June 1, 2009

I love France, but America is my home

I have been thinking about France a lot these past few days. A friend of mine named Ariel is leaving today for a trip to France with her family and boyfriend. They are visiting Paris, which I have been to four times, and Normandy, where I spent a total of twelve weeks studying (six weeks in 2002 and six in 2004). Since I know these places well, I spent a lot of time preparing information for Ariel and her family. I had so much fun doing it! I wrote out some very basic French for them (with the phonetic spelling) since no one in her family speaks French. I shared tips on great cities to visit in Normandy. I highlighted spots in Paris for them to visit, with my own secret tips of what makes a visit to Paris truly fabulous. For example, a trip to Paris isn't complete for me without stopping at LaDurée, an exquisite café and restaurant on the Champs Elysées. Even just this morning, I turned on the t.v. to find a Rick Steves special about Paris.

Spending all this time talking and thinking about Paris and Normandy, I found myself reminiscing about my wonderful experiences in France. I even pulled out a few journals I had kept while studying in France and read through them. I made so many wonderful friends and had so many countless magical moments. France was everything I had ever dreamt it would be, and more. While reading my journals, I found myself laughing aloud as I read over some of the things my friends and I said and did.

I fell madly in love with France and its people. Sometimes I can close my eyes and I am back there....back in Normandy at the language institute, laughing with my friends, tasting the delectable food that the institute's French cook, Danielle, made for us, going on all the excursions to the D-Day landing beaches and other charming cities in Normandy. Or I close my eyes and I am back in Paris....riding the Seine riverboat at dusk and seeing couples dotted along the riverbanks, holding hands, kissing; tasting a warm, melty, delicious Nutella crèpe, watching the Eiffel tower sparkle with twinkling lights in the cool night air, hearing classic Parisian music as I stroll leisurely down the Champs Elysées, looking up in awe at the grand Notre Dame cathedral. I can relive these moments, for they are buried deep within my heart. That's the wonderful thing about traveling--the memories are always with you. After returning from my first six week study abroad experience in France, my mom came into my room one day to find me crying. She paused and asked, "You miss France?" I nodded in reply. My mom said with a little smile, "I knew this would happen."

In explaining some of the French culture to Ariel, I told her the French can seem much more closed-off than Americans. They keep to themselves and don't naturally converse with strangers. This is one reason why the French appear "cold" to visiting Americans. While it can be totally natural in the US to strike up a conversation with the person behind you at the supermarket checkout line, it would be strange in France to do so. This is not to say that the French are never friendly, because they most certainly are. We just have some major cultural differences about appropriate public interaction. The French are more private; we in the US are more open.

After spending just six weeks in Normandy, some of the French cultural practices became more natural to me. For example,upon my return to the US, I was walking in downtown St. Joseph and some strangers passed me on the street. They said "Good morning" to me in the way that many people greet each other in passing. This had always been so normal to me; however, after just six weeks in France, I was shocked at how odd this seemed to me. It took me off guard and my inclination was to think, "why are these people talking to me?" Of course, after a few weeks back home, I returned to the US cultural mindset.

I was taking Annabelle for a walk yesterday evening and as I passed several families and couples on the sidewalk, we always gave each other a smile and a "Hello." I love this about America. And since France has been on my mind, I started thinking about some of our cultural differences. There are many things I love about French culture, but many more things I love about American culture. I am so happy it is normal to smile and greet strangers, or strike up a conversation with a stranger in a store. To me, this attitude is a more Christian-way of thinking. We are all children of God. We all share in the same human experience. We all love, cry, hurt, and laugh. So many people go through this life feeling alone. Just smiling and sharing a greeting with a stranger can make him/her feel not so lonely. I embrace this part of American culture. How many people do we cross each day that are carrying heavy burdens, deep hurts, without us knowing it? You never know how a smile or a kind word could lessen someone's burden, if only for a moment. How a small conversation could make someone feel cared for, not invisible anymore. This openness, this friendliness of American culture makes us all feel connected--that we're all in it together as we make our way through life.

France has become a part of me and will always be in my heart. But I am first and foremost an American, in every way possible. I am thankful every day that I was born in America. As much as I love traveling and other cultures, I would never trade being an American for anything else in the world.

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