Great news! I am no longer the most bizarre thing to happen to the little village of Cadenet.
For years, I was. No question about it. There are certainly other foreigners living here, but I am the only American to call it home. And despite the fact that in the States you rarely hear the words “the French” without the words “hate us” immediately following them, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, coming from the land of blue jeans, Coca-Cola, hip-hop music, “Friends,” McDonald’s, Harley-Davidson, Hollywood, cowboys, the Blues and “Sex and the City” made me rather exotic to the locals. And it didn’t hurt that I looked the part, too. I was young(ish) and blonde, which is what the French expect a real American to be. And unlike the the boring elderly couples who usually move to the South of France to run out the clock, I wasn’t coming here to die, I was moving here to live, and they couldn’t wait to see how I was going to do it.
I was a subject of fascination, to be sure, but not in the same way that everyone is fascinated by the new kid in second grade and competes to befriend her. It was more like being the new kid in high school, when everyone already has all the friends they need and the interest is in observing you from a distance to see if you’ll wear something weird or say something stupid and give everyone something to talk about at lunchtime. If my sources are to be believed, there was actually some wagering going on. When they heard that I was moving from Chicago to a house in the countryside and that my French wasn’t even good enough to get a job here, some bet that I wouldn’t last a year. It gives me some satisfaction to know that those who believed in me made a little money at the expense of those who didn’t.
But believers or not, they all kept an eye on me. They noted what I bought at the bakery and what I ordered at the café. They talked about what I picked up at the pharmacy and speculated about which salon I would choose to cut my hair. My preferences stopped being a matter of individual taste and became cultural characteristics. When I asked for a baguette “pas trop cuit,” the lady at the bakery replied, “Ah, yes, that’s how Americans like their bread.” I wanted to correct her; to say, “No, no, that’s just how I like my bread. You can’t assume that all Americans share the same tastes as me.” At the time, though, my ability to communicate such a thought in French was pretty poor and there was a long line behind me. So I just paid for my baguette and left, reflecting on the awesome responsibility of being the cultural representation of a nation of 300 million people and wondering exactly how bad I was going to end up making us all look.
Then we bought a new car, and the tongues really started wagging. Oh my God, did you see it? It’s so expensive and fancy! And it’s huge! Just look at the size of that thing! They must be planning to have a family, what other reason could there be for such an enormous car? But then again, all Americans are rich and extravagant, you know. What I found impressive about this incident was that with one single purchase, I had managed to both shock them and reinforce their preconceived notions at the same time. And with just a Volkswagen Passat. Not bad.
I also remember the dinner party at which I expressed frustration that the washer and dryer we had ordered still hadn’t been delivered. Polite curiosity followed. A dryer? Why did I want a dryer? Well, so I don’t have to hang all the clothes outside to dry. But why don’t you want to do that? Well, it’s time-consuming, and everything comes back all wrinkly and needing to be ironed. And you don’t want to iron? …Wait a minute. Was this a trick question? Of course I don’t want to iron. Who wants to iron? Certainly not me. I don’t think I have ironed since the early nineties. Things that need ironing go to the dry cleaner, thank you very much. And before that, my college roommate would occasionally exchange her ironing services for my homework services. The exchange rate was about five shirts per assignment, though this would vary depending on whether or not there were a lot of essay questions or difficult fabrics.
But I was not going to tell the French all of this.
Unfortunately, there was really no way out of answering the question, though. They already knew that a dryer was on its way to our house. “Um, no, I guess I don’t like ironing much,” I said, trying to sound vague and casual but knowing deep down that I had just condemned every hapless tourist whose linen pants came out of the suitcase looking a bit rumpled to a litany of criticism. “Just look at that,” the French would say to one another over their morning coffee. “Shameful. But then, what do you expect? Americans don’t iron their clothes.”
So they watched me, discussed me and judged me for nearly three years. It made me feel like a kind of low-level celebrity. Not the kind that people ask for an autograph or want to get their picture taken with, but the kind that has to make an effort to look presentable in public, otherwise someone is sure to take a picture with their phone and laugh about it with their friends later. So not like Gwyneth Paltrow, but more like the weather girl at your local affiliate. And for those of you who say that I shouldn’t care so much about what people think, let me remind you that I represent you here. If I’m a slob, you’re all slobs. If I have lettuce in my teeth or salad dressing on my face, so do you. “Americans can’t eat a salad properly,” they’ll say. I’m also talking about just looking presentable here, the basics, like wearing a bra and running a comb through your hair, which is really the minimum amount of effort anyone should make (ahem, Tara Reid, are you paying attention?).
But thankfully, that’s all in the past now. No one cares about me anymore. I’m free to let my freak flag fly. I am no longer the strangest thing in Cadenet… We have new neighbors.
Stay tuned for more soon!