Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 24, 2013

The French-American tourist

(Andrei Papancea/TKS)

(Andrei Papancea/TKS)

My spring break this week finds me touring London. While I always try to blend in among the French, among the English this week, I’m embracing the role of tourist. After all, I’m here to see the sights, and only tourists do that, whether they’re from Mexico, Russia, Switzerland or just another region of England. The question is not whether I Ñ with a water bottle in the end pocket of my bag and a digital camera in my hand Ñ will be mistaken for a tourist. The questions is: what kind of tourist would people assume me to be? My water bottle is a re-used container of Orangina. My granola bars are the generic brand from Monoprix. The tote bag that I use to put my snacks in says “Ce sac bleu est vert.” Could I maybe pass for French?

There are a lot of French tourists in London, and I think the nice, elderly Englishman next to me on the train from Paris initially thought I was French. Of course, greeting him with “Bonjour” when I sat down (because I was still thinking in French) goes a long way toward giving that impression, but perhaps the Orangina bottle and “Ce sac bleu est vert” tote had something to do with it, too. During the trip, I pulled out my laptop to work on a project concerning English pronunciation for French speakers, and he offered to help me with any words I didn’t know. It was strange. I had never in my life had someone suggest that I might need help employing the language, as if I weren’t a native speaker. I decided at this point to speak my second sentence of the trip and let him know that actually, I’m American, but thank you for the offer; sometimes I find discrepancies in the British and American pronunciations. He went back to looking out the window then, and we didn’t exchange words again until I offered him a cookie from my long “roll” of them, a generic-brand bargain from a continental grocery store.

And yet, speaking English in England doesn’t come as naturally as one might imagine. I’ve caught myself on several occasions this past week thinking or preparing to respond in French when in a non-francophone context. I’ve also caught myself thinking or responding in English using a type of British accent! For more than three months, I’ve been responding to people according to which language they use to address me: if in French, I speak French, if in English, then I speak English, and if in English with a British accent, then I’m inclined to respond in the same. After months of weaving between two languages and struggling to express myself in comprehensible French, it just seems too easy to speak in American English all the time. Surely, speaking must require more effort than that.

Of course, my American version of a British accent (acquired from hours of watching BBC period dramas) would probably sound ridiculous to the trained British ear. On the flip side, the British probably won’t pick up on the traces of American in my French pronunciation. This doesn’t do me much good, since I don’t communicate with the English using French, but it’s nevertheless encouraging to think that I stand a chance of speaking French “like a native” in the eyes of somebody. The natives will know better, but that’s to be expected. In England, I could almost get away with being a French tourist: Orangina and all.

Tags:  BBC France French Knox London orangina study abroad

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