December 20th found me on a plane heading back to the United States for the first time in over two years. Like countless people around the world, I hadn’t been able to see family in all that time because of the pandemic. It was such a joy to finally see them again and to spend a Christmas with loved ones for the first time in maybe five or six years. And with opportunities like this becoming rarer, I decided to stay for a good long visit. We watched Christmas movies together, listened to Handel’s Messiah, baked lentil shepherd’s pie, homemade sourdough bread and cookies. I laughed with my sister over funny old anecdotes from our youth. When January rolled around, I made a couple of galettes des rois (below, a chocolate version that turned out really well), something my parents had never had. I took their cat Alfie Kitty for walks on a leash through the snow.
Once the holiday festivities were over, it was also time for me to start sorting through my stuff. 30 years of stuff – everything I’d left at my parents’ house before moving to France – had to be sorted and condensed in preparation for their move to a new house. In addition to a huge bookcase full of volumes I’d accumulated over my entire life, there were no fewer than 50 cardboard boxes containing old school notebooks I’d decorated with collages, binders full of teaching materials, aprons and wine keys from my waitressing days, a colored-pencil sketch I’d made of my calico kitty sleeping on a sofa-top, letters from foreign pen pals, little folded-up notes passed to me in class by high school friends, and countless photo prints from the days of film cameras.
There were countless snapshots of a happier, more confident me, a me who’d been full of hope and excitement for the future. A me that had boldly headed off to live in California, striking out on my own, unworried about what would happen next. A me I could barely recognize from the vantage point of the me I’ve become these past few years.
I found the cavegirl Halloween costume I was wearing the night I had my very first kiss, age 15 at a school dance, with a German exchange student whose last name I’d forgotten. A list of the students in that same box jogged my memory. Two boys on it had that same first name I remembered, and after Googling them both I found the right one. Seeing his face again after all these years, more recognizable than I expected, I was pulled farther through the portal into the past, revisiting another one of the people I used to be.
Digging deeper through the boxes, excavating more strata from my past, I became an archeologist uncovering the history of who I’d been. How was it I’d done so many things? Written so many essays, put together so many term papers and projects, earned these degrees and learned things I’m not really using now? How did I do all that and hold down several jobs all at the same time? How did I also attend so many parties and maintain all those friendships that these stacks of old Christmas cards now bear witness to?
I unearthed nearly forgotten memories as I pulled out objects – a little china teacup and saucer, a prop for so many hours spent as a hostess to my childhood cat and dolls. Ceramic Christmas ornaments made in elementary school art class. Elaborate illustrated letters from my two grandmas. My age-seven diary filled with scrawlings about my little classmates and favorite TV shows. The framed embroideries my mother’s friends had given her for me when I was born.
Going through these relics of my earlier incarnations was like the part of a near-death experience where your whole life flashes before your eyes, but in slow motion. These precious anchors have reminded me who I was and who I perhaps still really am, underneath the careworn outer layers: a joyful, adventurous and creative person who is loved.
Eckhart Tolle famously promotes the power of now to free you from your problems. I humbly submit that power can also be found in the past.
When the holiday season comes around, Americans and Canadians living abroad often find themselves with a dilemma: cranberry sauce, or even just the (whole, uncooked) cranberries you would need to make your own sauce from scratch, cannot be found in every country. And cranberry sauce is a cornerstone of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. So this is a truly serious (first-world) problem. 😉
Of course, there are sometimes ways to get imported cranberry sauce from local stores specializing in North American foods. But this option is always expensive, and you might not be able to get to the store if it’s remote or has limited opening hours, or if you don’t live in a major city.
Having lived in France for over 12 years now, I’ve missed having cranberry sauce over the holidays many a time. But this year, I decided to try an idea that popped into my head: why not make a sauce from dried cranberries, which are abundantly available here in Paris at organic and now even mainstream grocery stores? To extend the tart, fruity flavor, I added some lingonberry jam (from IKEA), which has a similar flavor as cranberry, but any red jam will do. Finally, I mixed in some red wine, spices, orange juice and zest and fresh grated ginger.
I gave it a shot yesterday and was very pleased by the results. Read on for the recipe!
Makes a little over 1 cup (236 ml) of sauce.
1 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup (118 ml) water
1/4 cup (60 ml) orange juice
1/4 cup (60 ml) inexpensive red wine
2 tablespoons red jam (raspberry, strawberry etc.)
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1/2 teaspoon grated ginger root, or more to taste
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
small pinch salt
Grate your orange(s), squeeze to obtain the juice, and grate your ginger root (remove the skin with a spoon). Roughly chop the dried cranberries – or alternatively, process the sauce at the end to make it smoother – and add these to a medium-sized saucepan along with all the other ingredients.
Stir all the ingredients together while heating over medium heat. When the mixture is just starting to boil, reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened (maybe 5 to 10 minutes). Taste and adjust the ingredients as necessary – you may wish to add sugar or mix in more jam if it’s too tart.
As the sauce cools it will thicken further (above, the sauce just after taking it off the heat). Allow to cool fully, then transfer to a serving dish or storage container for the fridge if you won’t be using it right away.
Serve chilled or room-temperature as a condiment for your favorite holiday dishes (lentil Wellington, Tofurkey roast, stuffing and green beans or mashed potatoes with gravy).
You might also like to try it in a dessert, in a mixed-fruit turnover or an apple crumble, topped with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.
Variations: Add additional spices (nutmeg, allspice, cloves) and other dried fruit such as apricot or fig. To make it into a savory chutney to serve with cheese and baguettes, add some sautéed shallot and a dash of tamari.
One of the biggest things that happened to me this year is something you might have noticed in my Instagram photos, if you’ve been paying close attention to the backgrounds. After 10 years in my little Paris apartment, I have moved!
I’d been wanting to move for a while already, because while I loved my neighborhood, and my building, and my neighbors, and my apartment was very cute and charming, it was really small. It supposedly measured 27 sq. meters (290 sq. feet) in total, but as a former deux-pièces (one-bedroom apartment with a living room) converted in some decade past into a studio, it was composed of a main room (the former bedroom) of about 13 sq. meters (140 sq. feet), plus a kitchen, bathroom, toilet room and hallway. The original living room had become part of the apartment across the hall and a wall was put up in an inconvenient spot at the end of my hall. Due to the way things were laid out and the actual usable space, it was really more like a 13 sq. meter apartment with some extra little rooms and spaces, all of them too small to spend time in, tacked onto it.
I liked being there in general as it was quiet and my one window looked out over a calm inner courtyard (so, no street noise), but with all my worldly possessions crammed into it, it’d become so cramped that I’d given up years earlier on inviting people over for dinner, and setting up food photos was a big challenge. It was also badly insulated, and only half of the place had any heating, so winters there were very cold. I wasn’t actively looking for a new place, however, since housing is so very expensive in Paris, and the longer I stayed in that apartment, the better deal I was getting since my landlord was allowed to raise my rent by only a small percentage every year. So before I knew it, I’d been there nearly 10 years, which is longer than I’d ever lived at a single address before, even during childhood since my family moved four times while I was growing up.
