Giving my heart to France
I’ve been living in France for five years, one of which was spent with an Anglophone ex-boyfriend who never really understood how France had gotten so far under my skin. To be honest, I didn’t understand it completely myself.
I fell in love with tiny things: people carrying their morning baguettes home, children calling after one another in impossibly perfect French. But I was an observer, a foreigner.
I wanted to become a part of the world I was witnessing, to crawl into the concrete of Paris’ sidewalks, to burrow into the sand that lined the beaches of Cannes. I wanted to hold my breath and plunge headfirst into the snowdrifts along the Alpine ski trails and let them surround me entirely.
I wanted to love it all from the inside, to allow the nonchalance that can exist only for natives, replace the novelty and wonder I still felt.
My boyfriend had loved France once, but he was tired of it, ready to go somewhere new. I was inspired by his love of adventure and the possibility of a new place that would be just a name, untainted by previous experience.
But, la francité marred our relationship the day that, out of boredom or interest, we decided to speak in our common foreign tongue. I was shocked to silence when he begged me to stop after just a few minutes.
“You’re not you in French.” I wanted clarification. What I got was a non-committal series of adjectives that contradicted one another – “more girly”, “meaner”, “it’s just different.” I didn’t know what it meant, but we didn’t speak French anymore.
Time passed; we separated. I moved to Spain – to change – and then home, because I thought I was supposed to.
I didn’t miss France, not at first, not until I found myself catching a stolen whiff of the scent of a familiar cologne-and-wine combination on a stranger and holding my breath to keep it. I began to miss the ease with which things now foreign had been normal — door codes, ashtrays, baguettes, metro tickets.
I wandered through my New York life, getting to know my childhood home after nine years in absentia, but France was on my mind.
I never planned to fall in love with a Frenchman, though I suppose it was the perfect solution to a problem I couldn’t name. I was too long gone from America to ever be pulled entirely back. I would have lost half my heart if I’d left France in the past.
Instead, my heart is half in the murky shadows of a second language, the words that don’t mean exactly what you want them to mean, the expressions that go misunderstood. Halfway between English and French is a language cobbled together, a language that exists for no one else, a language that seems lacking in the rich expression of my mother tongue and my adopted lingua franca, both.
I imagined once that I would be enveloped in France, that I would become a part of it, and it of me. The second is true. I think it’s what so scared bilingual boyfriend: witnessing the arrival of a French me, just beginning to take form.
But no matter how long I stay, there is still a part of France that eludes me, a part that remains irrevocably étrangère. A part that, I fear, may never know what it’s like to be a part of the place that has captured half of my heart.
1. French architecture, by caribb, on Flickr
2. – 4. Emily Monaco
I loved ,loved your story. I fell in love with Paris on my first trip in 2007. I wasn’t prepared for what would become a life changing experience. It changed me from a snapshooter into a photographer and it captured my heart. I’ve been 7 times since. Never enough, never long enough to satisfy. Every time I leave, I leave a piece of my heart behind. So it will be……
Thank you so much for the courage of sharing this with us!
It’s incredible how sometimes we feel at home in a foreign country. You are not alone in feeling this. And it is a great experience: you know where you want to go now.
Are you planning on coming back to Paris to live?
Your article really talked to me.
Glad you wrote it. Thanks.