I am American. Good, now you know. You may ask me things about the States. You may ask me how I like France, though I’m a bit sick of the question and I will always answer that I like it very much except for the rain, even though it rained equally as much in Boston, where I attended university, and has already started snowing there. The warmth of the US is a stereotype I am willing to play into, and that’s before you find out that I’m from California, where surely it is 30 degrees Celsius year-round and where I have probably never even seen the snow. The lack-of-snow-or-ability-to-handle-winter stereotype bothers me, seeing that I have skied since I was four and am quite good at it, but sometimes I even let that one slide when I am feeling particularly adverse to long conversation.
It will be hard to believe that I am exactly like you. I am used to drying my clothes in a machine, yes, and I clearly speak a different language, and I was raised with different TV shows and possibly a different sense of humor, though I understand yours (for the most part, save a few things like that joke about the horse-cake) and would even go so far as to say I like it better, in a lot of ways, than American comedy. In his book Paris to the Moon, which chronicles his five-year stay in Paris with his wife and young son (and baby-bump of a daughter), Adam Gopnik points out the fact that it’s not the big things that make us different, but the small, daily motions. On the surface, these characteristics are imperceptible. It takes living in a foreign culture for an extended period of time to understand the real differences between that culture and your native one, and often times it’s not the obvious differences—like the lack of beach or snow or running path—but the small ones that make you want to curl up in the fetal position on the next plane home.
After three stays in France, I can say that I am still one of the only people who walk around downtown with an iPod, staring vaguely at the buildings. I don’t know why I am alone in this action; I take solo walks at home, too, so it’s not the tourist in me creating the difference. Adam Gopnik points out that he, too, felt like an outsider in this way in Paris, though at the time, he missed his Walkman, which is perhaps a more appropriately named device for my story. He says his wife missed, not her favorite American carrot cake, but the act of going to the coffee shop, ordering the cake, eating it anonymously, and never having to establish a rapport with the barista. Here in France, going to a café can take hours, and sometimes you mention your children or that project you’ve been working on, and if you look a little tired, everyone notices. So, yes, she missed carrot cake, but the standout heartbreaker is never the missing thing, but the experience of enjoying it. As Gopnik states (or rather, quotes the composer George Gershwin), you don’t miss “what you’re supposed to miss” when you move from one culture to another. You don’t miss the sun, but reading in it; you don’t miss the ice cream, but eating it on a hot day with your friends by the bay; you don’t miss the music, but dancing to it at that one salsa club on Friday nights in Boston.
One of my favorite memories of my trip to London is eating lots of Californiaesque food, but it wasn’t the food itself that was exceptional. It was the act of eating the food with friends from the US that made me feel at home so far away from California. The totality of my fondness for London isn’t the vegetables and stews I found in the city, but the combination of healthy meals (and some noticibly unhelathy ones) and sharing them with friends. The other day in Troyes, I found almond butter, gluten free bread and kefir at a local organic market. I used them to make a good old Californian gluten free breakfast, but somehow it was not the same when it didn’t follow a morning gym session and sun bake. The essence—the familiarity—wasn’t there. The mould made it over to France, but the madeleine itself got lost somewhere along the way. Proust’s famous madeleine story? Yea, that kind of sentimental thing.
Don’t worry, living abroad doesn’t always make you feel like an alien without his spaceship. The other day, a fellow teacher whom I had never met rushed into the staffroom to prepare a lesson right before class, hurriedly asked to borrow a pen, used said pen, made some copies, glanced at his watch multiple times, thanked me for the pen and rushed off to class. Did he even know I was the foreign assistant? Maybe. But he treated me like any other teacher who understands the feeling of sleeping in too long before class, or forgetting to make the necessary photocopies, or somehow leaving all your pens at home (how did he do that?). Sharing my pen would not feel special at home; in fact, it may even feel annoying. I was actually a little afraid he would take my pen for good and, seeing that I stole that pen from my favorite restaurant at home and keep it as a reminder of California, if he hadn’t returned it, I would miss the pen, yes, but I would also feel like I had lost the entire experience of dining at that particular restaurant in California and then stealing a pen, which to me represents something familiar.
It’s not the carrot cake or the iPod or the pen that I miss while living in France, for I can find all those things here, however different they may look or cost or taste. It’s the moments to which they’re attached—the feelings that they inspire. The madeleine is precious, folks, and I can’t get it back if some unorganized teacher steals it from me during passing periods. The good news is that said anonymous teacher did not steal my Proustien pen, and the simple act of lending it to him helped me forget the multitude of other madeleines that are forever attached to home, unable to jump oceans and cultural barriers like my pen did.