After the pandemic set in, I’d actually begun to think about moving back to the US to be closer to my family, although the trouble and expense of moving my stuff back was a discouraging factor. Then one fine day a friend called to say he knew of a place that might be perfect for me… to buy! I hadn’t even been thinking about buying anything, for the financial reasons alluded to above, but as it turned out this new place was in a suburb of Paris, far enough away from the city that it was actually affordable for me with my meager freelance translator’s income. It was 47 sq. meters (506 sq. feet), had a bedroom and separate living room and got lots of natural light (compared to the rather dungeony darkness of my old place), which is great for taking food photos and also not being depressed! Furthermore, as someone who worked from home, I would often go several days in a row without setting foot outside, especially in the winter, so why pay so much to live in Paris? From the new place, Paris would be just a 10-minute train ride away.
Long story short, I ended up buying it and, after an extraordinary amount of paperwork, administrative hassle and interminable waiting that I won’t even try to go into, I moved in at the beginning of this month.
One of the things I like most about the new place is the view from the kitchen window. From it I can actually see greenthings, like trees and bushes, and also the sky! While in my old place I could see only the brick and windows of the building across the courtyard from mine, and never knew who might be looking at me (of course, that’s what curtains are for, but still…). There’s even some ivy growing past the window, and I love it. The new kitchen is super spacious, with lots of cupboards, counter space and even room for a table! Being able to work or read at a table with a window that looks out onto some type of nature has already changed my life for the better these past several weeks.
Moving day was still tough for me emotionally. I had so many memories in that old place, and I’d been there so long it was hard to believe it didn’t actually belong to me. Above left, you can see my main room with the boxes and things halfway moved out, and then all of my stuff grouped together on the ground floor of my old building, waiting to be loaded into the moving truck.
My new living room upon arrival… sooo much space waiting to be lived in and decorated!
Above: the main room and kitchen of my old apartment. I’ll really miss that marble fireplace! Although I never used it (it was in working condition but I would’ve had to pay to have it professionally swept before and after), I loved having it there, and the mirror above it was another beautiful feature. The kitchen in this place was small and cramped by the standards of most other cities, but for Paris it was actually really big. I was very lucky with this when I moved in, back in 2011, as this was the same time that I was starting to really get into cooking and food photography. Before leaving I had to remove and dispose of the (very old and rickety) cupboards, as they did not belong to the apartment but were considered part of the furniture. I had purchased them from the previous tenant. I negotiated with the owner to leave the custom-built countertop and shelves above the sink that the previous tenant’s dad had made for her, as it would have been a shame for the next tenant not to have them.
My last glimpse of my beloved old place, right after the final inspection with a representative of the owner to see if I would get my security deposit back (I did!). I still do miss it, and have fantasies of winning the lottery so I can go back and buy it to have a pied à terre in Paris.
Although I’m still mostly living out of boxes, and have a lot of furniture to buy, having the extra space has been really nice, and mentally liberating. After so many years in a tiny space with those physical constrictions, I’d begun to feel a bit constricted in my mind too, viewing life from a perspective of limitations and lack, sometimes making poor choices in consequence. So now I’m experiencing an unfurling of new possibilities and freedom that I’d almost forgotten could exist.
Once things are furnished and decorated, I’ll be sharing more photos of the new place.
So 12 years ago today, I stepped off a plane and into my new life here in France. And 12 years later, I’m still here! The past decade plus two years have been eventful enough, marked by both highs and lows – relationships, career milestones, adopting Sésame, terrorist attacks, a pandemic and gaining the French nationality, to name a few. I’ve also talked a bit here about some cultural differences that can be unsettling. But let’s not get into any serious topics right now. Today, for a lighthearted tribute to this 12th Franciversary, I thought it would be fun to tell you about a few things I’m STILL not used to about France, even after all these years. They’re all pretty minor things, but whenever I encounter them I still shake my head in confusion.
A spoon for any and every dessert
In France, when people have dessert, no matter what the dessert is, they always eat it with a spoon. Much like when Mr. Pitt on Seinfeld carved up his Milky Way bar with a fork and knife, it never fails to look and feel wrong to me. I mean sure, a spoon is the way to go if you’re eating ice cream or chia pudding, but why would you attempt to eat cake with one? Why try to seize hold of a dense, spongy substance with a shallow shovel-like implement that could easily lead to something landing on the floor when humanity has already mastered the concept of the dessert fork?
Non-absorbant kitchen towels
I also don’t understand why kitchen towels in France seem designed to be more decorative than anything else. They do come in lots of nice colors and prints, but they tend to be made of a stiff, furniture upholstery type material that’s good for little else than pushing the rinse water around on a plate rather than absorbing it. Why, France, why?
Graph paper notebooks
I’m one of those people who still enjoys writing by hand, especially when making to-do lists. For some reason, notebooks in France are always lined both horizontally and vertically, which makes writing in one very distracting for people who grew up with only horizontal lines. Often, the lines are darker and more intricate than the example shown above, looking more useful to an engineer than anyone else. Many times, I’ve gone to office-supply stores hoping to somehow find the kind of paper I was used to, but ended up buying completely unlined sketchbooks to write in instead. Recently, however, I was fortunate enough to find some horizontally lined notebooks at Paris locations of the Dutch variety-store chain Hema. Before that, I used to stock up on a notebook or two every time I went back to the US for a family visit.
This is one thing I won’t have to worry about again for a while, at least for as long as this pandemic lasts. If you’re not aware, in France whenever you meet up with friends or are introduced to new people (in a friends context), you traditionally have had to touch your face to their face – one time on each side in Paris, but three or four times elsewhere – while making a kissing sound. This is la bise. Normally, your lips don’t actually touch their skin and theirs don’t touch yours, although the ambiguity of the situation means that creepy guys sometimes use it as a chance to actually kiss you.
I never minded participating in la bise with my actual friends, but it always felt like a violation of my personal space when I had to do it at a party with people I didn’t know and wasn’t necessarily ever going to see again. Especially when large numbers of people were involved. If you’re a man, you get kind of a break because you’re expected only to shake hands with other men (but still have to do la bise with women).
Paris-based English comedian Paul Taylor captures my feelings about la bise pretty accurately in this video. He’s not even exaggerating – it really does happen the way he describes. See also his coronavirus bise update.
Of course, these days, people are being cautioned specifically not to touch each other during greetings. There are even billboards on the street reminding you of this. Instead, people bump elbows, a practice I can definitely get behind. Personally, I’ve seen so few other humans since this whole business began, a year ago, that I don’t think I’ve even done any elbow-bumps. I did recently do some “shoe bises” though, which was amusing and should be adopted far and wide, in my opinion.
Completely illegible signatures
In the US, people tend to sign their actual names, with the result that if you squint long enough at a signature, you can generally figure out what the first couple of letters are. But in France (and this is probably the custom in many other parts of the world too), I’ve never seen a signature that resembles an actual name or contains identifiable letters of the alphabet. The person often makes a few energetic up-and-down lines, finishing them off with a horizontal flourish somewhere, with the resulting marks looking like the print-out of a bad liar’s polygraph test. Or it may resemble a huge elliptical oval, as in the above example.
