The Frenchwoman had a Catherine de Neuve-type grace as she suddenly reached across the snug neighboring table and picked up a stranger’s glass of wine. With a quick swirl and posit beneath her nose, “it’s too young,” she declared in English. “This wine has no soul.”
Thus, the suitably palatable 2012 Burgundy lost its appeal. And it was just another Saturday night out in Paris’ 18th arrondissement for the madame. In the crowded neighborhood restaurant after 9 p.m., hungry patrons were packed into small banquettes like sardines, and I must have stuck out like an apple pie in a boulangerie. As much as I attempted to keep my abrasive “r’ pronunciations to a hum and blend in as if I was just another Parisian—blushingly declining the maître d’s offer of an English menu—I clearly wasn’t fooling anyone. It was such a delightful surprise that my boisterous neighbor was so eager to interact with the anglophile friends beside her.
I have this preconceived notion that Americans aren’t all that welcome in some European urban locales, and I always try my hardest to blend in, instead of embracing my own cultural background. The Paris I visited this past week was vastly different from the one I saw on my last visit, almost five years ago. The city of love is still reeling from the tragic terrorist attacks it endured just a few months ago. The security presence in the transit centers is noticeably more pronounced, not just with added personnel, but also with metal detectors to go through in advance of boarding regional trains, and passport screening upon debarkation. Tourism has taken a hit, according to residents, and everywhere I went, the locals were much more eager to engage with me in my native tongue than from what I remember before.
There was the barmaid debating with one of her regulars where my accent was from (they guessed Canadian), the jewelry artisan that beamed with pride that a New York lady complimented his work, and overall, there was an increased willingness to slip right into English, a language the French stereotypically avoid. Maybe I’d forgotten how much they detest crude communication attempts effectively butchering their beloved language, but in general, I felt so much more welcomed as myself than I expected.
While it’s crucial to embrace different cultural practices when traveling abroad or doing business across country lines, I was reminded of the equally important value in being true to who and what I am. It’s nice to blend in with foreigners, and I enjoy the fantasy of pretending I’m someone else sometimes. But we need to take pride in our own identities in the end. Knowing your true self, and it’s worth, involves abandoning the fear of misconception or judgment. There’s a lot we can learn about each other when we open our ears and hearts and minds across cultural divides.