Thursday, October 15, 2009

Walking the Line

Most times, coming back is harder than going there. For me, it's always been harder to come back than it has been to go. Leaving to go somewhere new is exciting and fun. It's better than pretty much anything else in the world for me. That excitement, the idea that you never know what is waiting for you, that ANYTHING could happen, is my favorite drug. I will lay in my bed, inventing story after story of what could happen, what would be crazy and fun and wild. I know, in the back of my mind, that it will never be the way I think it's going to be. But I don't really care. Because it is so fun to imagine, to think about the unexpected.

I left Paris on the first of September. I didn't even let myself think about what was waiting for me when I got back here because I couldn't handle the idea that my life would have gaping unfilled holes- that my old friends had graduated and my new friends would be far away. My family... My family has been over 2,000 miles away from me for the last 3 and a half years. But they were in the same country. And I could call my mom anytime I wanted to for the first two years I was in college. Even in Paris, because of my parent's good long distance plan, we would talk every Sunday evening. My family is in Italy. I haven't talked to them on the phone in more than two weeks. I know I'm supposed to be a grown-up. I'm 21 years old, about to report for jury duty. I can drink, smoke, buy porn, enlist, vote and all the other things that you can do when you're an adult. I've had a bank account in two countries. I have a social security number in the US, Spain, France, and Italy. I am supposed to be an adult. But I really just miss my mom.

I also spent the last few months head over heels in love. I have several gaping holes. Parts missing from my life. And everywhere I see signs that say that I should live life to the fullest! Do everything now! You never know when you're going to die... or the world will end! Well. If there's a future, I need to graduate from college and get a good job. If there's not a future, what the fuck am I doing, freezing in Massachusetts isolated from my family and my boyfriend?

It's not really about that. Missing everyone is a huge part of why I am feeling down. It's also about feeling really lame a lot of the time. Feeling like I don't know how to do this whole college thing. Feeling like I'll never really know what it is that I want to do. Feeling like no language is mine, no country is mine, no experience is mine. I cry a lot for no particular reason because I am tired and more than a little isolated. I miss every person I've ever had to leave. I miss my parents and my little brother. I miss Edouard.

I don't feel comfortable here. I feel like a foreigner, I feel judged, and I don't really know how to talk to people here.

Culture Shock blows.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Living in Paris was a dream. I had always wanted to come here, knowing somehow that a capital city in Europe would match all I wanted from life. I didn't really know what would happen, and I didn't really care. I learned a long time ago that planning the future comes to naught. I thought and dreamed and planned how my year abroad in Rouen would be when I was 16. I did the same for my senior year of high school, prom, graduation. Somehow, though those years were nothing like my plans, I did the same for college. This time, though I had planned going to Sciences Po in Paris since before I was ever accepted to Hampshire, I knew better. I came to Paris with no expectations, knowing that it would never be the way I thought it would.

I was right. But I had no idea that this year would give me all that it has: a new view on life, incredible friends, and the most incredible relationship that anyone could ever dream up. But it's no dream- just my reality.

I met him in a bar in February. He said hi. And we talked. I gave him my number, and two days later, he called. Life being life, I was in Italy for two weeks and told him I'd call him back which he did not believe. A day or so after getting back to Paris, I did. And things spiralled out from there. It's an incredible turn of luck. I never dated in high school, didn't really have that much luck in college until now (at least in terms of permanent relationships), and it seems as though all the good things I missed out on were just hanging out, waiting to fall into my lap all at once.

I leave Paris at the very end of August. It has never seemed as soon as it does tonight. I have no idea what my future holds or if this relationship will last. I have no idea about anything. But I do know that I will try my hardest to finish school and get back here as quickly as I can because when love like this happens, one should fight with all they have to make it last.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Roman Holiday

Italy. The hidden half of myself is full of bright colors, frescoes, homemade pasta, kind faces, and family. My homeland considers me a stranger, but I still feel a physical longing for my memories of her hills, the Pianura Padana, the musicality of her language, and my cousins surrounding me. While it is completely possible that I will never belong wholly to the culture that whispers to me in dreams, I feel the need to try to fit myself into the puzzle of Italy’s being. Any glimmer of recognition from the Italian people, the international community, or a personality trait that can be considered Italian, fills me with pride.