This one doesn’t affect me much, except that it means my way of signing my name makes me stand out. I became aware of this difference too late to change my own signature accordingly (I’d already signed important documents at my French bank etc.), and now always strangely feel a bit sheepish when signing my name in my own traditional way, with the first and last names mostly legible, as it takes longer to write and maybe looks (to French people, in my imagination at least) less authentic…?
Writing “Lu et approuvé”
In a similar vein, when signing important documents in France, your completely illegible (or legible, in my case) signature is not enough. You also have to handwrite “lu et approuvé” (“read and approved”) above it. That might not seem like such a big deal, but when you’re doing something like opening a bank account or signing the documents to rent an apartment, you’ll have to write this like 10 or 20 times because the paperwork in France is endless. And it also just strikes me as odd. If your signature on the document doesn’t mean you’ve read and approved it, what on earth does it signify?
Okay, by now, especially if you’re French yourself, you might be thinking, “If you don’t like it here, lady, you can always leave. Don’t let the door hit you on your way out!” But there are of course also many, many things that I prefer about France and Europe compared to my home country. Otherwise I wouldn’t still be here! Beyond the obvious ones like a decent healthcare system, affordable higher education and ample paid vacation for all employees regardless of seniority, there are the day-to-day blessings such as the world’s best bread, beautiful architecture just about everywhere you look and the availability of white almond butter and crème de marrons.
If you’ve ever spent time in France or another country that’s foreign to you, what things seemed incomprehensible to you, or better than the way things are back home? Tell us in the comments!
Quite a few books out there offer to teach you how to do X, Y or Z like the French, since imitating them, according to a certain line of thought, is the surest way to secure success for yourself in this life. But today’s post isn’t about how this nation can inspire us to dress more fashionably, eat gourmet food without getting fat or raise better behaved children. It’s about how to actually become French, in the most literal way possible. Like Josephine Baker did, in 1937, when she became a citizen.
One of the most successful entertainers of the Jazz Age, Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri but fell in love with France when she first visited in 1925 at the age of 19. It wasn’t long before she made it her permanent home.
This past year, it was my turn! After 10 years of living and working in France, becoming (reasonably) integrated into French society and my identity fusing into a combination of American and French/European, I became a naturalized French citizen.
It happened in May but became more and more official in various stages and still feels rather surreal to me. Especially when I think about how I’d always been a descendant of immigrants – on one side of the family, my ancestors came to the US from Germany four generations ago and on the other side a bit earlier – but am now the immigrant myself, a first-generation one. In hyphenated speak, I was a European-American but now am (also) an American-European.
Because both the US and France allow multiple nationalities, I’ve kept my original one too (in fact, ditching it is complex and difficult), so I’m a dual citizen and can vote in both countries. For people from places like Japan, Djibouti, India and China that officially allow only one nationality, applying for a new one is a much bigger decision. I probably wouldn’t have done it if it meant giving up my US citizenship.
But why go to the trouble, some may wonder. What difference does it make? Well, in addition to the ability to vote in French and EU elections, having the French nationality means I no longer have to renew a residence permit every few years, and wonder each time if I’ll be successful. In fact, as you’ll read in more detail below, if I hadn’t applied for citizenship when I did, I would have found myself with no way to stay in France by the end of 2018. And it also allows me to work in whatever sector I feel like (even in the government), whereas my residence permits were tied to my work as a translator and obliged me to stick with something related to translation. And finally, as an EU citizen, I can live wherever I choose within the EU and also the European Free Trade Association countries (Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein).
If you too want to apply for French citizenship, or are just curious about the process, read on! A word of caution: definitely do not rely solely on the information below because rules and requirements can and do change constantly – some of what applied in my case is already obsolete. And if you’re not in Paris, things happen a lot faster.
First, here’s a timeline of my process:
April 2009: moved to France with the three-year Carte compétences et talents residence permit (renewed in 2012 and 2015), continued working as a freelance translator through my US-based sole proprietorship Early 2012: switched to a French small business (for the same work) and therefore began paying taxes in France instead of the US Early 2017: after paying taxes in France for five years, was eligible to apply for citizenship and began putting an application dossier together May 2017: submitted my application for the first time September 2017: application was returned to me as incomplete, with a request to provide additional documents that had not originally been requested November 2017: submitted my application for the second time (getting the missing documents and having them translated took a while) August 2018: received appointment for my naturalization interview, two months ahead of time (this is unusually long) October 2018: had my naturalization interview, answered 99% of the questions correctly Four weeks later: did not receive a rejection letter (this meant I’d been approved) May 2019: received the letter from the Ministry of the Interior informing me I was henceforth a French citizen June 2019: applied for and received my new passport and national ID card October 2019: attended my citizenship ceremony (invitation received two weeks ahead) December 2019: attended a special event at the Hôtel de Ville given by Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, for people naturalized in 2019 January 2020: will attend a similar event at the town hall of my arrondissement
Things to know for a successful outcome
Knowledge is power
In spite of my best efforts, some necessary documents (not on the list the naturalization office gave me) were missing from my dossier the first time I submitted it. It took them four months to tell me this and two more months for me to obtain the requested items, so that made the whole process take six months longer. This could have been avoided if I’d only been communicating with others who were also applying for naturalization or simply been aware of the dedicated Facebook groups – Naturalisation (retour d’expérience) is a very good source of information. Even if you think you’re on top of everything, spend some time reading the archives – you might just learn something that saves you a year of waiting, or even makes or breaks your case.
In Paris, you can get an application by stopping by the naturalization office on Ile de la Cité. I recommend doing this rather than simply downloading it because you can also ask the counter person which documents you – with your particular circumstances – need to provide. Asking in person is really the only way to get an answer, as phone calls tend to not get through.
However, since the answers you get aren’t always fully accurate, be sure to also read about other people’s experiences and ask for info as needed (see previous section). The application needs to be filled out in duplicate.
With your application, you need to include a few copies of an ID photo. Note that this isn’t the same photo that will be used for your French national ID card and passport, if you’re successful. For that, at the end of the whole 18+ month process, you’re supposed to provide a current one (taken within the past six months, but no proof of the date is required). So if you really like the photo you submit with your application, be sure to hold on to one copy of it to use again later.
Active involvement in French society
Anyone considering applying for the nationality would do well to become a member of a local association, nonprofit or club of some kind years ahead of time. Note that for the naturalization office, simply donating money to a cause does not count as involvement; you need to be an official member of something and have proof of your active involvement in it. You want to show that you’re not just hanging out exclusively with people from your own country, speaking your native language, but are part of the larger society.
In my case, years before naturalization was even really on my radar, I got involved in some local animal-protection nonprofits as a volunteer translator and in other capacities. In particular, I wrote several articles in French for the magazine published by the Association végétarienne de France (a local vegan society). I did this out of genuine interest and dedication to the cause, but later discovered that it was also an asset for my naturalization application since it was evidence of my integration and ability to use the French language.
French language exam
This is a part of the process I was actually looking forward to, as I’d never had my French-language skills formally evaluated (outside of classes that is), not having ever needed to take the DELF or DALF exam. I mean, I knew I could more or less hold my own in French but wasn’t sure if official test-giving people would agree.
