The French are direct. They’re honest and they definitely know what “tough love” is, e.g. my 11-year-old host sister “comforting” her younger sister saying:
“Everything will be ok. It’s normal to play the flute badly at your age.”
This approach to human interaction rubs Americans the wrong way. We find it cold, rude and unwelcoming. We’re used to gold stars and high fives. We dress ourselves for the “I love your shirt” and the “you look so cute in that.” We hug and squeal at people we haven’t seen in years and always say “it’s so good to see you” and “we should definitely get coffee before we head back to school” even if we have no intention of doing so. I call this phenomena sticky sweet insincerity.
Coming from a culture where everyone is “nice,” it can be jarring to enter a culture where people rarely smile at strangers. But part of studying abroad is observing a culture, acknowledging the differences and finding the beauty in those differences.
The Nantais know (and I know now) that any normal autumn day in Nantes is incomplete without an exceptionally high chance of rain. I usually bring an umbrella along but the one day I forgot it, I found myself running toward the IES center in a typical autumn deluge. I clutched my jacket’s wimpy hood closer to my head as my clothes began to sag from the weight of the rain.
After quickly roughly rounding a corner, I slowed down slightly to avoid colliding with the elderly man in front of me. I was already soaked and didn’t need a confrontation in a foreign language. But as I passed him, a little voice escaped from under his umbrella
“Voulez-vous profiter du parapluie (would you like to share my umbrella with me)?”
I stopped. Did I hear correctly or were my ears waterlogged? Did this old man strolling in the rain with a baguette in hand, just offer me, a pathetic soaked loser, to share his umbrella?
I looked back at him and he smiled and nodded at me, confirming that I’d heard correctly. It was a curious situation but my current drenched state released my inhibitions and I accepted the offer.
He sensed my foreignness and asked me where I was from. He was excited to know I was American because his daughter lives in Georgia. We strolled through the park at a leisurely pace, talking about my life in Nantes, the umbrella covering both of our heads. Upon reaching the point where we were to part ways he praised my French and wished me good luck.
Experiencing a moment like this with a complete stranger in France is like receiving a special gift. It’s rare yet meaningful. It’s simple but lovely. It’s moments like these that show me how unique and beautiful the French people are. These are the moments I’ll cherish years after I’ve left.
To the elderly man with the umbrella and the baguette – I don’t know your name but you will forever remain one of my favorite Nantais.
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<p><span style="color: rgb(29, 29, 29); font-family: Arial, Verdana, sans-serif; font-size: 12px; line-height: normal; background-color: rgb(237, 237, 237);">Katie Nodjimbadem is a junior at Northwestern University majoring in journalism and planning to minor in French. She enjoys writing about diversity and culture for North by Northwestern magazine and loves interacting with prospective students as a campus tour guide. Katie bleeds purple and loves to cheer on her fellow wildcats at varsity sporting events. As the daughter of two Francophone parents, she desires to improve her French to better understand her heritage and strengthen her ties with her extended family.</span></p>