You never realize how American-to-the-core you are until you are living abroad and your stars & stripes come gallantly streaming to the surface in the most surprising ways.
Growing up in the US, peers ask each other “what” they are. And the correct answer is always your grandparents’ birthplace. In my case: Russia. Western Russia, right outside of St. Petersburg where there is still a valley that bears my family name. I’m Russian even though I’ve never been there and the few words of Russian I know were not lovingly passed down from my grandparents, but rather gleaned during the Reagan administration. Still that tenuous connection is enough for every American, because we’re all secretly and perversely proud to be something else that is not American.
When I moved to France 13 years ago, I was nothing but American to each and every person I met. The French can’t even distinguish East Coast from West Coast, so everyone who was born and lived in America is American. Geographic affiliations and grandparents be damned.
Being American, I was also responsible for the deterioration of the ozone layer, nefarious secret capitalist agendas and trite pop-culture imperialism. I did however get to take credit for rock and roll.
When Bush was elected, I faked Canadian for 8 years. (It totally worked. No one knows where Manitoba is).
From the start I avoided American communities and really strove for full integration. I was an American with Russian heritage who wanted to be French. And so it was surprising that by the end of my time abroad, after 13 years living and working as a regular ol’ Parisian, fully fluent and fully integrated into not just daily life, but also into high society and even a certain level of national celebrity, I was surprised when the long-suppressed American in me popped out.
It was usually about baseball.
You never realize how much baseball lingo one uses until you’re faced with a nation that’s never seen a baseball game.
There is no French equivalent to “getting to third base.” The very notion of ranking sexual acts in graduated steps and then codifying them in sports language is bizarre and ridiculous.
I was trying to break up with a boyfriend by telling him, “No way, no more chances! You’ve had three strikes, you’re out!”
He was baffled. Because I had to explain what a “strike” was. And why only three? Why not four? (Really, why not four?) Or two? And how many were there in cricket? Couldn’t we use cricket rules because he was pretty sure they had at least 5 strikes?
When I refused to play cricket and wanted him to pack up his stuff and get out of my apartment, he accused me of being competitive.
Actually, I was demonstrating good sportsmanship, but if he couldn’t understand basic baseball rules, he was not going to get a concept as complex as sportsmanship since it implied a certain level of respect and morality, two qualities of which he was devoid.
You can’t tell your friends you’re getting up for a “seventh inning stretch” (innings don’t exist in France, although they do have four quarters in soccer games. There is a half time, but no stretching is required).
You can’t worry that you’re going to get stuck in the outfield on this new team project, because explaining that more balls go to the shortstop, the most desirable position, would take days, many hand gesticulations and perhaps a diagram.
And you can’t even “bring it home,” because really, that “home” refers to home base. And bases are only a military term.
What frustrated me about the situation was not the lack of understanding, it was the complete indifference to really clever and evocative idioms and blatant disregard to my country’s favorite national past time.
I made great efforts to become well versed in French idiom and slang. I was fou furieuse (crazy mad) when le type (some dude) I had niqué (fucked) the weekend before m’a posé un lapin (stood me up or literally, posed a rabbit) and it took me forever to find a un taco (taxi) to get back home.
And if I could correctly use “pose un lapin” with comfort and certainty —because each use was a huge leap of faith…what the hell did rabbits have to do with getting stood up?!— Then why couldn’t they understand “three strikes you’re out?”
It’s because French people are stubborn and arrogant. You heard it here first.
French idioms I like:
French idioms I like:
Malin comme un requin (clever like a shark). It rhymes. It was also funny to make a pun on it because ‘Ricaine the slangy word for “American” sounds a bit like requin, the word for shark. I was a very clever American shark indeed.
Boire comme un trou (Drink like a hole). Holes don’t drink, but neither do fish. Although fish do take water in through their mouths, which is more than can be said for a hole.
Mal aux cheveux. (Literally: a hair-ache). This one makes way more sense than a “hang over.” I vote we adopt and integrate this into English asap. The other slang word for hang over is a gueule de bois, or “wooden face.”
And in France you’re never shit faced or wasted, you’re bourré(e) (stuffed).
But if you’ve eaten too much and you announce that you’re pleine (full), you’ve just told everyone that you’re pregnant. So it’s better to way that you have bien mangée (eaten well).