The Test de connaissance du français pour l’accès à la nationalité française (TCF ANF) is specifically designed for people who are applying to become French citizens and as such, focuses on listening and speaking abilities [NOTE: going on their site just now, I learned that people taking the test in April 2020 or later will also have to do some writing components]. It’s offered at various language schools and you take it at some point prior to submitting your naturalization application, since the official test results transcript is one of the documents you must include. There’s no real way to prepare for it – you either have the skills already or you don’t. Since I knew my level was decent, I wasn’t nervous about taking this test.
The first part was a multiple-choice listening test, which did make me panic a bit once it started as it was harder than I’d expected. There were 25 short recordings, each played only once without much time between questions and the room was echoey. One was of a person calling in to a radio show, so you can imagine the sound quality of that.
For the second part, each person in our small group of test-takers went into another room with a facilitator, one by one, to prove their speaking skills. This involved a role-play conversation about a hypothetical daily-life situation (advising a friend who has noisy neighbors) and then choosing and arguing for a position on some assigned topic (“should we or shouldn’t we teach children about the dangers of the Internet?”). Each person was given different prompts. This part of the test was no problem for me, and I even got a bit carried away in my response to the last prompt, wanting to continue making my points even when the woman told me I could stop.
I’m happy to report that my results were good. I got 100% on the speaking part and one question wrong on the listening part (I’ll never know which one). The scores range from A1 at the lowest and C2 at the highest, and to be eligible to apply for citizenship you need at least a B1 level.
Since the results of this test actually have an expiration date, I recommend taking it only at the end of your application-preparation process, just before applying.
Parents’ documents, apostilles and translations
The application asks for information not just about you but about your parents, siblings, children and even past spouse(s) if you’re divorced or widowed. You’re also supposed to list every single address you’ve ever lived at in your entire life (!) along with dates, and I was amazingly able to do this accurately with the help of my dad, who for some reason had kept a record of all the places our family has lived. The same goes for all the jobs you’ve ever had, though I suppose they don’t place too much importance on the fast-food places you worked at when you were in high school, so there’s no reason to get too stressed. Just use your best judgment as far as what to include, and focus on post university positions.
You must furthermore provide your parents’ birth certificates in addition to your own, or just their marriage certificate if (and only if) said certificate states their places and dates of birth. I learned the hard way that this last detail was what mattered! It’s because when you become naturalized, you’re actually issued a French birth certificate (!) listing the places and dates of birth of your parents in addition to your own. As I didn’t realize this at first, I submitted only their marriage certificate and then had to later urgently procure their birth certificates and have them translated since those details were missing and nobody was about to take my word for them. And yes, don’t forget about the translations. Everything you submit with your dossier has to be translated into French by a traducteur assermenté (translator with “sworn” status in France). You will probably also have to get what’s called an apostillefor each of these documents, and then have the apostilles translated (it just keeps getting better). Learn from my mistakes, save yourself time and trouble and request the apostille at the same time as the certificate.
If you’ve lived in France less than 10 years at the time of your application, you will also need to provide a casier judiciaire (police record) from all the countries you lived in within that same period of time. If you’re from the US, this takes the form of an FBI report, which involves having your fingerprints taken, mailing them in and then waiting forever for the result. The result, and an apostille of same, then needs to be translated.
New French name?
When you gain the French nationality, you have the option of changing your name (first and/or last) to something French. Most people opt not to, but you could for example just change a spelling (Mary to Marie) or insert an accent mark (Josephine to Joséphine). Or give yourself the gift of an extra middle name. In France, it’s common to have two or more middle names, so if you have only one, this is your chance to add some extra flair to your life (sadly, I didn’t think of doing this until it was too late). Reflect upon this well ahead of time because you’re supposed to put the new name on your application form. Once the naturalization is complete it becomes much harder to change.
When in doubt, go overboard
Not totally sure if you need to add that document? Add it anyway! It’s best to err on the side of too much rather than too little, since missing documents will mean more delays and hassle (I had a six-month delay because of this). I included a cover letter and apostilles for everything, even though apostilles had been explicitly requested for only certain documents, because someone else further down along the line could have randomly decided that they were needed after all. And if you’ve lived in France for any time, you’ll know what I mean about those random spontaneous rule changes.
When you finally have everything together, put it in a very secure envelope and mail it en recommandée avec accusé de réception (via registered mail with proof of receipt). You’ll get this proof of receipt back in a few days.
While you wait
You now have eight or nine months of waiting until the next step in the process – the naturalization interview, in which you’re quizzed on your knowledge of French history and facts and asked why you want to be a French citizen.
I recommend using this time to read and start memorizing the Livret du citoyen (French citizens’ handbook), which can be found online in PDF form. It covers all the key dates, people and facts of French history, as well as some things about the legislative system. You’ll need to know the information in it (and more) like the back of your hand for your interview. Don’t forget to also study up on the European Union, because you’re trying to become not just a citizen of France but of the EU too, and there will be questions on both.
The Facebook group I linked to above is a great place to learn the questions that are often asked. Also search online for other message forums or blog posts with the keywords entretien de naturalisation. I personally relied heavily on the list in this very useful blog post, and some English-language blogs (like this one) were helpful too. If you speak another language, check for information in that one too.
I began by making paper flash cards based on the information in the Livret plus the questions other people have had. But I soon switched to the flash-card app Anki and that turned out to be a really good way to study – you can create your own set of cards and have the app take you through them randomly, showing you one side and then letting you flip to the other side to check the answer. I created mine in French, the language of the interview, and spent a LOT of time going through them, rehearsing my answer before flipping to the back of each card, and then repeating, repeating, repeating until I could have answered them in my sleep or given a 30-minute lecture on the history of France at a moment’s notice. Since they were on my phone, I could study them in the metro, in line at the supermarket – basically, anywhere and anytime, including in the waiting room just before my interview.
Also check out the very cute video series Les Clés de la République for a fun way to learn all about France’s government, laws, values, symbols etc. (just about all the things you need to know for the interview).
But your answer to “Why do you want to be French?” is probably most important of all, so make sure you think this through and have something to say. In my preparations, I happened upon a horror story from someone who wasn’t ready for this question – don’t let that happen to you!
In any case, start preparing for the interview early because when the letter summoning you to it comes, you may not have much advance notice (it could be just a week or two ahead of time). Furthermore, the letter will contain a list of additional documents to bring, and tracking them down will take a while too, leaving you with precious little time to study. This is why it’s key to do what you can while you still have time. For example, begin creating your flashcards even if you won’t be studying them right away.
Among other things, you should also be able to identify and explain the significance of all the people, place and things in the images of this post, so maybe start with that! 😉
Keep your residence permit current
If, during this waiting period, your residence permit will expire, make sure to apply for anew one well ahead of time (I believe six to four months ahead is the recommendation). If you haven’t applied, this can become an obstacle to getting the citizenship even if all your other ducks are in a row. As luck would have it, mine was expiring one month after my naturalization interview, and with everything that had been going on I hadn’t yet begun applying for a new permit. This is mainly because the type of permit I’d had (the Carte compétences et talents) had been done away with and “replaced” by the Passeport talent, a permit with new specific criteria I didn’t quite meet, and I was at a loss as to what else I could apply for. The residence permit office refused to advise me on my options.
