Saturday, October 17, 2015

How to be exotic

The "eyes" have it.
"Madame est américaine," said the middle-aged woman in my stretching class two weeks ago.  She said it with a mix of pride and curiosity.  An American amid the sports mats and barefooted, mostly 50ish women who were warming up to...stretch.

"Ooohhh," the exercising ladies seemed to say collectively.  How exotic! In this pale blue room in an apartment complex in a small French city, there is a foreigner!  The teacher asked how to say my name and she repeated it a few times to get it right.  I felt their admiring or curious glances on me and was a little embarassed to be the center of attention just for my nationality.  No matter how much I try to imitate a French speaker, my accent betrays me, as it did this time.

Growing up in Alabama, somehow I was never considered exotic.  My strawberry blonde hair might have made me stand out a little, but since there are plenty of people of Scotch-Irish descent where I live, that wasn't that unusual.  In school, especially middle and high school, a little shy and uptight were more likely the words people would use to describe me.

But now that I live in France it is strange how "exotic" I have become.  It's like I am the Selma Hayek of my neighborhood.   It doesn't happen everyday but now and then I realize I am still very different from the people around me, just by my origins and accent.

Some people maybe are too shy themselves to point out that my accent isn't exactly local.  But when they do they may have a slew of questions for me.  Somehow I get bashful answering them, even though I encourage my students to ask me these things during our first lesson.  Somehow I would rather talk about my daughter or how she speaks English than my own history.

After 13 years in this country (plus one month, to be exact), I suppose I can still elicit questions.   "Is it hard to be away from your family?"  Yes.  "Do you like it here?"  Uh, depends on the day.  "Why did you come?"  For my husband.  Maybe I get tired of answering but they don't get tired of asking.

And I don't blame them.  I do the same when I meet another foreigner in France.  I barrage them with the same questions because I am curious, especially because I know what it's like to rip up your roots and plant yourself elsewhere.

Even Remi seems to forget we are "exotic" by being a "mixed" marriage.  When we saw a report about a Frenchman married to an Italian woman, he said, that must be funny to always have people asking about your accent and where you're from.  Yeah, like me, I said.

So I guess I'll have to get used to my tropical status.  I will always be that mom on the playground or schoolyard who talks to her kid in English.  The one who dresses up at work for Halloween.  The one who gives hugs to other Anglo colleagues instead of cheek kisses.  (Though I do the cheek kisses, too.)  Just call me Penelope Cruz or Shakira or, even, l'américaine.  That's me and I'll be happy to answer a few questions.  But just a few.

1 comment:

Lindle said...

I always thought you were "exotic," even as a child. And your shade of strawberry blonde hair really isn't that common. Most people "get" that color from a bottle of tint! Yours came naturally.
You were always fascinated with Europe--so it really isn't such a surprise that you have ended up there (for now). You truly do find the cultures on the other side of the pond exciting and have found a way to navigate and embrace all of it with a sense of wonder. That makes you even more exotic your American relatives!
And now you have a charming, slight French accent yourself, my dear! Ever so slight.