Sunday, April 17, 2011

WWPD Guides: Being an American in Paris

Are you American? In France? Paris, for example? You fall into one of two categories. First possibility: you're in town to see the sights, but you look down on them Gallic wimps. You proudly yell at people in English, wear as many national-identity-identifying brands as possible, and complain that the portions are too small, the people in service profession SO RUDE for not all responding like especially cheery American waitstaff, in flawless American English and smiles. You express great relief at the sight of the familiar: Starbucks, McDonalds, Gap.

So either you're like that, or you live in utter fear that you'll be found out as an American. You try to figure out all the subtle rules of Frenchness - an impossible task, but you try - and honor these unwritten laws with greatest seriousness. The French don't get coffee to go in paper cups? You make sure not only to avoid walking around with a coffee, but to avoid patronizing establishments that offer that option. You express awe at their thinness, while ignoring the extent to which Parisian female existence includes cellulite creams and dieting. You shop at markets - Monoprix being too Walmart-esque - and conveniently ignore the fact that said markets are a whole lot less interested in "local" than the ones back in dreaded 'merica. 

Corgi (with undocked tail!) disapproves of market pineapples.

The stereotype of the American in Paris is thoroughly Category 1. But Category 2 is prevalent, because Category 2 types may be fewer, but they come to Frahnce more often.

So, a third way...

What I will do:

-Speak French. Yes, yes, being a grad student in French, with three years of teaching the language behind me, makes this easier. But it's possible to at least start in French even if you only know the language slightly. (Grace, I approve!)

-Dress French-ish. Despite wanting to go out in Old Navy lounge pants, I restrain myself. I spent 15 euros on a linen-type scarf at a market over the summer, and yeah, I wear that unless it's hot out. I also happen to think horizontal-striped shirts are the greatest. While I would not advocate going out and buying a whole new wardrobe out of respect (especially not at $1.40 to the ugh), it's a nice gesture to look kind of together. This doesn't have to mean stilettos, which would at any rate mark you as a certain sort of tourist all the same.

-Celebrate the good foods that are not-like-at-home, and remember those when I notice what's missing. Sure, I do sometimes think of how, on one small stretch of 4th Avenue near where I used to teach, one can get delicious tacos and spectacular cold-brewed iced coffee. Then I remember: Raw-milk cheese. 3-euro wine that tastes really good. Le Boulanger des Invalides. Did I mention Le Boulanger des Invalides? 

What I will not do:

-Refuse to eat on the street. Sometimes one is hungry, but not in a restaurant or in one's fahbulous 7th Arrondissement kitchen. Sometimes, for example, one lives in a dorm and does work in libraries. If I've packed a sandwich, or bought a pastry, I will eat it as I walk down the street. I will not bow down to the idea that we must respect second-hand smoke as charmingly French, but that the mere sight of a person eating a food that isn't even messy or smelly outside is oh so offensive. I tend to be of the New Yorker school of you can do whatever you feel like on the street, and people can always look away or walk away. There's no right to find those around you delightful. Yes, I am imposing this fern ideal, but with cheese that's altogether French.

-Play the stupid game of, 'Haha, I found you out as a non-French, so I will now speak to you in my hint-of-English so as to drive the point home that you're a ferner not worthy of the Great French Language.' Most of the time, obviously, I interact with people in stores and such in French. Sometimes, when, for example, I pay for something with a foreign credit card (which Monoprix, god bless it, accepts), or I can't think of the word for a more obscure everyday item, the person I'm speaking with, whose English is... limited, will switch into that language, not so as to make me comfortable, not 'customer is always right,' because that does not exist in Paris, but because they want to make a point about my being an outsider to their Culture. This used to bother me, and I'd persist in French, only to have these kind of show-downs that got the other person more and more annoyed that I was sneakily posing as a Frenchwoman, insofar as I was going around, without being the least bit French, yet speaking that language. Now I just let the occasional interlocutor who wants to play this game win from the get-go. "French" conversations in which the other person is speaking English are poor practice, anyway.

-Allow someone else to take my assigned seat on the train. It's really not so difficult to point out that the seat marked on your ticket is the one someone else has plopped down in. This is not how the French do it? That may be what "Romain" who David Lebovitz asked claims, but the tickets give specific seats, and when you ask someone to move, they will. They may glare at you, but - and this is key - so what? Too many Americans in Paris think it is tragedy of all tragedies if a French person - a real French person - makes it clear that they dislike them. When really, who cares? There is, in Paris as anywhere else, a balance. Don't go out of your way to ignore cultural norms, but don't treat them like they come from a higher power than the cultural norms anywhere else. Respect for, not worship of, the particularities.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

re: the language game. I've had the experience of going out here in Bs. As. and having the waiter switch to pidgin English on hearing my accent and continuing to express himself in that mode with my wife. Apparently the shocking of hearing me speaking Spanish prevented the poor fellow from noticing her nativespeakerness...

eamonnmcdonagh said...

and speaking of Americans in France

Britta said...

In China few people speak English at all (though this is increasing a lot), so the switching into English probably isn't as common. Usually when it does happen, it's more for the Chinese person to show off their English/practice with a native speaker, not to shame the foreigner. What I find really irritating (and luckily fairly infrequent) is when someone just assumes you don't speak the language and only responds in gestures. I've had this happen buying subway tickets, and it's like playing charades with the ticket person. I've had people do this even when I was speaking to them in Chinese, and they could obviously understand what I was saying, because their gestures were a response.

Phoebe said...


