"C'est vrai que tu ne ressembles pas du tout à une française." Such was the consensus of my language partner and her French friend over dinner several weeks ago: "It's true that you don't look at all like a French girl." This statement and the absolute conviction with which it was uttered surprised me, not because I think I blend in perfectly with the French, but because it was in reference to my actual physical traits rather than my wardrobe or the way I carry myself--my face, my hair, they are somehow distinctly foreign.
I've always thought of myself as pretty generic-looking, obviously of European ancestry but not obviously from one nation or another. I know I have quite a bit of German and English in me, but I didn't realize that those two nationalities were immediately recognizable in my facial structure (my friend guessed them in one go). I don't know what "French" is supposed to look like. I've even thought on several occasions that my host mom looks somewhat like my grandmother on my mother's side, but younger. This seemed like a good argument against a "French" appearance versus a "German" one, until I remembered my host family's name: Meyer-Hilfiger. German on both sides. No wonder.
How can anyone ever be expected to integrate fully into French life? I know that we're not expected to be indistinguishable from the French after just one semester abroad, but in general, if I'm standing there with French clothes and French posture and a French haircut, yet my face still screams NOT FRENCH, is there ever going to be a point at which the French cease to see me as first and foremost an outsider?
Actually, there isn't usually such an instant judgment. Most of the time, people wait until I've spoken to clarify that I'm American, and the exchanges usually go something like this (italics indicating French):
M. Untel: Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to [insert landmark here] from here?
Me: Heuuu, well, I'm pretty sure if you keep going down this road, turn left, take such and such a route, you'll get there.
M. Untel: [slight air of surprise] You speak French very well. Thank you!
Just as frequent, but more fun, are these:
Mme Untel: [not loud enough to be clearly heard over traffic, crowd, etc. or possibly mumbling] Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to [insert unintelligible landmark here] from here?
Mme Untel: [strong accent] You do not speak French?
Me: No, I do, it's just that I didn't hear you. Where was that?
Mme Untel: [slight air of surprise and embarrassment] Ah. Can you tell me...[exchange continues as above]
I really enjoy defying assumptions that because I'm American, I will prefer and/or find it easier to speak English. I realize that most attempts at English on the part of the French are intended to be helpful rather than belittling, but I still look upon them with a certain disdain. Arrogant, egotistical, cocky--certainly, there's part of me that is all of these things when it comes to my language skills, and my French in particular. That part of me doesn't like feeling that someone's accusing me of not making a good enough effort, whether the accusation is intended or not.
Fortunately, I have had exactly zero experiences in which the French have been judgmental about my command of their tongue. While I'm not above correction, the reaction to my speech is usually the opposite--I speak, I impress (provided I don't speak too much, that is--the trick is to let out just enough to show off my accent while hiding how bad I am at formulating my thoughts in any language). Therein lies, I think, half the reason I love language as much as I do--there's something beautiful about doing something and getting instant, positive feedback. Instant gratification. If you can communicate at all, you've won, and the subtleties are bonus points. It's a game that never loses its fascination, because nothing is static.
Someone please, please stop me before I compare language-learning to Settlers of Catan.
So: there she is, your friendly American stranger in Aix. Too friendly, too American, too friendly because too American and vice versa. Her wardrobe has colors in it. She sticks out. But as what, exactly?
While I'm waiting on a crêpe or a panini, the vendors make small talk. Am I English? German? American? There we go, that's the one. Bizarrely, though, what I get the most is, "are you Swedish?" Swedish. Suédoise. Really? That was a new one to me, but I've been getting it all semester, even when I went to Paris for a weekend.
I'm not sure what that says about the impression I give off, but at least I'm not the image of the obnoxious American tourist. Sure, I wear sneakers all the time, my wardrobe has actually gotten more colorful since I've come to France, my stride might be a little too bouncy, and I am, unfortunately, terrible at not smiling at the friendly men who sell me food. I'm okay with that, because I never have to show my face in that baklava shop again. I can still speak to them in la langue de Molière, and that, at least, is going swimmingly.