I just came back from two weeks in Italy with Michelle. We started in Rome then headed to Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Milano, with a day trip to Verona. It was a great trip… full of old friends and my family. In Rome, we met three guys from Vienna and two guys and a girl from Bilbao. They were all so awesome- we went out together twice, saw the coliseum together, and generally messed around, trying not to get into trouble. We also saw an old friend of mine from my exchange days in Rouen; a really good guy that I’ve kept in contact with on and off since we’ve known each other. Rome is an incredible city, one I might have to live in at some point. It’s chaotic, beautiful, international, and small enough to walk.

I lived in Bologna for a month when I was 18, so I felt the need to show Michelle my old haunts. The food is the main attraction, though the town itself is beautiful and worth seeing on its own. For dinner, we ate at this lovely restaurant where Michelle had pumpkin tortelloni and I had polenta with wild boar. We only spent one night there before going to Modena where a friend of mine from this summer working on the Island of Elba lives. Daniela is a whole person. She knows who she is, but is open to experiencing new things… Her apartment is an expression of herself, filled with her paintings, pagan symbols, wood stove, and two cats. She and her boyfriend (a Moroccan living in Italy) fed us well and we left feeling relaxed and with a bottle of her father’s 15-year-old homemade balsamic vinegar, thick as chocolate sauce and incredibly delicious.

Parma was a whirlwind of family insanity, shopping, and walking. Highlights include spending time with the cousins from my generation and visiting the younger generation’s elementary school to talk about life in the States, education, and Michelle and my life stories. When Manu and Giulia (my cousins, 22 and 18 years old respectively) left the last night when we were together, I nearly cried. The connections I have with my family are the most precious thing I have, and I never feel like there’s enough time to spend with them. Francesco and Alice, the little cousins, were so surprised when we showed up at their school to talk to their classes. I was their nanny for two summers, and they think of me as an older sister/aunt. Michelle dazzled the 10-year-old boys by playing soccer with them and being awesome. Italy is not exactly the most liberal place when it comes to girls playing soccer, so not only were they shocked by her talented playing, but they also had their eyes opened a little to the possibilities of women being independent, strong, and playing sports.

In Milano, Michela and her family were waiting for me. This summer, on Elba, they were my saving graces. I met them around a point when work there was making me really depressed, and they took me into their home as though I were a part of the family. After having dinner there one night, they invited me back again and again. Milan is not my favorite city to say the least, but we saw the cathedral, the galleries, the castle, the Pinacoteca Brera (where my grandmother once studied Belle Arte), Leonardo DaVinci’s Last Supper, and went to Michela’s littlest cousin’s baptism. Michela’s mother tried unceasingly to interest me in her son or her nephew as possible future husbands. As her son has been dating the same girl for the last three years and as her nephew is 38, these attempts were to come to naught, but I thoroughly enjoyed her trying to make me a member of her family. After the baptism, we ate for three hours. It was awesome. I have cake in my bag.

I got home an hour ago, and I still can’t really believe that I’m back in Paris. I feel like I’ve been gone for months, and I’m decidedly not prepared for school starting up again tomorrow. In the airport in Milan, we ran into my friend Nigel from Ireland, and we traveled back to Paris all together, which helped me from getting too down about leaving Italy. Nigel is hilarious, and we always have a good laugh and our times together are much craic. At the moment, however, I am sitting in my messy apartment, on my bed, contemplating my lack of milk for breakfast tomorrow morning, and feeling quite nostalgic- not just for this time in Italy, but for every time in Italy. For my family, friends, the food, the language, the existence that I have there. It is, after all, a part of me. When I get back from a long stay (or in this case, just a short one), I feel like I have ghost limb syndrome, as if I should be able to walk outside and be there, as if it’s just beyond my grasp, just there, only I can’t touch it or see it.

I wish I could entirely convey how I feel when I think of Italy, but it’s impossible. There’s just too much feeling involved, and emotions have never been easy to describe. I try to ask my other friends who are half and half or even those that are just far from home if they feel the way I do, and most of the time, I just get confused looks or the answer, “no”. Michelle sort of gets it, or at least, even if she doesn’t feel it, she knows how much it means to me. I am a pale, northern-looking, not properly dressed foreigner with an accent in my own country, but I am also a staunch Italian. I know our history, our famous writers, our politics, and I am convinced of the importance of Garibaldi’s legacy and keeping our country whole, despite the Lega Nord, the new divisional parties in the South, the Mafia, racism, xenophobia, and our corrupt political system. We’re a small, imperfect country that is really a gran’ casino more than anything else, but I love it. It is a part of the whole, a piece of my soul, and I cannot deny it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Awkward Situations

I am a queen of awkward situations. For some reason, I have an incredible knack for saying the wrong thing, or making people feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if I seek out these situations, bringing the “awkward” to any moment that would otherwise have been completely normal. Is there something in my nature that pushes me to make wildly inappropriate comments in front of people who are proper or who don’t know me? Is there some traitorous part of myself that wants, no, desires to ruin my chances at normal interaction?

