personal essay travel

Mon frère habitera à Paris. Or, Expatriating with grace.

My brother has a “phobia” of looking like a foreigner. (He told me so himself.)

Now, I can almost understand. I hate looking like a tourist. I get self-conscious with my accent echoing in my own ears and all the wrong currencies falling out of my pockets.  I feel single-handedly responsible for over-turning all the stereotypes about loud Americans. I refuse to patronise international chains and I’ve been known to duck into a doorway to surreptitiously peer at the directions that I’ve discretely scrawled on my hand. I don’t carry a guide-book in public. (Actually, I don’t carry one at all.) I pride myself on not standing out too painfully: I can, and enjoy, eating like a local, commuting like a local and usually waiting like a local – emphasis, it should be noted, on the word “like”.

My brother takes “not standing out” to an entirely new level. He takes my simile and turns it into a metaphor. He is dignity and assimilation.

I don’t really try to travel with dignity. (Backpacking through “exotic” destinations far enough “off the beaten path”  kind of beats that out of you. Courtesy? Yes. Dignity? Hah.) I’ve rarely travelled anywhere that didn’t require multiple immunisations and ten hour bus trips and elaborate pantomimes with giggling children. I don’t pack make-up and blending in tends to be a cause lost somewhere on the other side of the equator. (On that note, I’ve yet to do much travelling in western cities – Europe or America – and it would probably make a difference.)

My brother had just moved to Paris to start university – and intends on staying three years, if not the rest of his life. He’s renting a room in a house in Asnieres-Gennevillier and I stayed with a family friend in Montreuil (suburbs on opposite sides of the city – over an hour apart on the metro). He’ll be studying Serbo-Croatian (no, I never managed to get a clear answer as to why – other than his desire for complete mastery of all languages – Serbo-Croatian just happening to be up next – and eventual world domination) at the Sorbonne (his French being already fluent – of course) and switching into Linguistics for the third year.

It was a couple of weeks before he was to start classes so we wandered around Paris – hunting out bookstores and getting lost. We listened to French covers of Leonard Cohen. Headed towards more museums than we ever made it inside of – kept getting distracted (bookstores!) en route and diverting. I dragged him into cafes to actually sit down for a dinner out (since I was, you know, travelling as a, like, tourist – this was acceptable – just barely) and forced desert and wine upon him.

Actually getting to Paris, and to Scott, was a mission of rescheduled-delayed flights, my frequent failures at exchanging money and boarding trains in an intuitive manner – but I made it to the house where he’s staying. Arrived about my midnight and found the family just finishing dinner. They fed me and we sat around talking about everything from Lasceaux and rock art to university students’ binge drinking to American puritanism – back and forth in English and French. I was rambling, with surprising speed (not to say accuracy) in more French than I would have expected of myself – ocassionally remembering, every time I slowed down and heard myself,  that I hadn’t spoken any French in over three years and really shouldn’t have been able to – at which points I panicked and lost it all again. I nearly fine when I didn’t focus on it too directly. (Actually, think my French was best the first night – wonder what that says about language and self-consciousness, confidence and memory.)

The first day, I performed a few big-sisterly-duties to justify the trip: Took him to the shop and we stocked his shelf in the kitchen with all the basics (first time I’ve spent more than three hours in a grocery store). Taught him how to make a tortilla (Spanish omelette) and (psuedo)empanadas. The parents went out that night – so we felt brave enough to sneak into the kitchen – ended up making dinner for the boys (one thirteen, one a uni student home for the weekend).

I’d heard that there were free concerts at St. Eustache and had never been to the Sacre Coeur – so Sunday, we followed music through churches.

The Sacre Coeur is, of course, gorgeous. A choir of nuns sang as we entered, as we slowly circled around (feeling minuscule beneath to the marble pillars and stained glass) and then sat to listen as mass began.

On the way out we found a wind and brass ensemble in the park below – a lively group of people looking indescribably, and cheerfully, French. Retirees and teenagers playing in the rain under a large tree –  pop songs (from the 50s? 70s?), I think, that most of the audience seemed to recognize.

We ran off towards St. Eustache – snuck in a back door a little late. Every seat was taken with people lined up against the back pillars. St. Eustache is, as the women who worked the gift shop at the Sacre Coeur that we asked for directions pointed out, a church – not a cathedral. It was nonetheless impressive. Older than Sacre Coeur, as large or larger than cathedrals I’ve been into, impressively Gothic. It was amazing. Organ music is, I think, easily filtered out as background – I mean, I’m sure that I’ve heard it, plenty of times; I’m not sure that I’ve ever really listened to it before – particularly not as music (as opposed to as a mood, or a setting). The music paused for a moment and the crowd thinned; we nabbed a couple of seats and sat with our necks craned.

The organ was behind us and above; we sat in the nave and stared into the apse (thank you Wikipedia; think I slept through Art History when we got to Christian architecture). The front of the church was fluted, bevelled, the stones carved into long tall grooves. I had the impression of being sat in a stone waterfall, as the columns gracefully descended. The organ burbled up from below – if the earth could sing, it would have been with that voice. The sun began to set. The chandeliers poured light into the channels. It was an excercise in contrast – a demonstration of line – salvation in the act of delineation, where the lit met that which was shadowed. The music was a physical presence; a foundation.