But given the urgency of the situation (my application could not be forwarded to the next step until I supplied proof of having an appointment with the residence permit people), I applied for the Passeport talent anyway. And I was rejected! So if I hadn’t already applied for the nationality I might have had to leave France. In a dramatic turn of events worthy of a Hollywood film, I received the Passeport talent rejection letter just one day before learning I had been naturalized.
For many, the naturalization interview is the most dreaded part of the whole process, but if you’re properly prepared it’s not bad at all.
The lady who interviewed me was friendly and kind, and this is the case with most interviewers, from what I’ve heard. We spent the first half of the hour going through my paperwork and figuring out if I had all the documents I was supposed to. As it turned out, I didn’t, thanks in part to the vagueness of the list of things to bring in the summons letter and the impossibility of contacting anyone for clarification (the email I sent to the address provided bounced – it turned out they gave me the wrong address). Fortunately, she was very forgiving about this and allowed me to send the missing documents later that day.
Then it was time for the questions. One thing that put me at ease was that she wasn’t staring at me while I answered, like they do in job interviews to see how quickly you become unnerved, but settled herself in front of her computer, though still facing me, and types my responses as we went along.
She started with some questions about me, such as how often I go back to my home country, whether my friends are mostly French or from my country (note: there’s only one correct way to answer this) and who in my family still lives in the US. She asked if I belonged to an association, at which point I pulled out some Association végétarienne de France magazines with my articles in them and explained about that. I’d been kind of worried the vegetarian thing would work against me, France still being mostly hostile to such things, but the lady just made a joke about dieting (“Tous au régime, hein ?”) and that seemed to be the extent of her reaction. She took a magazine to look at later.
Next, she checked my knowledge of France, prompting me to explain what I knew about the national holiday (what day of the year, what for, and everything else related to the French Revolution) and France’s symbols and values (liberté, égalité, fraternité and laïcité for good measure). She then asked me to explain what I knew about the last one, including the related laws and regulations and their dates. As I answered, I noticed her nodding each time I correctly explained one of the key facts. I could almost hear a pinball machine dinging as we went along, pushing my score higher and higher.
From that we moved on to the European Union, and there were only two questions: how many member states there are and what year the treaty on the euro was signed. I knew the first one but began to sweat over the second one, since I’d studied only the Treaty of Rome and the history of the EU’s formation. I answered something about how France got the physical currency in 2002 but had begun using it in virtual transactions a bit earlier, in 2000 (wrong – it was 1999), but what she really wanted was for me to name the Maastricht Treaty and give its date (1992). This was the only question I couldn’t fully answer though, so I guess it didn’t count against me too much.
And finally… why did I want to become French?
I started by saying that France, French culture and the French language had been part of my life since middle school and that I’d never stopped learning about them. And that I’d been here for nearly 10 years and really felt that I’d integrated France into my identity – for example, when France has a victory of some kind (like the World Cup win), I feel proud. She nodded enthusiastically as I said all of this.
I then went on to say that I believed in France’s values. I named them all again and said I particularly appreciated the fraternity/solidarity that exists here in France, the fact that people generally want to help each other (in particular by contributing to social security for the benefit of all), and that I felt better having my tax money go to France and help fund French social security than to the US where there is no such spirit (again, all very true). “As you may know,” I continued, the passion rising in my voice, “there are lots of people in my country who are against universal healthcare, and I simply cannot understand that.” By this point in my rant the lady was nodding her head even more vigorously in agreement and deploring the situation in the US, so I went ahead and added that as I saw it, many things happening in the US were a shame and a disaster, etc. (which they are) and she completely agreed. I drove the point home by saying I was proud to contribute to French social security and to be part of this system of solidarity (which I am).
At this point I felt I had been approved. The lady politely cut my speech short, quizzed me briefly on the rights and duties of a French citizen (pay taxes, help defend the country at times of war, vote) and then hurriedly ended our chat as she was running behind and had more foreigners to interview. I was a bit disappointed I didn’t get a chance to amaze her with my knowledge of presidents, kings, world wars, rivers and mountain ranges, overseas territories, authors, artists, novels, films and the short-lived but fascinating revolutionary calendar (1793-1805), but when walking out of a naturalization interview that seems to have gone well, one can hardly complain about such things.
No news is good news
Once your interview has happened, they actually make their decision really quickly, in the next three to four weeks. If your application is turned down, you receive a letter by registered mail within four weeks. If after four weeks you’ve received nothing, you know you’ve probably been accepted and citizenship is on its way! But for some reason (in Paris at least) it takes another six months for it to become official.
Journal officiel and letter
When you do finally become a citizen, your name is published in the Journal officiel (JO), a sort of online governmental bulletin where new laws and rulings are announced and that nobody reads. Accessing it is a bit complex, but this link will take you to the naturalization decrees. The JO listing is how I first learned I’d become French, and then I received the official letter from the Ministry of the Interior a week or so later – an exciting moment even when you know it’s coming. In some cases people don’t get the letter for a long while, so it can be handy to keep an eye on the JO.
National ID card and new passport
After you’ve received this golden-ticket letter, you can make an appointment at a police station to request the French national ID card and passport. I used my new passport for the first time upon returning this past September after a visit home (or should I now say “original home”?). And let me tell you, getting to stand in the much shorter “EU passports only” line at the airport border control was a triumphant moment indeed!
I was naturalized at the end of May, but the ceremony didn’t happen until mid-October (I assume none are held in the summer, when the whole country shuts down for vacation). It was fairly anti-climactic. Prior to applying for the citizenship, I’d heard a rumor that the ceremony was held at the Panthéon, which would have made it a very grand affair, but mine (like those of my friends) was held at the same nondescript office on Ile de la Cité where I’d picked up the application and had my interview. It’s possible that a few select ceremonies are actually held at the Panthéon but I can’t imagine under what circumstances – if someone famous is getting naturalized? If the foreign media is around?
The letter doesn’t say this, but you can bring a guest with you. I didn’t (most people didn’t), but if you have some family around I imagine it’s nice to have them there.
The ceremony is however rather… “automated”? You wait in line outside, show your papers, shuffle up the stairs with the rest of the herd and then get corralled into a long, narrow room called the Salle Marianne. An apt name, I suppose, as you come out of it more French than ever. The event lasts just 30 minutes. First, they hand you a personalized folder containing a welcome letter, the lyrics to the French national anthem La Marseillaise, your new French birth certificate and all birth certificates (yours, your parents’) that you supplied with your application. I didn’t get that magazine back, but that’s just as well as my bookshelves were already bursting.
Next, they show a short film reminding you of your rights and responsibilities as a citizen. A civil servant of some kind then gives a short speech along the same lines, and finally everyone sings a few verses of La Marseillaise together. And that’s it! We were given a few minutes to have our picture taken next to the Marianne statue, if we wanted, and to write something in a sort of guest book.