Today, in the petit hall at Sciences Po, a friend of mine was studying at the table behind mine with a group. One of the men she was working with was quite attractive and kept making loud interjections in an appealing accent. These utterances were causing me to turn around on occasion and overhear a large part of their conversation. When my friend asked a question about the French “bisous” (the greeting that involves a kiss on each cheek) and whether or not French men sporadically greet each other in this manner, I felt somehow compelled to turn around and state, in a tone that was strange and in a volume that was several decibels too high, “Yes! They so do!” Sara, my friend, is used to me, and just laughed, but all three of the guys she was with stared at me for a second before I explained that my French teacher had just talked about the evolution of bisous etiquette.

This small, in all appearances, casual interaction has given those three guys, one of whom I see constantly in the halls of Sciences Po, a certain impression of me- an impression that says, “Crazy,” or, “Intense,” or the oh-so-feared, “Ditz.” These statements are not false. I am, at times, crazy, intense, and ditzy; it is not unheard of for me to be all these things at once. However, I would prefer to give the immediate impressions of “Bright,” or, “Attractive,” or the ever-so-sought-after, “Cool,” for I am, at times, all of these things as well.

Upon telling Michelle what I was writing about, she proceeded to inform me that I am actually not awkward at all. I’ll leave it for those who know me to decide…

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Moscow, Idaho is a strange place. It’s a place where the snow-covered hills meld into the sky, where geeks are beautiful, and where kids can grow up to be people so different one would think that they have nothing in common. Until they come back to Moscow, Idaho. We come from Bowdoin, Bard, and Barnard, Western Washington, Seattle U, and Lewis and Clark; we come from Paris, New Zealand, and Spain. For one week, or two, we revert back to the relationships and personalities we had when we were in high school.

We’ve all changed, of course we have, but those changes, just for a little while, are secondary to the people we’ve been for most of our lives. When you run into someone who’s known you since you wore diapers, it’s hard to be the sophisticated, nearly-adult, individual you’ve so recently become.

Moscow, Idaho is a great place to grow up. It’s the kind of place one spends one’s whole life trying to leave, but once one actually manages to get out of dodge, it’s an easy place to miss. My bad memories of elementary school bullying, boring high school classes, and the lack of diversity melt away, leaving good memories and the faces of people I never want to forget. And every time I go back, I learn about something cool or re-connect with someone I haven’t seen in ages.
I’m always struck by how at ease I feel when I’m hanging out with my Moscow people. There’s no need to act cool or watch what I say; my friends in Moscow know that I’m slightly crazy and like to hang out with me anyway. And, because we’re used to creating our own amusement, we can have fun playing a board game, wii, or just drinking a couple beers, listening to music (and usually singing along as well).

I went home for Christmas break. Home is a relative term for me. It means where ever my family is, any place I lay my head for more than a few weeks, but it will also mean, maybe forever, a small university town in the middle of the rolling hills of the Palouse. My dad once told me that the Palouse was in my blood. I believe him, too. The rolling hills and woods have worked their way into my veins and heart; a part of me will always be the girl that hiked through wheat fields, sat on giant rocks on a mountain top, and collected salamander eggs in Virgil Phillip’s pond.
This break, I stayed out until 4 in the morning almost every night. My parents realized early on that there wasn’t much trouble I could get into in town, so coming home so late wasn’t a new thing. I played music again and read comic books. I hung out while my guy friends played Dota and felt old at New Year’s when my friend’s little sister’s friends came over. All of them were from the High School, and I didn’t know any of them. Not for the first time, I wished that I could transport Cece, Martin, David, Brendan, Emmett, Ariel, and everyone else to Paris with me. Life would be so perfect if I could live in a big city in Europe with all those people I love around me.

