I’ll Have Fries with that, S’il Vous Plait

Gabrielle Pastorek is a senior majoring in creative writing and French. She is traveling to Avignon, France during Spring Quarter to study French and culture.

Interestingly, it has been during my travels to countries outside of France where I have discovered just how much I have grown accustomed to the French way of life, especially hearing and speaking the language every day. While in both Italy and the Netherlands, I have tried, mostly accidentally, to speak French with shopkeepers, hotel receptionists, people in the streets, etc. The words that most frequently flew out of my mouth before I could stop them were simple things like oui, excusez-moi, or merci. So it’s not like I was trying to spit out paragraphs of information at people who don’t speak French in French. But still, it’s confusing and embarrassing, at times, when others speak to me in languages I don’t know how to speak whatsoever and I so quickly answer in French. Most recently, in Amsterdam, when ordering a pain au chocolat (pastry with chocolate wrapped in the center) in a French café that I stumbled upon (more on that in a moment), I caught myself red-handed making the switch to French. It went something like this:

“Hello. A pain au chocolat, s’il vous plait, avec un café…

It was at about this point when I realized I had started speaking French, as the woman behind the counter was looking at me, somewhat annoyed, with a blank look on her face. I really hadn’t meant to offend her, nor did I want to be that American who thinks she can walk around any country speaking any language she so chooses. But what could I do? The language mishap had already happened, and what’s worse, I proceeded to speak to her in English with an American accent, so it’s not like I could have even passed as a French person…how embarrassing!

But before I go on, let me go back to the fact that I was walking through Amsterdam, not even looking for something to eat, and as soon as I saw a sign that read “French Café,” I immediately crossed through a crowd of people and walked inside. And before I even realized where my feet had brought me, I was sitting down with a pain au chocolat and a coffee in front of me. In Amsterdam.

After this experience in the café, I realized for the rest of the day—which I spent leisurely walking around the city—that I felt at home in France. During the few instances when I overheard people speaking French while I explored the city, I felt a surprisingly overwhelming urge to go up to them and speak French. It’s almost as if I’ve given up all hope of fitting in anywhere as an American—not that I’m embarrassed by the fact that I’m American, I just realize the cultural differences are far too vast to hide it—and I’ve instead temporarily adopted French culture as my own. This is a discovery that people had told me about before traveling abroad, but it really did take actually experiencing it for myself to fully believe it.

As I start to think about what it will be like to go back to America after having been in Europe for almost three months, I am just now beginning to believe that “reverse culture shock” does indeed exist. While I am excited to see my friends and family, I am not necessarily looking forward to having to get accustomed to life in America as an American! But all things considered, this experience has been unforgettable and I am happy to say that I, at least for a short while, felt right at home in France.


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