09 December 2009

The Beauty of Life as an Immigrant

Before leaving for France, I remember thinking that the thought of moving to Paris frightened me much less than the thought of moving to New York City. I couldn’t figure out why. Three months in Paris later and I still feel that way. In fact, I feel much more at ease doing a lot of things in France than I do in the US.

For example, I talk to strangers on a regular basis (such as asking the poster-replacement-guy on the street if I could have the old posters), take a train for an hour to work 3 days a week, traveled to another city alone for a weekend, and attend a weekly conversation group. It sounds so silly when I put it into words, but I can’t honestly say that I would have done any of these things in the US. It’s a lot harder to step outside of your comfort zone when you have the choice, and it’s much more fascinating not to have the choice!

Moreover, daily life in France seems much more enchanting. On my hour commute to work I have the fortune to enjoy some of the most amazing people watching in the world, at the grocery store I have a whole new selection of foods (though I have slowly found my favorites), and I know that any contact I have with another individual outside of my cozy apartment will be in French, and not English. Maybe it’s just the vagabond in me (others feel extremely happy never leaving their home town), but I love and embrace change!

Of course, the minute I open my mouth and say something to a French person, I know that there’s a 80% chance that the following dialogue will occur:

“Oh, you’re not French, are you German? English?”

“No, I’m American”, I always respond

“But you speak French so well! I’ve never spoken French with an American before!”

While I find this very flattering, it’s frustrating to have this conversation every time you open your mouth to a French person. Fortunately, if I speak to a French person in French, even if they try to respond in English, when I continue speaking French they will always speak French to me. Also, the adults have been much more gracious than the children. The kids at school make fun of my French like it’s a sport, and the adults tell me my French is great… which I’m sure is because as an adult they understand how hard learning a second language really is.

Ultimately, I have concluded that I feel more daring in France because, though I get by with the language, I am not a native speaker, and so there is a lot less pressure on me to get things right. I have the language barrier excuse on my side (which becomes my best friend in certain situations), but I also think that people take an interest in talking to me because I’m unusual. In the US I think I’d act the same way towards a foreigner…