There were about 70 of us, and we weren’t allowed to linger very long in the Mariannizing room because there was another throng of people waiting outside for the next ceremony. I don’t know if there were still other groups that day, but the ceremony is held every Thursday so it seems a whole lot of people are becoming French citizens.
Reception at the Hôtel de Ville with the mayor
I’d thought the ceremony in October was the end of it, but in early December, to my surprise, Mayor Anne Hidalgo herself invited me (well, her name was on the envelope) to a special event at the Hôtel de Ville, the main city hall of Paris. It seemed to be for all the people who’d been naturalized in 2019, but not for those who’d gained the citizenship through marriage (acquisition de la nationalité par déclaration, technically not naturalization) because a friend who became French through marriage this year was not invited.
It was cool to finally see the inside of the Hôtel de Ville. The reception was held in a Versailles-like mirrored hall with an ornate cherub-encrusted ceiling and crystal chandeliers. I was touched by the mayor’s speech, as she herself is a naturalized citizen. Born in Spain, she and her family immigrated to France when she was a child and she was naturalized in 1973 at the age of 14. After her short talk, servers came out bearing platters of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of juice while people mingled, took selfies from various angles and tried to get close to the mayor for a photo with her.
Again, the invitation did not say we could bring people, and I didn’t want to run the risk of any friends being turned away since the reception took place during the (still ongoing) citywide transport strike and walking all the way there is a big commitment. So I went on my own (boo!). But now that you’ve read this far you’ll know you can (probably) safely bring someone when your time comes.
One more party!
After that splendiferous reception, I really thought that was the end but I have just been invited to an event in my neighborhood for later this month. It seems each arrondissement honors its own new citizens separately, though at different times of the year. It’s a daytime event, and I already know there are no golden carvings on the ceilings of my arrondissement’s town hall, but it’s still fun to have something else to look forward to! If there’s anything interesting to photograph, I’ll post some shots on my Instagram.
In the meantime, that, my friends, is how to really be French!
One of the things I admire about France is that every employee, regardless of the company they work for and their own seniority, gets a mandatory five weeks of paid vacation time per year. Even though this doesn’t include me as a freelancer, I’m happy to see others getting the time they deserve to relax and enjoy their families. I already knew that my native US was far behind other countries in this respect, but this color-coded map on Wikipedia makes the contrast even more embarrassingly clear.
Anyway, as you might expect, the most popular time to take one’s time off is the summer, and the month of August has long been a time of exodus for Parisians. Everyone seems to leave all at the same time for various destinations, be they in France or farther afield. One side effect of this is that lots of small businesses all close simultaneously. A stroll around a non-touristy neighborhood will take you past a series of shuttered storefronts and notice signs such as the ones below (click any photo to switch to slide show mode) informing customers of their re-opening dates.
I always get a bit of an eerie feeling, walking around the empty streets of my mainly residential neighborhood in August. I also often forget that things are closed and make a detour to get a coffee from Dose, for example, only to find the place deserted and to curse my poor memory.
So while it’s a good thing for people working in France, this annual departure can be a bummer for tourists who come to Paris in part to try our vegan restaurants (usually small businesses that close all of August).
If your chosen destination restaurant (or clothes shop, etc.) has a sign in their window, you can try looking for the following key phrases to decipher it and see how long it will be closed:
fermé – closed
ouvert – open
fermeture estivale – summer closing
congés d’été – summer vacation
vacances annuelles – annual vacation
horaires d’été – (shorter) summer hours
réouverture – reopening (date)
en vacances – on vacation
bel été – have a good summer (= without us) 😉
But to help make planning easier, I’ve prepared a short list of some places where you can still find vegan food the rest of this August. Note that this list is not exhaustive and that it’s a good idea to double-check their current hours on their social media pages or call ahead. Don’t rely on what Google or even their own websites say, because those won’t necessarily be updated to reflect any special summer conditions.
Vegan places that are open
Every year, a handful of vegan restaurants in Paris do stay open all summer. Here are some that I personally recommend (plus one brand-new one I’ve heard good things about). Note however that Thursday, August 15th is a national holiday and some of these places might be closed that day.
Aujourd’hui Demain 42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir) Restaurant/café and grocery store. A good place to hang out with a coffee and catch up on your email or work. If you’re in the mood for a sweet indulgence, don’t miss their Freak Shake.
Cantine Le Myrha 70 rue Myrha, 75018 Paris (metro Château Rouge)
Spacious and well-lit, excellent place for a buffet brunch with friends on a Sunday. You may make the acquaintance of Rainette, the restaurant’s sweet tabby cat, who sometimes wanders among the customers to be petted.
Cloud Cakes 6 rue Mandar, 75002 Paris (metro Sentier)
As their name suggests, they have some heavenly cakes! Savory lunch items available too until the mid-afternoon. Limited seating at busy times, but well worth a visit.
Le Faitout 23 avenue Simon Bolivar, 75019 Paris (metro Pyrénées)
All the ambiance of a traditional French brasserie, none of the usual animal products. Live music on Thursday nights. Don’t miss their platter of housemade vegan cheeses!
Hank Burger 55 rue des Archives, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau) 8 rue de Rochechouart, 75009 Paris (metro Cadet)
Really nice burgers, with a choice between their standard patty and a Beyond Beef one. I also love their potato wedges with a cheese topping and their chocolate chip cookies!
Hank Pizza 18 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers)
Vegan pizza with a range of preset toppings, including a couple of gluten-free ones each day. They have a particularly spacious upstairs dining room. If you come here, be sure to stop by the vegan grocery store Mon Epicerie Paris on the same street (see below for a description).
Les Petites Pâtisseries Raw & Vegan 44 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir)
So many creative and delightful raw desserts! I especially like their little fruit tarts and matcha opéra cakes. Rumor has it you can now also find blue mermaid nice cream bowls there! On the same block as Aujourd’hui Demain (see above).
Le Potager du Marais 24 rue Rambuteau, 75003 Paris (metro Rambuteau)
Traditional French dishes in vegan versions. I often recommend this place to visitors since it’s a way to try classic dishes without the animal products. I love their seitan bourgignon, onion soup and crème brûlée.
Sunday’s Coffee Paris 171 boulevard Voltaire, 75011 Paris (metro Charonne) This place is so new, I haven’t had a chance to go there yet. People on Instagram seem to like it though, so take a look if you’re nearby!
Wild & the Moon Various locations throughout Paris Another chain place with generous hours. Try one of their superfood elixir drinks or one of their dishes of the day (often a rice and curry bowl). I love their raw desserts, especially the lemon tart. Their location near Opéra is especially nice as it gets less traffic.
Certain other places are fairly reliably sources of vegan eats.
L’As du Fallafel 32-34 rue des Rosiers, 75004 Paris (metro Saint Paul) Home of the best falafel sandwich in Paris! Prepare yourself for a line at the door. Closed Friday evenings and Saturdays all year round.
Ethiopian restaurants Various locations throughout Paris Due to a cultural tradition of abstaining from all animal products on certain days of the week and at certain times of year, Ethiopian restaurants generally always have a vegan option (sometimes labeled “vegetarian” on the menu). Be sure to specify that you don’t want fish. Google “restaurant Ethiopien Paris” plus the number of your arrondissement to find one. My personal favorite is Le Ménélik in the 17th.
