Vive La Différence! (Long Live Diversity!)

Guest post by Alexander Goodman (www.bigfishsquad.com)

Until 2009, I was an American.  More specifically, I was a self-avowed New Yorker.  I’d traveled all my life; my parents are zealous travelers, and instilled that in my sister and me from an early age.  So while I had seen much of the world by the time I hit my mid-twenties, I had never lived abroad.

Sure, I did my four-month study abroad stint in Florence — that was mainly a lot of pasta-eating and wine-drinking.  But I didn’t necessarily sink into the Italian culture enough to feel like I had truly lived there.

After being in New York City for 7 years, opportunity knocked.  A friend of mine invited me to go live at his uncle’s apartment in Paris while his uncle was away in Egypt managing business.

Without hesitation, I said yes.  Fast-forward eight months, and I was arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport with three massive suitcases, my pack, my daypack, my messenger bag…my life in bags.

I hoped to stay a year in France, but I realistically knew that it would probably only be a few months before my money ran out, what with French class, wine, cheese, bread, cigarettes; the (French) works.

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But, alas, as all great authors write about, love happened.  Yep, I met a girl.  From that first drink at a café in Madeleine in the center of Paris, I was hooked.  A gorgeous, worldly, chic, blonde, half-English, half-French girl, but born and raised in Paris?  Yes, please.  I’ll have seconds.

And I did.  Seconds, thirds, fourths…from that point on, life was about figuring out how we would make our relationship work.  We went from living in Paris, to planning to move to London (which didn’t work out due to visa issues), to staying in Paris, getting married, living, working, all planning to, one day, move to New York.

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That takes us right up to the present, with elapsed time to date being just over three years.  And as a byproduct of my only wanting to be in the same place as the girl I am in love with, I became — Frenchisized.  Frenchified?  Frenchied?  In any case, it has happened.

I am no longer just an American; I sort of now straddle a cultural line between America and France.  This manifests in a lot of different ways, from language, to humor, to basic social interactions, to problem solving.

I find myself quieter, more behaved and well mannered, less into TV, and more into talking to people, more out in the world, so to speak.  I consume less than I did in New York; I’m less wasteful.  I’m more into conserving, in every facet of my life.  This is all, believe it or not, quintessentially French; it’s not all decadence as we Americans are brought up to think about French culture.  Life here is just more simple, not all about consumption.

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That said, Americans have a unique warmth in our character that I try to preserve while living here.  Meeting Frenchies can be tough – there is, indeed, at times, a standard “cold” French exterior to break through.  And efficiency-wise?  Let’s just say Americans have the French beat when it comes to solving a problem…

Now, this didn’t all happen during one particular period of time; the process of truly assimilating to a foreign culture is perpetual.  It never stops.  You constantly, month by month, learn new things about your new country, your old one, yourself, your friends and family from home…and, ultimately, the world as a global community, one solid mass of human beings, co-existing in an ocean of diversity.

It is a fluid process.  You may feel one way in winter, and by summer you’ve learned something new, or had experiences, that make you realize that the initial impression you had wasn’t necessarily right.

This is particularly the case with the language.  Some months, I’m owning it – the conversations at the dinner table with French friends flows like a river, and I find myself surprised at how much French lives in my brain.  But other times, I struggle with it, constantly choking on my words, not being able to find them.  And sure enough, it all comes back eventually.  Learning a language takes time.  So it’s important to remember you will have some “down periods”.  Don’t get discouraged, and know that, probably next week, you’ll surprise yourself again.

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As the French saying goes, “vive la différence” – long live diversity!  Living abroad, in my opinion, only adds to the depth of your character, by diversifying it.  It’s important to embrace that, even if it means overcoming some adversity in the process.

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