L’Américaine

June 18, 2013

I don’t know what it is.

Is it the backpack that arouses suspicion? But I don’t always wear it.

It can’t be the camera either. Because I’ve been leaving that at the apartment after I realized I can take good-enough pictures with my iPhone at a fraction of the weight. Also, it’s so much easier to take a forbidden picture in a museum with your phone than your humongous camera. Especially when you were forced to put the camera into a locker upon entering the premises.

It could be the sheer number of children accompanying me. Most of my French counterparts seem to have stopped after one, perhaps two bébés. A group of four kids trailing their mother must look very exotic indeed. Though Zax is doing a good job keeping his distance so as not to really be seen with us.

Or it might be the teeth. I’ve always suspected that Americans can instantly be identified by their superb dental work when they travel to foreign lands. No one in the world can quite match the perfect pearly-white order radiating from an American’s mouth. Except I’ve had all my orthodontic work done in Germany where I grew up. and I also like to think that I don’t walk around Paris baring my teeth like a maniac.

God knows we've put enough money into those mouths so
that our smiles can look American

Perhaps it’s the way we dress. A bit sloppy and not like the French who would never leave the house in sweat pants. Then again, I suspect they all leave behind their houses in a very sloppy state, if the apartment we’re renting is anything to go by.

In any case, no matter where I go, before I even open my mouth to utter the perfect French sentence I’ve practiced in my head for the last five minutes, I am greeted in English.

It is SO frustrating. This didn’t happen when I was twelve years old and on a first of several exchanges in Rouen, France. Back then I fit in perfectly fine, chattering away in perfect French with the teachers and students I met at school, donning a white coat for chemistry class like everyone else, uttering curses when being beaten by my host father in ping-pong once again, and belting out French songs around a bonfire with my fellow girl scouts. The highlight of my entire trip was when an older boy on the train back to Germany told me I was pretty. In French.

But this time around, everyone seems to spot me as l’Américaine from a mile away. And I so don’t want to be spotted as an American. Because they are so easy to spot. I can usually tell from a mile away as well. But I don’t want to be like them. Plus, I speak French. If only somebody would let me open my mouth before telling me in English “That will be two Euro fifty.”

My German sister-in-law told me it might be the tennis shoes. No German would wear running shoes unless actually going jogging in them, she informed me. Which prompted me to look down and realize that if we were measured on that scale, we indeed stood out like sore thumbs.

All the Americans in the Metro

Busted! If we wanted to be spies, we'd first have to settle
for less comfortable footwear.

The only other pair of shoes I brought, being such an economical packer – please insert a derisive laugh by my husband here – is a pair of flip-flops. I tried wearing them one evening and almost killed myself on a series of slippery cobblestones followed by several steep flights of stairs.

And I’m pretty sure flip-flops are not the fashion of the day here in Paris either.

I’ve since become obsessed with looking at people’s feet and listening in on their conversations, to determine what kinds of shoes the French wear. If I’ve missed out on the actual sights looming above, please forgive me. Or maybe those sights are what's to blame here. The French probably don’t flock to the Eiffel Tower on a Saturday. And if they go to the Musee d’Orsay, they probably have the good sense to do it on the first Sunday of the month, when most Parisian museums are free.

So perhaps I should go to the Galleries Lafayettes and buy some fashionable high heels along with a harmonica, and do the cancan at the next street corner while singing Edith Piaf songs.

I’m sure many American tourists would stop and watch. They’d all be wearing sneakers and smile at me with perfect teeth.

Then I could tell them “Zat ville bee two Euro fiftiie.”

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