Having witnessed a native Flemish speaker get spoken to in English in the Netherlands, and then having learned that this happened even when I wasn't there, I suspect there's both the influence of the Anglophone present and, in at least some cases, an issue of a native speaker being a native speaker of that language, but not native to that country or area. Which is to say, a French-Canadian in Paris could get the 'merican treatment simply on account of looking North American. So if your wife is from a Spanish-speaking country, but not from Buenos Aires, maybe that's the issue?


The gesturing thing you describe is bizarre.

As for the opportunity-to-practice-English angle, I want to be un-neurotic and France-anti-defamation-league about this and say that that's what's going on, but the switch to English is inevitably accompanied by other behavior that announces, 'ugh, I have to deal with more of these rich Americans.' All the more so, I think, given that the exchange rate makes it less likely tourists without money to spend would make the trip. Since I don't wear a big sign declaring that I'm studying France and buying sunscreen or whatever as a temporary resident, not a vacationer, it... gets old. But I do find it's easier, in that situation, to just play the part, that is, to just finish the transaction in English. Otherwise it really drags on and on.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

She's from Santa Fe, about 500 km from here, where the speak a tiny bit differently, so maybe, but I still can't imagine that it would have happened had she been on her own/with someone else from Santa Fe.

As regards the Dutch, I used to work in the Netherlands and an English, female colleague, 30 years a Dutch resident, award-winning translator of Dutch poetry etc etc *still* used to get answered in English by waiters from time time to time.

Britta said...

This would be a fabulous paper topic, like, "code-switching as a marker of national belonging." I know people have looked at this a lot with regards to dialects, like using the local dialect vs. the standard, but it's interesting to think about English being used as a universal way to mark "you're not from here," when neither person is a native English speaker. I mean, English is often the lingua franca so two people who speak their (different) native languages and English would have to communicate in English, but if people speak two mutually intelligible languages, then something else is going on in switching to English.
I will have to think about whether different Scandinavians do this, because my guess is the difference between Flemish and Dutch is similar to the difference between Norwegian and Swedish?

Of course, there's also the national assertion by insisting to speak English with an immigrant who speaks the language fluently except maybe with a slight accent, in which the implication is "you will never be Dutch, no matter how long you live here." From your comment section, the Dutch seem to be particularly egregious in this case. I know next to nothing about the Dutch culture, but is it particularly clannish and xenophobic? Like, are the Dutch really worse than any other Western European country? I wouldn't have guessed so. I always assumed if you were white and some mixture of W/NW European heritage, immigrating somewhere in W. Europe and integrating into the culture wouldn't be terribly difficult, especially if you learned the language.

Phoebe said...


My sense is that someone from a same-language place, who nevertheless looks like they're from elsewhere (such as, for example, your wife in the situation you describe, or a Flemish person in the Netherlands, or a French Canadian in France) might well get spoken to in English even without anyone else present. The story you tell about the English woman in the Netherlands is closer to what I experience in France than to why someone Flemish, which is to say, a native speaker of Dutch, someone who by coincidence speaks English but could just as well speak only Dutch, would get spoken to in English.


The difference between Flemish and Dutch is about the same as British English and American English. Apparently Dutch is easier for Flemish-speakers to understand than vice versa, but in principle, there's mutual intelligibility. Closer (I think?) than Swedish and Norwegian.

As for how friendly the Dutch are to outsiders... There have been some famous "immigration problem" incidents (Theo Van Gogh, xenophobic politicians), and there's the black-face Saint Nick... but I've spent barely a week in the Netherlands, and am by no means an authority on how it compares to other parts of Western Europe.

What I did notice, however, was that Dutch people seemed to look more ethnically homogeneous than, for example, the French or the Flemish, such that not only was almost everyone in Leiden blond, but the exact same shade of yellow-blond, meaning that someone visiting with even a different sort of Western European appearance would stand out. This is what I think happened with Jo, who's tall but not 6'7", white but not blond. And it's not so illogical from the standpoint of the Dutch people we met, who after all have to consider the likelihood that someone's from Europe's tiny Dutch-speaking minority, as versus that they, wherever they're from, can communicate in English. What confused me was that even once he spoke, this continued.

As for the broader point of English as a language in common, that's certainly true in academia, not just in the US. It's not at all uncommon, I think, for two people who could a) communicate in their shared native language, but it hasn't specifically come up that they share a native language, or b) communicate more effectively in another language they share - German, for example - but that they'd never know they share because English is just the default. Also - Brussels, where the language politics are complicated to say the least, seems to be moving towards an English-as-acceptable-middle-ground solution. Signs are often in English, in part because of the international presence, but also because that way no one's offended, and everyone can join hands in scoffing at while at the same time appreciating Anglo hegemony.

One more thing: the moment someone starts with me in English here, I'm reminded that "French"="foreign language," something I tend to otherwise forget at this point. I don't forget how to speak it or anything, but my speech becomes a bit more stilted, which in turn reinforces the impression that I'm foreign.

Britta said...

Yeah, Dutch and Flemish sound more similar than Norwegian and Swedish. N. and S. are mutually intelligible, but there are still some big differences, it's more different speakers can get the gist of what the other person is saying. Danish is the worst in terms of being understood by others. My oh so unbiased grandmother claims Danish sounds like Norwegian with a speech impediment. (My mother says it sounds like speaking Norwegian with mashed potatoes in your mouth), so I've been told Danes can understand Norwegians perfectly, but the Norwegians can't really understand the Danes at all.

Anyways. I have a funny story about British vs. American English. When I was teaching in China, my students were VERY confused about the difference between British and American English (we used British textbooks, and I would point out certain things that I would say differently, e.g. apartment vs. flat, "do you have" vs. "have you got" etc). Sometimes when I'd mark something wrong on the homework, the cheekier students would claim that it was written in British English, and I just didn't understand it.