We like to think that Moscow, Idaho never changes, and for those who have stayed, it doesn’t seem to. But I notice that things are changing. I notice the new businesses springing up, the fact that our silos are being dismantled bit by bit and that, ever so slowly, there are more international students, more students of color, more difference of every kind. Some of the change is great, and some really sucks (like the amount of Christ Church goers), and it is happening slowly, so it’s easy to adapt to. But some things will never change, and for that I am very grateful.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Yuletide Cheer

Some of you may be wondering what I want for Christmas. Well, I can tell you, it isn't World Peace, though that would be nice, and it isn't a new car, either, though a Prius would also be great. Nah, my Christmas wish is a lot easier than all that. A lot closer to home, too.

I wish, that just once, just for one Christmas, my little brother would get it through his thick skull that I have nothing against him and do, in fact, think he is a great kid. Let's go through the list:

Adrian is very, very handsome. I don't say this because he's my brother and people say we look alike, oh, no. I say this because he really and truly is.

Adrian is an incredible singer and actor. Something happened while he was over in Japan last year, and he came back singing like Presley. Or Paul McCartney. Or really any amazing famous singer that there is out there. He also went to State Drama, which is more than I ever did, considering that the year I did Drama, I was also in Community Theatre and the play opened the same week as the regional drama competition.

Adrian is also really funny, and extremely loyal. He's a great friend and a great classmate and tries really hard to be a good person. He's also done so well at school this year, it's amazing.

Somehow, he doesn't believe that I actually believe all these things about him. I am not afraid to say it, even online, where everything is public- to my school, to my friends, to his friends, to random strangers, and maybe even to him.

Yeah. What I want for Christmas is for Adrian and I to get along. It's silly almost and maybe stupid to write on this blog, but it's true.

I also just wanted to shout out to Vanessa over there in the GEO at Hampshire College. She's leaving Hampshire, and her last day is coming up. I won't be there to say good bye, but I made her a card which I really, really hope gets there before she leaves, but if it doesn't:

Vanessa- You are one of the most awesome people at Hampshire. I'm really going to miss having you around when I get back... It will not be the same without you. Bonne chance a toi et a ta famille!

Happy Holidays everybody, and let's hope 2009 is better than the last 8 years have been...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ghosts with Jam

Ghosts are funny things. Sometimes a ghost is an ever-lingering presence, never loud, never entirely visible, simply there. Sometimes you might think a ghost has finally left you alone when suddenly, in a dream or in a song, they slam into you, causing your head to reel and your feet to fall out from under you. Most ghosts fall somewhere in between: the ghost that only lifts its head when “Bad News” by Rilo Kiley plays but every time the song plays or the ghost that causes a slow-aching pain over the course of the week, in rain, snow, wind, or under the sun.

This morning, two ghosts haunted me. Over a scone with apricot jam and a café au lait, I couldn’t help but remember and wonder and sigh. One of my ghosts was a familiar dull pain in my stomach. He’s one that causes me to doubt myself, to go over all of my moves in my mind, trying to see what I did wrong. He likes to pop up whenever anyone says “love” or “briser” or “alone”. My other ghost is usually much easier to handle. He reminds me of flowers and being young and excited about the future. This morning, with the pink Paris light pouring through the window, he just made me think of miles and miles of ocean, uninterrupted blue stretching to the horizon.

People in Paris ask me if I’m homesick for the United States. They act so surprised when I say no, as though living abroad for a year and missing the States are tantamount to each other. If I think about it, there are small things I miss, the sun setting over the golden hills of the Palouse, for example, or the size of the sky in the West. I miss the music at Hampshire College, the way that something completely unexpected will happen in front of your dorm or on your porch in Enfield. And I miss certain people. I miss my family- my nonna, dad, mom, and little brothers. I miss Ariel and a tight circle of people at Hampshire. However, being in the States or not doesn’t really change whether I’ll miss these things or not. In Massachusetts, there is no equivalent to the Palouse. In Moscow, Idaho, there is no Eric to call at three in the morning when I’ve done something stupid or Ivàn to laugh with at parties.

