Lessons from Friends: French Flatmates

The following is a phone note I recently found while searching for my Apple password (yes I keep a running list of my passwords in my phone notes and if you don't well then brag about it I guess) and forgot I had written, regarding a quiet revelation I had while sitting around a dinner table with French flatmates-made-friends.

I think it has finally clicked. Not by my own doing but by the brilliant kindness of others have I realized the secret to being okay whilst in a magical mystical foreign land where incompetence tries daily to creep in and threaten my inner security—

It happened while I was at dinner the other night with 20 or so other Unistra students, all of whom live in my building, all of whom are French / speak French, and all have overwhelmingly welcomed me into their day-to-day even though I can’t say more than three words when they pass me on the stairs and ask me how I’m doing.

I was sitting there, and all of them in the area around me were speaking English (French people claim that they can’t speak English and then they go and have a three hour conversation with you about American politics in near-perfect diction), and I was laughing and smiling and being MYSELF (key side note: for some reason, when I’m in a foreign place, I tend to turn into some sort of shy person and I hyper-observe, giving little input. I think it’s a defense mechanism while in new places, which I know is normal but I’ve always felt rather imprisoned by it, thus my realizing an uninhibited self in that moment was a very significant revelation) and when a certain -- unmemorable now -- word was lost in translation, I simply made an “Aaahhh sorry” face, resignedly expecting the subject to be changed. Yet, for well over a few minutes, they went back and forth, deliberating vigorously until eventually they found a worthy equivalent, refueling a conversation which continued for what felt like minutes but was in reality hours.

Usually I hate that: for people to go out of their way for me, to have to put forth extra effort because, for example, I can’t speak their language. It’s quite miserable and exhausting to pretend like I understand 100% and nod my head and laugh along and be on guard with my facial expressions just so that someone doesn’t catch any glimmer of confusion in my eyes... So that they don’t see weakness.

But here, now, it’s been different. Maybe because I’m absolutely and utterly DUMB when it comes to French pronunciation and so I don’t even want to try, which liberates me to embrace the fact that I speak English and makes it my only option for necessarily communicating. Or, it’s the willingness of these beautiful, patient people to accept me, an idiot American girl who cannot speak French to save her baguettes, just as I am, and more, be eager to speak my language all the same.

It clicked because I realized that often before (in Spain, etc.), I have tried to put up this front of “non-tourist” and my best “I’m competent” face, adapting a seriousness about me in an effort to be taken seriously, which totally counteracts my TRUE SELF, which is almost always self-deprecating (if that isn't obvious HAHA) and making mistakes left and right and laughing nonetheless. My desire to be a “local”— while totally valid because I was living there with the intention of staying long term so I wanted to prove myself from the start— actually really damaged my ability to connect and integrate. Here, I am unapologetically an exchange student. I am enrolled in a program, with a bustling bunch of (really rad) Erasmus students, and we speak English. And even with most of them, English is not their first language and honestly I could let myself feel like shit when they switch from German to Polish to Italian to Finnish and are on their way to French before I can say “tarte flambé,” but again I embrace the facts that I am American; I am an English-speaker; I am not European; I am a foreigner.

What a liberation. As we were sitting, talking, I felt the need to give more, to extend myself as they extended themselves doubly just to have a conversation with me. But I quite literally could not. There was nothing I could do but listen and reply and enjoy the company. And so I did. And I became very sure of myself, in a way that felt very empowering. Of course I deeply desire to learn French (and I will), but I don’t have to do so in order to prove myself here. Who I am now IS myself. And that is enough. And having another language under my belt, or a new understanding of some foreign culture or concept; these things do not make me any more valuable (inherent-worth-speaking, though it's for sure going on my resume lol). These beautiful people have taught me that. That a person is worth struggling to find the words to speak with. I am so grateful.

As I read this back to myself, I recall numerous dinner parties and casual evenings with friends in foreign countries. Each time, when a language barrier has been at play, there has always been an added element of inner reflection. Always. I think that, while yes these French flatmates were uniquely welcoming, the key here was that I was (and still am) finally learning to truly trust the hospitality of people who know straight up that I have nothing to offer them in return.

I find it incredibly meaningful that our friends seem to hold these small, unassuming keys to unlocking something within us. When we are met with acceptance, we find acceptance within ourselves. And vice versa. When we are met with sincere connective effort (coming solely from a place of genuine eagerness), we have all the more energy to return that effort, and in a way that sustains itself. Accepting acceptance is not an easy act. Being a foreigner is a complex experience — as is returning home.

We can so often, so easily, find ourselves lost by denying help to find our way. Somewhere, available for you, there is an offering at a table. Have dinner with friends. XO