Lebanese restaurants Various locations throughout Paris The chances of finding falafel (an accidentally vegan food) are high at just about every Lebanese restaurant. Look for places with the country’s very cute cedar tree flag.
Maison Landemaine Various locations throughout Paris Try their croissant ordinaire (regular croissant), which is always vegan, but be sure to specify ordinaire so they don’t give you a non-vegan butter croissant. They also have a vegan chausson aux pommes (apple turnover) and usually at least one vegan fancy dessert/pastry. Check the labels in the display case for the “VEGAN” in very small green text, or ask if unsure. They also sometimes have a vegan tofu, avocado and sun-dried tomato sandwich. Their baguettes, like all baguettes in France, are vegan by default.
Prêt à Manger Various locations throughout Paris This chain store is from the UK, which means it’s quite vegan-friendly. In France, they offer one vegan sandwich (avocado, sun-dried tomato and black olive spread on baguette type bread) as well as some vegan soups, chia pudding and sometimes a muesli bowl. They make coffee and matcha drinks with plant milk at no extra charge!
Vegan grocery stores
Vegan items can increasingly be found at mainstream grocery stores (check the bio (organic) aisle in particular), but with the stores below there’s no need to scrutinize labels since everything at them is fully vegan. This can be a good source for groceries for your AirBnB, or for things to pick up and put in a baguette for a DIY sandwich-on-the-go.
Aujourd’hui Demain 42 rue du Chemin Vert, 75011 Paris (metro Richard Lenoir) Combination grocery store and restaurant/café. Also sells clothing, shoes, purses and personal care products. They offer an extensive range of vegan cheeses and certain hard-to-find items such as vegan honey and liquid smoke. Beyond Meat products are available here.
Naturalia Vegan 4 locations in Paris and the near suburbs Part of the Naturalia organic grocery chain, these stores have a much wider selection of vegan cheeses, yogurts and plant-based imitation meats than other Naturalias. Unlike the other vegan grocery stores listed here, Naturalia Vegan locations also offer fresh produce.
Mon Epicerie Paris 31 rue des Gravilliers, 75003 Paris (metro Arts et Métiers) This little grocery has a surprisingly wide selection of products, including Beyond Meat and some others that are found nowhere else in Paris as far as I know (for example Linda McCartney frozen items). Carries more Asian products than the other ones.
Un Monde Vegan 64 rue Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth, 75003 Paris (metro Strasbourg-Saint Denis)
The first all-vegan food shop to open in Paris, Un Monde Vegan is still a popular source of interesting grocery products and books.
With that, I wish you a pleasant stay (or staycation) in Paris. Bon appétit!
In the fall of 2017, this introvert did something bold and adventurous.
I’d been living in France for eight years and things were somewhat stagnant. Everything felt like the same old same old… I’d been in the same city longer than any other since childhood, living in the same apartment for years, and my work was fairly routine and predictable too. I’d been speaking French for decades and had apparently already reached my personal ceiling in it. A new challenge seemed called for, so I took a long-held albeit vague ambition down from the shelf and registered for a year-long Japanese class in the continuing education program offered by the City of Paris.
Vague, because I wasn’t at all certain I would actually be able to learn the language. It seemed so very complex and bewildering, and I’d already heard that it’s considered the most difficult language for English native speakers to learn, meriting a category of its own (one level up from the “super-hard languages”) in the Foreign Service Institute’s ranking of commonly taught languages. So rather than setting out confidently to conquer this new language, I planned to just dip a toe into Japanese for a closer look at how it worked. I figured I’d learn at least a few words and maybe some basic grammar if I made it through the year. I didn’t expect much more than that, but also didn’t dismiss the possibility (wild hope?) that I would turn out to have some natural knack for the language.
So while I wasn’t stressed about Japanese itself, I was a bit nervous about jumping into a class full of French people. I felt I would somehow be at a disadvantage and worried that I might not make friends. I would be a double gaijin (foreigner) of sorts. But I plunged ahead nonetheless – this is where the “bold and adventurous” part came in!
Fast-forward to the present. Last week, I finished my second year of Japanese in the program and got decent grades. I’ll probably register for the third year this fall. So how did it go? Just how tough was it, and how did I manage to get this far? How did the other students react to the strange American in their midst?
I’ll get to that in a bit. But first…
Maybe it’s the look of the language that attracted me – the beautiful loopy hiragana, the slanty futuristic katakana and the forbidding kanji, which look like little houses and dense thornbushes. It seemed like an enigma waiting to be unraveled. But my interest in the country and culture was probably piqued in childhood.
My earliest brush with Japan was at age six when my dad’s company sent him on a business trip to Tokyo. The situation was explained to me, but I could barely wrap my head around the idea of him flying such a long distance away. When I looked at Japan on a globe, it seemed just as remote as the moon.
I believe I was somewhat in awe of him when he returned, bearing all manner of strange and wonderful gifts for my mom, my little brother and me. Among them, I clearly remember a large spiral-bound booklet of flexible chalkboard pages made of rough green material and printed with mysterious roundish characters that you were supposed to trace and copy in chalk. It came with a thick yellow foam eraser of a kind I’d never seen before. My dad explained that the booklet was designed for Japanese children to practice writing their letters in. I can still recall the character あ (hiragana for the sound “a”) being one of them.
He also brought my mom some women’s fashion magazines that I would page through time and again, captivated by the inscrutable writing and above all the fact that they were read from “back” to “front”. And there was a Japanese baby doll for me – she had very white skin, was dressed in a red kimono and there was a pink satin cushion for her to sit on.
My dad had his photos developed into slides and we sat in the living room watching them on the projector screen, listening to his stories as we saw him standing in various squares in front of temples or near Mt. Fuji, surrounded by Japanese business partners and pigeons (see some of his photos below). He told us about eating octopus tentacles and being served a luxurious dish of strawberries with cream. He’d brought home some miniature tubes of toothpaste from his hotel room and these delighted me because the caps were really tiny too, unlike the mini toothpaste tubes in the US. They soon became accessories for my dolls.
These early experiences must have planted a seed of some kind. Later, at university, I had a series of Korean and Japanese roommates and friends. I absorbed a few expressions in those languages without really trying to and began reading some Japanese literature in translation (Banana Yoshimoto was a favorite). In those days, I was interested in foreign languages of all kinds and took a few semesters of Arabic (that’s a story for another day) while continuing on with French, eventually earning my Bachelor’s in linguistics.
In the years after that, I continued to meet Japanese people and be exposed to more and more Japanese literature and culture. I followed the misadventures of An Englishman in Osaka. I acquired Elizabeth Andoh’s excellent cookbook Kansha and tried my hand at many of her shōjin ryōri (Buddhist “temple cooking” or vegan) recipes. Every dorayaki I made, every Haruki Murakami novel I read and every Ozu film I saw was like another knock at the door, another invitation to try learning the language.
