

I can tell that the connection I was looking for won’t happen. Not after that clear demarkation a bold line in the sand drawn by a simple question and it’s embedded suggestion –

Yes, of course we are Americans but you, explain to us your foreign accent.

No, what I was searching for I would not find. And what exactly was I looking for? A chance to connect with someone I had something in common with – citizenship. But there’s being American and there’s being American. Some times it comes down to how you sound. If you are hispanic or asian, it comes down to how you look. For me it’s ‘I’m hearing an accent’ for other people it’s ‘But where are you (really)/r parents from?’ Does any of it matter?

I continue typing and sipping my tea, they continue talking about Delta Sky miles and trying to figure out the best time to get to the airport on Monday morning.

Some hours later I decide to head home. I walk through the cobbled streets  and try not to inhale too much cigarette smoke. The street is lined with restaurants and bars.

A heavyset very tanned woman and her male partner who wears a baseball cap with DALLAS emblazoned on the front sit on the patio of a restaurant eating. The surface of his plate is taken up by a giant bone and he scoops out what looks like marrow. Her plate has a salad. A waiter appears with a basket of bread and places it on the table then turns to leave.

‘No no no no no!’

The woman violently shakes her head and her left hand which is gripping her fork. The waitress is visibly confused – in France it is unheard of to not have bread with a meal. The woman shakes her hand some more.

‘No no no no!’

She pushes her hand forward as if to say ‘get this away from me!’ The waiter shrugs her shoulders and makes a French sound then takes the basket and carries it back inside.

 Passerelle du Palais de Justice, Lyon France Passerelle du Palais de Justice, Lyon France

A group of american girls stand on the bridge, it seems as if they’d just met up with each other.

‘Oh my god you look so so cute!’

‘That top is really cute on you.’

Whereas French people show affection by making fun of each other*, Americans do the same by giving a barrage of compliments.

I continue walking alone, observing everything and everyone around me. People look at me, sometimes they do that american smile. the one that appears and disappears just as quickly. I continue.

I like being in France. I can be anybody here, I speak French well enough to communicate without hesitation. I can give directions to anyone who asks me because I know this city well. When someone asks me where I’m from and I say America their reply is always ‘Quelle chance!’ (What luck). The better my French gets the less I am asked about where I am from. But anytime I have to say I am American, nobody demands an explanation.

Hearing that man ask me to explain my accent I felt momentarily that wave of alienation that carried me along all those years of living in the land of the free. But it was soon replaced by a feeling of independence, realizing that I am no longer trying so hard to fit in while making sure that I still stand out. After almost a year as an American in France, an American without having to explain, maybe I have transcended my nationality. I no longer have to worry about where I am really from because it no longer matters. I’m simply here trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m looking for and then hopefully find it.

*taquiner -to gently mock. It’s a local sport among French people. It’s how they connect with each other and show affection. To an outsider it may be a bit of an affront at first. you might feel as if someone is making fun of you unprovoked. but after some time you get used to it and you learn to give as much as you get.

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