The older I get (and don’t laugh, I know 20 isn’t supposed to be old, but I’ve been doing a lot of reflection this year) the more nostalgic I get for certain places and times in my life. My walls are covered with postcards from my high school graduations, pictures of Tomatlàn and Kadăn, and copies of paintings by Klimt. I have a photo to commemorate a Friday the 13th trip to Colfax, some Div III invitations, a copy of a painting from Nonna, and a watercolor from Papi in Rouen. My room is full of things I’ve seen, places I’ve been, and people I love(d). How can I be homesick in such a place? No, I’m not homesick in Paris; I just wish I could bring some of you here with me…

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dreaming in Glaswegian

This weekend, I was strolling down my street, past my favourite appartment building (which I will take a picture of) and thought of an amazing post. Unfortunately, I did not write it down. I am currently in the process of remembering it. Which may never happen but I will try.

Last week, we had our reading break. I went to Scotland for five days with my friend, Michelle, a Hungarian-American with indentity issues like me sort of, to visit Navit, a friend of mine from Hampshire, and see Glasgow and Edinburgh. I seem to be having trouble transitioning from vacation to Sciences Po. During vacation, I justified eating out by saying, "They don't have tea and scones in Paris," or "Indian food is much better in Scotland," so I didn't cook for myself at all. During vacation, I just went to museums and hung out with Michelle, strolling amongst Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glaswegian buildings and along the Royal Mile, passing tourist shops playing bagpipe music and signs for ghost tours at night. During vacation, I read only Agatha Christie and tourist information in English. Life was simple, fun, and easy to understand.

But those are the little things. Really, the hardest thing for me has been to convince myself that people in Paris really are nice, or that humans in general have the possibility to be good. It's harder to believe here that it was in Scotland. This comes from two things, principly. The first is that in Scotland, I was talking to two great friends of mine about whatever topic came to mind, in a language in which I can generally express myself easily. In Paris, I tend to be in classes with a majority of French students who are (obviously) fluent in the language used in the classroom and who are, in all seriousness, very intelligent. We also tend to cover subjects that are less entertaining and more worrisome. These subjects range from the Palestinian conflict to Hugo's Les Miserables to torture and why humans can torture other human beings. In other words, the subjects upon which I dwell tend to be less than sunny.

The second thing stems from the attitude of others around me. In Scotland, Michelle and I were generally well-treated by everyone around us. The police in the airport joked with those around them, a drunk man in the line for taxis laughed when we couldn't understand his accent and told us about his family in the States, people smiled at us in the streets, and the man at our hostel on the last night woke up at 4am to call us a taxi, start the coffee machine, and give us breakfast (even though breakfast was only from 7-9am usually). In France, many of us exchange students will talk to someone during or after class, only to find that outside of class that person will not even return our greeting. Parisiens, and the northern French in general, tend to think that people that smile at them in the streets must be crazy. The general demeanor of people outside, in restaurants, or at school ranges from a little less than friendly to intimidating.

I combat my negative thoughts about the French and Paris in the following way: I try to find one thing a day that makes me think that people are good, friendly, or helpful in Paris. Last week, a girl ran to catch the RER and barely made it in time. Her bag got stuck in the door, which usually isn't too much of a problem as the door will open again at the next stop. Only on this train the door opened on the other side for the next few stops. Those around her laughed and smiled, and everyone tried to help her get her bag unstuck from the door. I missed class one Friday, and a student, V. wrote me an email asking how I was and saying he hoped I was okay. I've never had a student anywhere, in any country, at anytime write me when I missed class to make sure I was okay.

These things are what make the hard times pass. These small moments make all the rest of it worthwhile. Because by spring, I'm hoping I won't need the little things because I'll be used to the culture, people, and school life in Paris.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Exposé

The exposé is my least favourite thing about Sciences Po. It is an extreme mixture between the French, Cartesian methodology and Sciences Po’s own private way of doing things. Basically, the concept is simple: talk, in front of the class, for 10-15 minutes about a topic that is assigned to you. The reality is much more complex.

To start with, the exposé is worth about a third of your grade. The other third is usually a fiche technique, fiche de lecture, or presentation du texte, all things I will probably write about at a later date. The last third is class participation. At this point, Hampshire students are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, what is she complaining about? I had to write 50 pages in total for my last class. This French stuff sounds easy.’ These Hampshire students are largely misinterpreting the fine points of the exposé.