A surprising shift in my attitude to learning the language happened in 2016 when I discovered Rachel and Jun on YouTube. Somehow, seeing Rachel – also American, also female – speaking Japanese made me feel that if she could do it, I surely could too. Or that I at least had a reasonable hope. It may seem strange, but prior to that, most of the people I’d known who had learned Japanese were men, and I realized that on some subconscious although illogical level I’d felt that it wasn’t open to me. I would have to look at statistics on this, if they exist, but I have a sense that in the US it is indeed a language more men try to learn than women. In my classes in France, there have been equal numbers of women and men.
So although Japanese was daunting on many levels, and I had a hard time imagining myself understanding and speaking it, I just had to try!
Learning Japanese in French
Since these courses take place in Paris, they are of course taught in French. Trying to learn Japanese in another foreign language may seem like asking for trouble – I myself wondered if that would complicate things – but now after two years I can say that it hasn’t really made much difference.
My French is solid enough that the instructors’ explanations have always been clear to me. The main effect of my being a foreigner is probably that I’m more reluctant to ask a question in class… but then I’m an introvert already.
Something kind of interesting does happen when I take notes in class. As the instructor speaks (in French), my page becomes a mishmash of French and English. In some cases, I write exactly what’s being said in French while at other moments, sometimes in the same sentence, my brain sends the signal down to my hand directly in English without any special intention on my part. This reflex may also be due to my being a professional translator, but I wasn’t the only one doing it – another foreign student who sat near me (and was not a translator) confessed that she also wrote her notes partly in French and partly in her language. The jumble of languages doesn’t pose any particular problem except when I realize I’m doing it and hesitate for a moment.
Occasionally, when I speak Japanese in class and then revert “back” to add something I can’t yet say in that language, I accidentally jump into English and have to start over again in French. This never happens when I’m speaking just French, so I assume the switch out of Japanese triggers a “reset” function of some kind and my system automatically reboots in English.
Apart from these small details, when it came to my potential compared to that of the French students, the playing field was leveled by the fact that this was a new and difficult language for all of us. I may even have had an advantage in a few respects: 1. the most common rōmaji (Romanized Japanese) transliteration system is based on English sound/spelling correspondences and is incorrect if pronounced according to French rules, 2. a good number of “Japanese” words are English borrowings which, while sometimes hard to recognize, can be traced back to their origin more easily by English native speakers than others (sutoraiki/strike, aisu/ice cream) and 3. I could already pronounce the “h” sound, which is usually troublesome for French native speakers. But this hasn’t put me at the head of the class or anything. Some of my classmates have worked at it harder than me and/or have lived in Japan or have a Japanese partner and get to practice all the time.
Is Japanese really that hard?
It sure is – the Foreign Service Institute was right. Or rather, let’s say it has many complex features. The grammar is quite different than what we’re used to, so that takes time become familiar with, and then there are unusual things such as special “counter” words that come after numbers when expressing a number of people or objects depending on their shape, size and other details. One counter word is used for pieces of paper (“flat thing” category), another for umbrellas (“long and thin thing” category) and still another for housecats (“small animal” category).
The writing system of course presents a host of additional challenges. You need to learn two syllabaries, the aforementioned hiragana and katakana, each of which has 46 base characters and 20+ variations. Those aren’t so bad once you’ve had enough practice with them, but they still act as a barrier, significantly slowing down the reading process for beginners compared to a language with a familiar writing system. Then there are the 2,000 kanji or Chinese characters you must eventually learn to be decently literate in Japanese (more than that exist for the ambitious). At this stage, having done two years, I’ve become familiar with a handful of the kanji just by being passively exposed to them in the textbook although I focus more on the small kana that are written above them as training wheels for foreign learners.
On the plus side, the pronunciation is a breeze and you have no gender or articles to worry about. It’s a very concise language, so a lot can often be conveyed with a just a single short expression. Sōdesuka!
But the complexities mean you do need to invest a significant amount of time between classes to studying. This, more than anything else, has been my particular challenge. I was accustomed to language-learning being easier (because I was learning easier languages, apart from Arabic that is), and sometimes didn’t put in the time I needed to, especially at times when work occupied most of my waking time. My solution was to keep going to all the classes, bumble through them (not ideal) and then catch up later. It worked, but please avoid going down this path!
Did I turn out to have a natural knack for Japanese? Definitely not! Luckily hard work is a good replacement.
Learning how to learn
It had been a while since I’d attempted a foreign language and I’d forgotten some of the tips and tricks for learning, practicing and memorizing things. And because Japanese is different in many ways from the other languages I had experience with, I had to figure out how to go about learning it.
Our textbook, Dekiru Nihongo, is full of what we need to know but at the same time maddeningly user unfriendly. It’s written only in Japanese so it can be used anywhere in the world, but this means it can’t provide any grammatical explanations for beginners. We therefore depend on what the instructor tells us to make sense of the example sentences and exercises in the book. As a result, you cannot afford to ever miss a class and supplementary materials can be very useful. I bought Everett F. Bleiler’s Basic Japanese Grammar as well as some French-language vocabulary books to help me figure things out a bit faster.
I’m also thankful that this is now the Internet age. When I began learning French back in middle school, there was no such thing, and no way to even hear French spoken by a native speaker except by going to see good ol’ Gérard Depardieu at the movies (he was in ALL the French movies in those days). Now, learning Japanese, I have a multitude of resources available to me at all times on both my computer and my phone. I quickly found the very useful online dictionary jisho.org as well as conjugation sites and YouTubers specialized in helping Japanese learners. An unexpected resource is Instagram… I activated the Japanese keyboard to be able to add hashtags like #ヴィーガン (vegan) and #猫 (cat) to my photos and discovered that when you type words in romaji or kana, the autocorrect feature suggests kanji. But then you have to make sure you’re picking the right kanji as so many words have the same sound. And to check your pronunciation, you can open up “notes” on your phone and activate the dictation feature (the little microphone next to the space bar). Say a few words and see if the right characters appear. This is also a major confidence-booster!
I’m happy to report that in spite of my foreignness (which didn’t bother anyone, it turned out), I did make friends in my classes. What’s more, I wasn’t the only non-French student. There were three or four of us in each of my classes (from South Korea, Madagascar, Venezuela and Spain, plus another American), so I didn’t even stand out as much as I expected. Occasionally when something related to the US or the English language would come up in the class conversation, everyone would turn to me for my pronouncement on the topic (“What’s the English for sac à dos?” when we were trying to determine the origin of the loanword meaning “backpack”). But the people in my classes were generally friendly and kind. We still sometimes meet up to attend Japanese-related events.
And I’d say this community of fellow learners has been one of the biggest things keeping me going at times when the classes got tough. There have been many points when I was afraid I would have to give up due to falling behind, but the desire to go on to the next year along with everyone else motivated me to keep attending the classes and make time to catch up.
This is a language that would probably be hard to make consistent progress in without an exterior motivation such as a formal class. It gets painful at times, so I know if I were just trying to do it on my own I would have given up long ago.
Meeting the challenge
So the answer to my question of the beginning (Can I really learn this language?) is at this point a somewhat confident maybe! I’m only two years in and don’t know what the future may hold. But for the time being, I’m very happy to have made it as far as I have. We’ll see this fall how the next chapter in my story goes.