At the beginning of my time here, I felt like I had two very different personalities, my American one and my French one. My French personality was shy, and I am definitely not shy.
I am outgoing, friendly and confident. I am pretty much all up in your face with my opinions.
But something about not being able to speak the language as well as I would’ve liked changed me in ways I didn’t like. I didn’t say anything when I saw people littering. I didn’t speak up when I heard people make sexist or racist or anti-gay comments.
I lost a little bit of myself in trying to make new French friends and speak French well and be French.
Back in March, FBF and I were walking home from a house party in Lille. It was late, around 3am, and we took rue Solferino, the main bar and club street, on our way back to my studio.
I saw a girl crying, surrounded by 5 guys, 4 of whom were dressed in France’s version of gangster attire: colorful sporting shoes, puffy jackets, and hoodies.
At first I kept on walking, even though in the US I would never have allowed that to happen. I would have made sure the girl was okay. I realized this and I made a decision.
I wasn’t going to let my inability to speak French perfectly let this girl be taken advantage of by a bunch of up-to-no-good guys.
I turned around, walked right up to the group of them, looked at the girl, and said, “ça va?” (Are you okay?)
She kept on crying while one of the gangsters replied, “oui ça va, pourquoi ça va pas? On fait rien.” (She’s fine, why wouldn’t she be? We’re not doing anything.)
So I looked him in the eyes and I said, “je vois une fille qui pleure avec 5 mecs autour d’elle et je veux être sûre que ça va.” (I see a girl who’s crying with five guys around her and I just want to be sure she’s okay)
They immediately started back pedaling. “On fait rien. Allez, appellez les policiers! On fait rien du tout!” (We’re not doing anything. Feel free to call the cops! We’re not doing anything wrong).
Although they claimed to be doing nothing wrong, after my intervention, they decided that their time would be best spent elsewhere. After a minute there was just one guy with the girl, and he wasn’t dressed in gangster clothes. He seemed to be the friend who was comforting her. I asked a final, “ça va?” and the girl nodded her head.
Having done my part to make sure everything was okay, I walked away feeling better about my life here. I hadn’t let my limited language skills inhibit me from doing what was right.
Although my American personality has been shining through in my French life more and more as time passes, this final test really cemented it in my mind.
I could be both.
Of course living abroad changes you and presents you with challenges you could never have dreamt up if you had chosen to live at home, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have the best of both worlds. I can speak French, eat cheese, and still stand up for what I believe is right by approaching random gangster looking guys to make sure a fellow woman isn’t being taken advantage of.
I can still be American Laura, even when I’m speaking French.