Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Reverse Culture Shock... ever had it?


I know I have. This morning I read this blogger's post about reverse culture shock. It brought back a lot of memories for me.

I have always been "good at French." My Dad says that my Grandma used to speak French to me when I was little, but I have no recollection of that. In grade school, we took Latin and French classes. I got it. In high school, French class was the only class for which I specifically remember sitting down to do my homework (I'm lucky I'm smart or I never would have graduated due to that whole "lack-of-studying" thing). When I went to college, I ended up in a French class though I don't think it was a requirement. Then, fate stepped in and my (get this) Great Aunt died and left me some money.

During my 20th year I moved to Paris. France. For school. It was an opportunitiy I never thought would come my way. We were not rich. My family was a living disaster. After 11 years of living with an abusive Step-monster and a clinically depressed father, the Step-monster moved out the week before I was scheduled to leave for Paris.

I left for France with an opportunity to start fresh. A fresh start.... now that's something we don't often get.

In my first weeks in Paris I met and moved in with a family with whom I still communicate with and adore to this day. I was the AuPair (French version of a Nanny) for their four children ages 11, 8,7 and 1 year. My Family, as I came to call them, lived in a little but beautifully appointed apartment in the 17th.

My room was in a building down the street in the 8th. It was a 7th floor walk-up and no bigger than your average bathroom in the US. I had a single twin matress on the floor, a desk, a dresser and a cold water sink. The shared toilette was down the hall. The best part was, my floor to cieling windows looked across the courtyard to the back of a music school from where classical music often streamed in fairy-tale like waves. If I climbed out the window onto the little 2 foot by 2 foot ledge and leaned waaaaaay out, I could see the Eiffel Tower. There's really nothing like it at night when it's all lit up.

That year was the best year of my life. I was dirt poor with only $300 a month to live on for food, phone card, transportation and any shopping I wanted to do. This was in the days before every teenager had a credit card and a cell phone in their pocket. I was poor, but I didn't notice. I was in Paris. And I had wings.

I walked everywhere. I went to school at the Universite de la Sorbonne. I met people from all over the world in my classes. I made a good friend in a woman journalist from Iran. She was in Paris because she'd written a book investigating an Iranian Head of State's mistress who'd disappeared. Then she had to disappear or end up disappearing herself.

There was a man from Algeria, the former French colony. A whole mess of Americans, a Canadian guy we all adored and a bunch of other Europeans, including one Spanish diplomat's daughter.

I lived, laughed, travelled and did silly things that a young American girl is supposed to do while living abroad and every evening I would travel to The Children's schools to pick them up, feed them dinner, get their homework done and get their baths done. FYI...French people actually bathe everyday, it's just that thier deodorant doesn't have anti-persprant; hence the Extra-Special Metro Funk.

I loved those children. I remember more about my time with them than I do with most of my friends in Paris.

That family loved eachother. Grand-pere lived in the apartment downstairs where he spent time with Jacqueline, his "Amie". Madame, who bade me call her by her Christian name worked for IBM France, and Monsieur, who made me laugh incessantly with his attempts to appear taller than me, was in the Music industry. He was a Count and she a Countess. While they say the Nobility in France is gone and meaningless, that's not true. It still means very much.

They were/are loving gracious people who accepted me into their family with open arms and no questions. They took me on vacation with them, they bought me a Christmas present when I could afford none for them or their children, and they laughed, teased and complimented me in ways that I desperately needed during a year when the news that came from "home" seemed so desolate. They grounded me and gave me a safe place from which I could spread my wings.

After I extended my "year" abroad as long as I possibly could, I had to return "home". To Chicago.

Now don't misunderstand: I love Chicago. In the grand scheme of cities that one might call home, I'm pretty lucky. Chicago is a big, friendly, international city with LOTS of options for making a difference. BUT, when I returned home I felt lost. I missed my friends, my freedom, (my French boyfriend), and my new found sense of self.

You see, I'd grown up a lot in that year abroad and when I came home, I was supposed to step back into the role I'd left behind.

Then there was the whole American Experience itself that suddenly seemed so foreign to me. Americans live large and loud. I was shocked and pained by how LOUDLY everyone spoke. How BIG were the gestures and how IN YOUR FACE people can seem to be when you're suddenly immersed in your own language after a time apart. It's amazing how much information we can take in without realizing.

When I'd been home about one week, I remember crossing the street near my Dad's house, standing on the corner, looking up at the sky and feeling absolute desperation. Not for my lost love or anything so trite as all that (I wasn't THAT in love). Just desperation for the loss of culture, history and belonging that the country and My Family had instilled in me.

It was the little things that I missed the most. An aperitif before dinner (a small cocktail). A cup of coffee in tete-a-tete with a girlfriend. The ability to spot travelling Americans (Germans, English) from 500 yards, simply by the way they move their mouths when they speak. A warm croissant from the vendor in the Metro station each morning (best croissants in Paris).

Standing on that corner in the middle of Logan Boulevard, I was a stranger in a strange land. I know reverse culture shock, sometimes I still do... How about you?

3 Comments:

Anonymous Lynae said...

Yeah. I had a REALLY hard time coming home to live after a year of school in Spain.

I had to go back to college for a semester to finish up a few classes and I was completed distressed by the how drunk people got at the bar. Mind you, I did the same thing a year before, but in Spain, drinking is social...not a race to get drunk.

No one got how much I had changed, and to this day, my best friends are those that were in Spain with me. All the others have drifted away - or I from them.

Living in Spain is still to this day one of the best things I ever did.

9:45 AM  
Anonymous Lynae said...

I forgot to mention that I get it again when I go home to Iowa....but in a different way.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Donna Boucher said...

Just stopping by after reading a comment you left at Wendy's...

This is such a delightful post!

We will be going to Paris in the Spring and I loved reading your story.

Donna

9:56 AM  

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