The exposé is divided into two parts. To understand the difference between Sciences Po and Cartesian methodology, make every time I say two into three. These two parts are divided into two sub-parts. There also happens to be an introduction and a conclusion. Depending on the severity of your professor, the 10-15 minute exposé could be a 25 minute experience, such as in my ‘Questions of Ethics? Questions of Literature’ course, which is excellent by the way. So far, so good, right? But then comes the hard part. Every exposé has a subject, assigned by the professor. It is your duty to take apart the subject, play with the wording, and understand the main themes enough to create a question, or problématique, from the subject. When I was in my welcome program methodology course, we did a lot of just trying to find the proper problématique. An example was the subject: The Polish plumber and the Indian engineer. To be able to find the question from this subject, you have to understand that the “Polish plumber” was a stereotype used several years ago when the EU was expanding to include Eastern Europe. People in Western Europe were genuinely worried that the Eastern Europeans would make a mass exodus to Western Europe where they would take all the working class jobs because they would work for less. You also have to understand that the “Indian engineer” is another stereotype used to describe the idea of ‘guest workers,’ especially in Germany, who are white collar workers that are welcomed in Western Europe because of a lack of engineers, doctors, and so on who are well qualified. They tend to come to Europe, work for less than 10 years, working for less than the white collar workers in Western Europe, and then move back home, mostly. You also have to take into account that the class we were pretending to be in was “l’Espace Mondial.” So our problématique had something to do with migratory fluxes and the benefits of opening borders to certain migrants, or something.

One also has to take into account when doing an exposé, that 10 minutes is not a long time. The introduction and conclusion should take 2-3 minutes combined, which leaves approximately 4 minutes per part, 2 minutes per sub-part. The professor will stop you if you go over time. And he or she will wait before speaking, staring at you, if you stop under time. This is all in French. One could take English classes at Sciences Po, and I take two of them, but why go to Paris to study in English, right? The French students’ exposés that I’ve heard have been unintelligible for me, personally, and for some other foreign students because they talk really fast. Somehow, they are able to cram the entire history of the Middle East (for example) into 10 minutes. What?! Don’t ask me how it’s possible because I have no idea.

After your fun 10 minute presentation, you get to be criticized (or complimented) by the class and the professor for another 15 or so minutes. It’s great fun.

Why am I writing about this today? Well, my dear readers, it’s because I just did my first exposé in French in my class on the Modern Arab World on Tuesday. This was the subject: Islamisme et Nationalisme- le cas Palestinien. You may have noticed some trigger words in this subject- Islamism, Nationalism, and Palestinian, to start with. These are already very delicate subjects when split up, but all together they are really difficult to talk about, in 10 minutes, in French, in front of the whole class, when I’m not an expert on Palestine. So I kept putting it off, saying, “Oh that’s scary; I’ll tackle it tomorrow.” This is not a tactic I recommend. Then it was Monday. I got my books out of the library (someday, I may write about the fun, little, underground book trains at the library here…) and headed home to work. My problématique became: How did the process of Islamism affect Arab nationalism especially in the nation of Palestine? Not too intellectual sounding, I know, but it’s in French, so cut me a little slack. I wrote out my entire presentation, word by word, because I was terrified of messing up, and drank 5 cups of espresso. I made a PowerPoint presentation, which was fun because I got to use a quote from Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (which is a GREAT book that everyone who’s interested in the themes should read.) And, at 9am, I headed to class.

Apparently, according to Michelle, my Hungarian-American friend who also takes French with me here, my presentation was actually pretty good. But, you know, she’s a friend and a foreigner, too, so she’s going to be easy on me. I got really annoyed with myself because immediately after the presentation part, the professor asked me to expand upon the tensions between Hamas and Fatah after the Oslo accords, and I totally choked and said I didn’t know because I had concentrated more on the general history of the Middle East. My response was ridiculous because as soon as she got up to start teaching class and mentioned the Oslo accords, a complete, coherent, and detailed answer to her question formed in my mind, but then again, I was nervous, had stayed up all night, and had 5 espressos in my system.

The hardest thing about the exposé, for me, is the idea that it’s worth a third of my grade. It’s 10 minutes, and if you choke, that’s the end. It’s scary, especially the first one. Luckily, the rest of the exposés I have to do are in groups until the fifth of January when I have to talk for 25 minutes about a text that questions the ethics of terrorism. And now, I know that waiting to start working the day before is completely counter-productive. I envision great things for my exposés to come. And if any of you ever have to write one, feel free to write to me for help.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Language, Accents, and Culture

This is this issue of the Climax's "Postcard from Abroad," Eric asked me to write it, so I did:

Language and culture are so intertwined that oftentimes we have trouble distinguishing if culture begets language or vice versa. One classic example is of the French habit of posing questions in the negative: instead of asking, “Do you want this sandwich?” a Frenchman, or woman, will say, “You don’t want this sandwich?” This, in the French culture, allows one to say, “No,” without being rude. Another example in the French language is the use of the neutral pronoun “on” or “one.” This neutral pronoun allows one to displace blame, “I’m sorry that you had to wait in line so long, but one has to carefully go over all the paperwork,” not “I” not “we” or “he” or “she” but “one.” While I could explore the historical and societal reasons for the need to be able to say, “No,” without being rude or to displace blame in France, I will save it for another essay. Instead, I want to write about the impact that language has on an individual’s personal cultural identity. In this case because this is a “postcard from abroad,” I’m going to write about how my language affects my personal cultural identity during my experiences on Hampshire’s direct exchange with Sciences Po in Paris, France.

For the majority of people, their country of origin is reflected by their mother tongue. An individual from Hungary will most likely use Hungarian as their principle language. A few exceptions to this rule are people descended from immigrants and people who grow up in certain regions of certain countries (an example would be a friend of mine from Alto Adige, a German-speaking part of Italy). I was born in the United States, but the first language I learned was Italian. This does not mean that I am more comfortable in Italian than I am in English as I did the majority of my schooling in the States, and my dad only speaks English. I am, however, an Italian citizen as well as an American citizen and have actually only ever voted in Italian elections. Most of the time, I can pass under the radar as an Italian-American, so it rarely becomes a public issue. Lately, my ability to pass under the radar unchallenged has begun to change.

It started with an innocent question on the first day of Sciences Po’s Welcome Program for foreigners: “Where are you from?” I had to make a quick decision, so I said, “I’m Italian and American.” I was the only one in the class to say something less cut and dry than China or Germany. As the Welcome Program progressed, and as my classmates and I became better friends, things only got more complicated. In the States, I rarely have a problem with English, but when I live abroad for extended periods of time, my Northwestern American accent becomes a hybrid of whatever accents are around me, and my vocabulary begins to disappear. The same happens with my Italian. In the amazing international setting of Sciences Po (where 44% of students this year are international), the language part of my brain becomes completely fried. One night, I met an Italian who was speaking Spanish to some people from Mexico. That night, I was switching between Spanish, Italian, English, French, and the miniscule amount of German I know. I began speaking Italian to the Hungarians, French to the Germans, Spanish to the Italians, and any other combination of languages and nationalities imaginable.

When I get confused with my languages and accents, most people just gently correct me, tease me, and then tell me that it’s understandable. My class from the Welcome Program has really gelled into a cohesive group. We’re friends now, not just classmates. So they have no qualms about calling me on my language faults, in any language. The latest occurrence was at our last reunion dinner. When I get tired, my accent in English really falls apart, and I haven’t been in the States since June. We have an Irishman in our class, and the majority of people in the class speak English with a British accent. This combination of factors resulted in me speaking British/Canadian/American/Irish English. Someone looked at me and asked, “Where are you from?” I could only respond that I didn’t know. I self-identify as Italian and American, and when people are really interested, I go into an explanation of why and how I actually feel more European and American than anything else, but that doesn’t mean that people perceive me as Italian and American, or solely one or the other.

Language swiftly becomes a definition of who someone is. An accent can tell society about which country or part of the country you come from, which social class you belong to or educational background you have, or what other languages you speak, among other things. Our world today, however, is changing faster than our accents. The perceptions people have based on how or which languages one speaks are becoming more and more skewed. Unfortunately, though these perceptions may be wrong, they still have a huge impact on how one is viewed in a group or in society, how one is expected to act, and indeed, who people believe one is.

Paris is an island in France made of a myriad of different cultures and nationalities. These people often live side by side; a street can separate a “bad” neighborhood from a “good” one. In such a cosmopolitan environment, people cannot help but recognize difference, whether it is represented by an accent, a style of dress, or the color of someone’s skin. What is important in such a place is how people react to differences. Reactions have caused the banlieue riots, the banning of headscarves in the public sphere, and Science Po’s addition of a special, separate entrance exam based on the zip code of applicants. Reactions have sparked debates on the universalism of humanity versus the individual and group concepts of culture, on who is French and who is foreign. There is no way to see the future of Paris, France, or the world, but people are beginning to look around themselves and change how they react, and that is the first step to creating any sense of a global community.