From Paris to Edmonds: Returning to reality and lessons learned
Sitting uncomfortably through my last four of 12 hours in the air from France to Seattle, I’ll soon descend from the clouds and come down from what has really felt like 16 weeks in the dream world that is Paris. With the impending landing of both myself, and of reality, I can’t help but cling to this journey and reflect on how this American will now re-enter her previous life on the West Coast (macaroons and Camembert in hand).
Having just finished four end-of-semester examinations, my head is brimming with knowledge of all genres. I memorized names, dates, presidents, policies, and Impressionist painters until my brain turned to mush. But now that the real tests are over, I want to perhaps now grade my personal progress on how I’ve performed and how much I’ve learned on my semester-long test on my own and in a foreign country.
Certainly, one of my biggest goals was to become a lot more proficient in the French language. I think, as most of my study-abroad friends have also remarked, that I set my sights a bit too high in terms of just how fluent I would feel upon return. I often only understand about 85 percent of what the French are saying in an academic or more formal setting, whereas that figure falls probably to 60 percent if I’m eavesdropping on the casual slang-filled conversation going on at a mile a minute on the Metro. But, despite all that, I know I have improved immensely. I can actually read pretty speedily through French documents, books, and websites, and my writing — always my best form of the language — flows freely and I form sentences I didn’t even know I knew how to construct. My pronunciation has improved tenfold having heard so much actual French spoken, instead of that of my American peers or reading it from a textbook. And while I still make mistakes in speech (the other night my host-mother said one of my sentences made me sound like an Aborigine) I certainly feel more confident in opening my mouth and expressing myself, not fearing criticism or correction (how much harsher could it get than from the French?).
In trying to constantly better my French, it always annoyed me when the Parisians would speak back to me in English, immediately hearing my American accent on their precious French pronunciations. And sometimes it really got me down, feeling like I would never be good enough to be part of their club. However in the end, I came to realize that English is a kind of universal language. People from all over the world come to Paris — Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, Portuguese, Russian. Everywhere. And when these world citizens communicate with the French, it is almost always in English (unless they happen to know a little bit of French, of course, but that was rare). The couple sitting next to me on the plane, in fact, whom I overheard speaking some type of obscure Northern European language, ordered their airplane meal in English. Whether I traveled to Spain, to Germany, to the Netherlands, I could always communicate in English. It seemed to be an actual requirement for just about any position in any service industry in Europe. I can hardly imagine anything like that in the United States.
Now, that hands to the Americans a somewhat double-edged sword. On the one hand, we are naturally fluent in the language used in nearly every country — in some form or another — on this entire planet! But on the other hand, does that mean we are resigned to a certain laziness, following the logic that “everyone speaks English in country X, thus I don’t have to learn X-inese?” Personally, I think Americans certainly rely on this comforting point. Take the Netherlands, for example (some of the nicest and tallest bike-riding people you will ever meet, by the way, and they brew a good beer). Natives are taught from a young age to speak both Dutch and English, seemingly bilingual from the womb. Sometimes I wonder if that’s really such a terrible thing, that Americans aren’t learning other languages because everyone else is learning theirs, and sometimes I think not, as long as everyone in the world can communicate somehow. But other times, I think of how much language is tied to nationalism, culture, pride, and even sovereignty. I think of how it is a real statement of respect, no matter which or how many words you use, to speak in the language of the country you visit. It’s a complex topic about which I haven’t quite yet come to conclusions, but regardless of how I theorize, I plain and simple love the French language and know I’ll continue my studies.
In reflecting on language and specifically on English, I also find (sorry again for the lofty philosophy) a certain patriotism that I never knew I had inside me. Always so quick to criticize our country and our leaders, always cynically denying the strength and the virtues and the freedoms of the land of the free, it took a real “bon voyage” away from my home country to finally gain some appreciation. I see the French obsession with our culture. Teenagers wear shirts with English phrases that don’t make sense, or American flags, or Hollister and Abercrombie, all so in style by making reference to a country they have probably only seen on TV shows. But perhaps what they may not appreciate lies outside the consumer’s world, outside of music and TV and clothes and brand names. What I came to learn that I love about the U.S. is a little personal and certainly up for debate among my readers, so I won’t share all that here. I will, however, approach the image of our great country abroad with a new set of eyes.
During these 16 weeks, I have no doubt been exposed to countless aspects of French culture that made me miss the States, but I can also point to a million things in France that I will miss. For one, the FOOD! Crispy, crunchy, fresh warm baguettes with creamy camembert cheese is a staple that I don’t quite yet know how to live without. Drinking wine like it’s water will certainly be missed. I am determined to hunt down a certain Speculous cookie butter in the US because I spread it onto everything in France. Naturally, I already miss the beautiful sights of Paris: the black-trellised windows on beige buildings, the wide boulevards, the Eiffel tower making a picture-perfect sunset. And of course, Paris being one of the cultural capitals of the world, I wish I could forever stay in the city that attracts some of the biggest events in the world of art, food, fashion, and more.
I have been back in the United States for almost three weeks and have returned to my classes at Santa Clara University. I certainly miss being in Paris. But spending time with my family and friends in good ol’ Edmonds reminded me where my real home is and where I really do belong. Everything was all of the sudden comfortable, as if I finally got to take some kind of corset off: I could relax, speak in my mother tongue, get back to my familiar returns, eat the same familiar foods, and spend time with the people closest to me. I carry with me the best memories, pictures, and connections of my life and I will never forget Paris! I can’t thank everyone enough who made the experience what is was, and that includes My Edmonds News readers! Thank you for always staying tuned and giving me such encouraging feedback. So one last time, I’ll say…
Au Revoir, from the USA!
Amanda Waldron, a 2010 graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and a junior at Santa Clara University, studied in Paris this fall and wrote about her experiences for My Edmonds News.