They come from France …

By the

March 1, 2001

Everyone, and I mean everyone, hates the people who come back from studying abroad convinced that they have “become” Spanish or have “discovered” that they were born with a French soul. They’re the people you see at Uncommon Grounds saying things like, “Well, of course, Italian coffee is just superior to anything you can get here in the States,” or at the Gap saying, “Well, of course, the shopping in London is just amazing, all these little boutiques, not mass-produced consumerism like here in the States.”

These people annoy me for several reasons, one of which is because I’m in line behind them buying coffee or a shirt, and I dislike having my consumer goods pre-disparaged, but also because these people usually have a tone of voice that implies, “Ha ha, I am worldly like you wouldn’t believe.” It makes me want to scream, “What do you think this is, Seven Years in Tibet? Spending four months drinking with Americans in a foreign country is not a cultural renaissance, you pretentious ass!”

As I say, I hate these people, but I envy them, too. Here’s why: This past Sunday marked the one-month anniversary of my arrival in Paris, and in consequence, the one-quarter mark of my study abroad experience. I’d like to say that with 30 days behind me I’m starting to feel like one of those obnoxious cultural-rebirth people, like I’ve belonged in France all along, like I’d started to grasp and appreciate the complex and subtle nuances of the French way of life. But let’s be honest: It’s hard to feel like you belong when you haven’t fully grasped the complex and subtle nuances of opening French doors. (Note to future travelers: Doors in France open exactly opposite from how you expect them to. If you think one will open towards you, it will open outward. If you suspect you should push, you should pull. This sounds like an easy adjustment to make, but door opening is a deeply ingrained habit, which is why, every day, hundreds of Americans leave their forehead prints all over French doors after incorrectly assessing the way they operate.)

There is no danger of anyone mistaking me for an actual French person, not with my door problems, and yet I’m not really a tourist either?I mean, I have a permanent Metro pass and everything. I hate the people who have “gone native,” because they feel like they made it, that they fit in. They may be deluding themselves, but feeling like you belong is half the battle. I’d settle for self-delusion. As it is, I live in a weird no-man’s land, pressing my face against the window of assimilation, looking in and seeing the obnoxious people … and hating them.

Of course, knowing that I don’t fully fit in now, and probably never will, does have its advantages. As a non-French person I am allowed to whip out my camera in front of impressive monuments, and I can travel in a huge pack of people, all of us wearing our oh-so-comfy running shoes. I have the decency to feel semi-guilty about it, but I still do it. If I mess up and use the wrong tense (and using “if” is purely a convention), I don’t have to worry that people will hate me. They’ll think I’m a dumb foreigner, but that’s fine. People are remarkably patient with dumb foreigners.

The other advantage of someone who pseudo-lives here, is the feeling of superiority to the tourists, the older couples wearing running shoes without irony (I know it looks the same, but it’s an attitude, man), the school groups wandering the Metro and squawking in loud American voices. I can stand on the platform with my newly-purchased French handbag and laugh gaily to myself, “Ha ha! Look at those dumb foreigners! Good thing I’m not like them!”

To the French there’s no difference between us, but in my mind it’s like apples and oranges?both fruits, sure, but different fruits, fruits that do not resemble each other in any way.

So to extend the alimentary metaphor, I’m an apple, tourists are oranges and the French are tomatoes?technically a fruit … but not really. I don’t know what the obnoxious people are, but I suspect they feel that they are tomatoes. And that’s what I want.

So who knows? Maybe September will find me at the Tombs, smoking unfiltered Gauloises and holding a glass of wine up to the light above my brownie sundae and saying, “It’s a pleasant vintage, but of course we had some really super reds in France. And the pastries were to die for, not like here in the States … ” In this case, feel free to give me a dirty look, ‘cause I’ll deserve it. But I’ll get my just desserts when I leave, since I’ll walk right smack into the door.

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