Thursday, October 23, 2014

Adapting to the Culture

C'mon, laissez-nous jouer Red Light Green Light!

When we were young, my sister and I made up games to pass the time. In one favorite, we would don linty, pilled scarves, hand-knitted hats and white patent leather purses from the bowels of the coat closet, and pretend we were exotic young women from France. We'd speak to each other en Français spéciale (read: made-up babble with a thick accent of undetermined origin) complete with animated gesticulations, heated arguments ("No, no, no stupide!") and a fair amount of spittle. This faux repartee was particularly enjoyable when exchanged in public places, like the lunch counter at Woolworth's or the airport, where we imagined the people staring at us were doing so out of fascination and envy. It also helped fill the long hours of extreme boredom that seemed to mark much of our childhood growing up in Upstate, New York, where it snowed nine months out of the year and was rainy and overcast the remaining three. Being confined to enclosed spaces for most of your life, you soon discover there isn't much in the way of things to pass the time unless you play jacks or rubber bridge.
So you do a lot of waiting. Waiting for the school bus at dark-thirty; waiting for the thermometer nailed to the outside of the kitchen window to go above zero so you could play outside without the fear of frostbite and having to move like a robot in 14 layers of outerwear. Waiting in the car (unlocked - ahhh, the good old days) for mom to "run" into the grocery store for a "few" things. (God help us if she ran into a friend at checkout; errand becomes eternity.) Waiting in the bowling alley nursery...cue pin-crashing soundtrack!...with a dozen other miserable, snotty-nosed kids on couples' league night. (This irks my mother to no end that I remember this. Sorry, ma.) All this waiting and commensurate ennui was not for naught, however, as it begot dreams for faraway places where people spoke eloquently in foreign tongues and looked cool in scarves and Paschal-perfect patent leather purses.
You can imagine, then, when I actually found myself in such a faraway place as an adult, surrounded by people I only dreamed about as a kid. Of all the desires I have while I'm here, my strongest is to fit in. Everywhere I go, I secretly hope the natives will think I'm one of them. (For some reason, it's easy to ID someone from across the pond in the U.S. - I think jeans and footwear are the giveaway.) I hope the teen boys who smoosh me on the métro will say, "Pardon, Madame!" instead of "Excuse me, lady!" and waiters will instinctively give me the menu Français instead of the English version. Although I work hard to encourage this (concealing my city map at all times and pretending I'm looking around for a friend while standing in the middle of an intersection trying to figure out where the h&%#ll I am) I realize this dream is not to be. Even after eight full days in the country, I get nailed as an American before I ever even open my mouth. Ok, one person did ask if I was Brazilian, which was pretty neat. But everyone - EVERYONE - else instantly tags me from ten paces. I think the most crushing blow was from the maid at my hotel. Each day, I would make my very best effort to play the authentic Parisian. I bid her good morning with a sing-songy, "Bonjour!" going from high-pitched to low, just like le locals. I bid her farewell saying, "Au revoir" with two syllables instead of my original three of a week ago. Just starting to feel a sense of genuine Euro-smug, and after a particularly smooth Comment ça va, Marie-Julie! this morning, MJ says to me in English, "Someday my dream is to come to ze Yoo-nited States..." I almost say, "Funny, me too!" in French, but I could not tell a lie. Comment savez-vous que je suis Américaine? "How do you know I'm from the United States?" I ask her. Did my accent give me away? "A leetle," she answers, but mostly eet was THAT, she says, pointing to the home-haircut adapter contraption I made to power my last remaining electrical appliance that didn't smoke when I turned it on.
In the end, not so well adapted after all
Alors, looks like it's back to public displays of city maps and Français spéciale for me.

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