94 Days Outside of America

As of two days ago, I’ve been living in France for three months. What a strange amount of time to be somewhere! On one hand, I feel like I’ve settled into a sweet spot of comfortability and a real sense of appartenance in Aix, but on the other hand, I have come to realize that it is nearly impossible to really immerse yourself in a new language and culture in such a short amount of time.

And what’s more, it’s time to think about leaving. In just over a month, I’ll be packing up my room and my life here and heading on a quick whirlwind trip with my family before returning to the US for a summer in Madison.

As this chapter of my life draws to a close (ALMOST, BUT NOT QUITE, I’M NOT READY TO GO YET), I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my experience so far, what I’ve learned, how I feel, and how I’ve changed. Here’s a few of my thoughts after 94 days in France.

Thoughts on my own American-ness

Throughout my travels in Europe, my interactions with locals, and my classes in France, I’ve become really aware for the first time in my life of the way being American plays a role in my identity. For my whole life, I’ve been surrounded by others who shared my culture, and thus we distinguished ourselves from each other based on other things—personality, appearance, what state we came from, our heritage, etc. But being a foreigner everywhere I go for the past three months has taught me a lot about what others think of my country, the prejudices they may have against me or in favor of me, and the values I take for granted from my culture that aren’t necessarily present in other cultures.

1.One of the first stereotypes I became aware of while in France was the stereotype that Americans are loud. This one doesn’t bother me too much because it’s sort of funny, and sort of true. My friends and I were once kicked out of a late-night pizza spot in Aix for laughing too loudly in our booth. We’ve also been easily identified as Americans in lots of bars, public transportation, and even on the streets because of how “loudly” we talk to each other.

2. During a conversation with my host family one night, I stumbled across another stereotype that bewildered me a bit at first. I learned that lots of Europeans consider Americans to be quite insular and almost exclusive because we tend to travel more within the States than across national borders. While I find this one easy to dismiss for several reasons—the US is much bigger and more diverse than most European countries so there’s more to see within it, and it’s expensive to leave the country—I’ve also come to realize that there is something to be said for leaving your own country from time to time. Although we can claim all we want that California and Wisconsin might as well be two different countries, the fact is that we still share the same laws, language, culture, and history, and thus a visit to another state will never be the same eye-opening experience as visiting another country.

3. Through my international news class as well as some of my travels through Germany and Czechoslovakia, I’ve also learned a lot of America’s role and reputation around the world in relation to other countries. In class, my French professor talks a lot about the Cold War and tensions in the Middle East, giving his personal opinions and a French point of view on the issues which has been fascinating to me. Although I’ve learned about 9/11 in school all my life, this class was the first time that I really questioned whether the United States hasn’t committed atrocities in the Middle East as well. Did the United States treat our enemies any more humanely than they treated us? Are we really the heroes in this story?

On the other hand, my time in Berlin, Germany brought me yet another view of the United States. Berlin was a fascinating place because it has a lot of history—and a lot of really terrible history. But the interesting thing is that the overwhelming tone in the museums and monuments there is shame. Everywhere I went, I read apologies. Germany refuses to allow itself to forget about some of the terrible things that their government has done and the people who have suffered there, and they take responsibility for it all. What’s more, many of the monuments I read credited the United States as being liberators of suffering people in Germany, from the Holocaust to the Cold War, which of course made me feel proud; but I also couldn’t help but wonder if my country—my rich, powerful, controversial country—could ever adopt a stance of such humility as Germany’s for some of the mistakes we have made in our own history.

4. I’ve also come to reflect quite a bit on my experience abroad as a native English-speaker and second-language French-speaker. A lot of my time in France has been spent stressing out that I will never speak French well enough, but my oral expression teacher sort of flipped my thinking one day when he told us never to worry about our accents. He said that we all speak French well enough to be understood—our accents don’t impede our prononciation or ability to communicate correctly—and anything beyond that is just a part of us and the way we talk. He said that at worst, the French find our American accents “charming”.

But of course, I’ve spent a bit of time outside of France, too, and on those trips I became more aware of the interesting dilemma/privilege of being an English speaker abroad, in non-English speaking countries. In the majority of the cities I’ve visited outside of France, I didn’t have much trouble (with a few notable exceptions) with language barriers, because in the big, touristy places I’ve traveled to, everyone spoke English. Even signs and public transit often had English translations. This actually got me into a bit of trouble from time to time because I didn’t bother to do any research into the local language before going; I could just waltz into really any country I wanted and expect to be catered to in my native tongue (except in Dresden, Germany for some reason, where I got lost in the one train station in Europe where no one spoke English).

Anyway, it’s an interesting privilege. Since the tourism in many of these places depends heavily on English-speaking tourists, these places have adapted to benefit us. I truly can’t even imagine how I would have traveled to most of the places I’ve been to if I had gone twenty or thirty years ago—it would have been nearly impossible to pull off without Google maps and English translations everywhere I went—which of course makes me grateful that I’ve benefitted from a changing tourism environment, but at the same time makes me sad that the authenticity and way of life in these places is changing just to attract people who will plop down money for a few trinkets and take a few selfies before moving on to the next place. (Admittedly, I’ve done both of those things.)

5. Finally, after visiting places with ancient history and meeting people whose family lineage has never left their county, I’ve come to reflect on how interesting it is to come from a country of foreigners. A country where many of us are so far removed from our ethnic roots that we grasp onto any semblance of heritage we can find. That we are fascinated by ancestry.com and the one recipe from the homeland that our grandmother still makes because we think it might give us a key to who we are and where we come from. And yet, traveling through the countries of my own heritage (France, Germany, England), I didn’t find the secret key to my original culture; in fact, I found a lot of interesting things and a fair amount of American music and fast food chains, but no secret keys.

This isn’t a criticism of America’s diverse and international culture, of course; I love to be surrounded by people who are different from me, who have different backgrounds and roots and traditions and viewpoints. I also love to learn about my own family’s ancestry, if only to hear the stories of the people who caused me to end up where I am, in my position of comfort and privilege as a white girl in the United States. But the cultures of my ancestors aren’t my culture anymore, not really—I’m American, and I drink terrible American coffee (according to the rest of the world). And that’s fine.

In conclusion

All these random ramblings are really just to say that studying abroad has forced me to acknowledge my own American-ness for the first time in my life, and the way my nationality has intertwined with my genetics, my heritage, my culture and my disposition to make me the person I am. The experience of being a foreigner for 94 days in a row has taught me a little bit about who I am and the place I come from, even while I’m away from it.