I had to make a pilgrimage to the Louvre and Scott had errands to run – a phone card to buy, papers to sign, and packages to try to get out of customs. Neither of us had a phone. “I’ll meet you at Winged Victory at 4p,” I said. It was a plan  perhaps more poetic than practical. After paying my respects to the Lamassu and Hammurabi’s Code and wandering through the “Oriental” section wishing that two years of studying archaeology at university had involved learning to read even a little bit of cuneiform, I waited for Scott. And waited. And waited. I called the house – no Scott – and began to wonder how I was going to explain to my mother that I’d lost him at the Louvre. I waited for the last tourist to dawdle out of the museum and, finally, went back to the house – no Scott – but a phone number. He had, apprently, decided to spend the day at Shakespeare & Co rather than meet me at the Louvre.

Paris, at least, is a fine city in which to be alone. It does lonely with aplomb.

I made him spend the evening on the “tourist” side of town, wandering the river banks and the Latin Quarter. We found the Belle Hortense – a bookstore/bar that I’d heard about. It’s a tiny little place that sells only books in French. They do readings and discussion groups there, with a warning on the website that readings are in “rapid and colloquial French, only”. It has an intimate feel; most of the people in there seem to be good friends; we got the impression we were crashing. Scott whispered to me and I whispered back and, after arguing about who had less right to feel embarrassed if trying to order at the bar (him, as he spoke French or me, as I’ve ordered from bars before); we called it a draw and left.


I managed to get one photo (forgot the card for my camera, had to beg Scott’s) of the two of us – outside of Notre Dame. Somewhere (I’ll have to find it over Christmas) there is a picture (a real physical hard-copy – oh, I miss photos) of the two of us there in 2000. I would have been 11, Scott 8. (It is, as I recall, a terrible picture. We’re both grimacing into the sun and angry at having to pose.) But it was the first time we were in France.

We didn’t make it to the Musee d’Orsay or the Picasso Museum – just wandered around, instead. (Found a mind-blowingly incredible bookstore on L’ile de St. Louis that I haven’t stopped talking about. It carries only Archaeology and History books – amazing books; books whose equivalent, in English, would have to be ordered directly from the publisher – if they’re published at all. Excavation and site reports. Everything palaeo in France. Giant coloured coffee table books with amazing photographs of rock art sites in Borneo, sites that I hadn’t even heard of – and a section of Ancient and Extinct Languages.)

We picnicked in the Place des Vosges before I left. Bottle of wine (that I couldn’t take back with me), cheese (that I could!), baguettes, pastries, salted fish, pate, fruit, and chocolate. It was simple – and probably the best meal I’ve had in ages. We spread out a sarong (yes, I always travel with one) and our coats and leaned against my backpack and continued debating what type of travel it was, if any, that we are doing – and how fully immersed one can become into different cultures.

Scott intends to become as “perfectly French” as possible. He aims to be “able to pass” without comment. No accent, no mannerisms, no hesitations.  (We think his ability is a rare gift; he thinks that its merely a matter of effort and willpower and that anyone, at any time, can become completely fluent and indistinguishable from a native speaker – if they try hard enough. We’ve spent hours arguing on it. I gave up when he started quoting things I don’t remember saying when I was 14 – apparently, I told him it was impossible and he took it as a challenge… More power to him if he proves me wrong – but it’s not really fair to be quoted that far back; all big sisters say silly things at that age.)

I’d hate to be mistaken for a “tourist”  rather than a “traveller” – but I’m completely aware that, while there are deep down and significant ideological questions of behaviour – any distinction other than the length of your stay is largely semantic. When you’re new, you’re new; when you’re foreign, you’re foreign, and when you’re passing through, you’re passing through – no matter how conscientously you attempt to do so – nor with how much grace. And I’ve no delusions about being, for the most part, particularly graceful.

Time is what makes the real difference – the length of your stay, more than your budget or your ideology – determines whether you’re a tourist, a traveler, a visitor or… an expat. I do live in England. I live here. As a foreigner. And I’ve mostly come to peace with that. I make sure to point out, within seconds flat of anyone commenting on my accent, that I’ve been living in Bristol for two years. My brother was disappointed with me for not having an English accent (which English accent?!) yet but I feel like its a question of identity and authenticity. I’ve held onto my (American) accent despite letting it soften: I feel at home here, but to pick up an accent – or the full set of mannerisms – would feel like a masquerade, as if I were trying to co-opt something which I haven’t earned – and wouldn’t, likely, be able to live up to. Regardless of how well one can learn a second language, there’s always the issue of cultural mindset – perspective.

What he sees as being a perennial outsider, I see as having a unique vantage point from which to observe.

“I would hate that, hate living like you do,” my brother tells me. “Don’t you hate being seen as a foreigner?” he asked. I tried to deny that I’m seen as one but I’d just finished citing examples. (He catches me when I contradict myself after seven years; five minutes would have been pushing it.) I don’t think that I’m treated as one, not by anyone who matters, not in any way that really matters. (The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I might be exploiting the situation a bit. Judging people. Gauging their reactions. Letting them underestimate me. Using it as an excuse – for missing the punchline of a joke or not catching the pop culture reference.) At any rate, I’m fine with being a foreigner.  I’d feel like one in the States – so why not wear it on my sleeve, through the rest of the world? Feels more honest than any attempt at conformity.

My brother has a completely opinion.

He spits out the word “expat” with the same disgust that I say “tourist”.

But then, he’s always been more patient – more careful, more precise, and far, far more dignified – than me.

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