How to be French

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.

dual citizen.jpgIt 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.

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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

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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.

Application

photo_2020-01-03_02-50-38.jpgIn 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.

 

ID photos

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

france coat of arm and flagAnyone 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

simone de beauvoirThis 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.

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Parents’ documents, apostilles and translations

marie antoinetteThe 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 apostille for 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.

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Police record

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?

prénomsWhen 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.

Actually applying

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.

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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 a new 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.

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The interview

rooster symbol of france.jpgFor 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). Bastille DayShe 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!

Naturalization ceremony

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!

Learning Japanese in France

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.

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Our textbook, whose title means something like “You can learn Japanese!” or, more realistically, “Japanese is possible.”

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…

Why Japanese?

kana chartsMaybe 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.

photo_2019-07-04_08-54-05He 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.

Rachel and Jun
Rachel and Jun

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.

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Some notes I took early in my first year.

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.

Japanese keyboard iphoneI’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!

Double gaijin

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.

Cover image from Yasujirō Ozu’s Ohayō (1959).

Ten years in France

One fine day in April of 2009, I packed a large green suitcase full of stuff and headed to the airport, a shiny French visa in my passport. It authorized me to enter the country not as a tourist, but someone who was allowed to stay past the usual 90 consecutive days. I was finally doing it! After years – actually decades – of wanting to live in France, the dream was at last coming true.

Ten years on, I’m still here.

It kind of shocks me that this many years have sped past since the day I first arrived, which in many ways, as people say, does feel like yesterday. I don’t feel so different myself. I still wear some of the same clothes from those days. My hairstyle (long, straight, boring but classic) hasn’t changed. I really feel like the same person overall, much more so than compared to 1999 to 2009.

In 2009, I’d recently learned about a renewable three-year French residence permit designed for people from outside the European Union called the Carte Compétences et Talents and the time seemed right to take the plunge. I’d finished my university studies and was freelancing but otherwise was kind of at a loose end. My work allowed me to live anywhere, so why not France?

(to be continued)

 

 

Stranger in a familiar land

After eight years living abroad, already well aware of the differences between Paris and Midwestern America, I usually still feel a shock when I go back for my annual visit. A culture shock, naturally.

It’s normally just details like the abrupt change in what people are wearing once I deplane in Chicago—a lot less black, way more baseball caps—and other things like hearing English all around me and noticing strangers striking up conversations with each other. Although it’s sometimes hard to distinguish true culture shock from the disorientation I feel after an eight-hour flight and no sleep.

This kind of reverse culture shock is usually but a momentary disorientation, fading after a day or two once I re-accustom myself to my former everyday landscape. I shouldn’t even really call it shock, since I know about and expect these differences.

During my last visit earlier this summer, though, the differences for some reason seemed greater. I also found myself paying more attention than usual to all the little things that had changed in my home city since the time I first left. Improbable new flavors of Mars Bars and M&Ms at checkout counters. A laundromat that had become an electronic cigarette shop and a parking lot that used to be a bank. New teenage clothing styles I hadn’t noticed before. And most disconcertingly, large flat-screen monitors at the train station playing mass-shooting survival instructions (similar to these) on a loop.

And then I had a strange experience that went way beyond normal culture shock.

I had been cozily isolated at my parents’ house in the Wisconsin countryside for a week or two, not venturing into town much but spending my time with family and taking advantage of the large kitchen to try out new recipes. A visit to my sister in Minneapolis was next on the agenda, and on the way I would need to stop by my bank to reset the PIN number of my debit card.

I felt fine when I entered the mainly empty branch office, where I was greeted by a tall, solidly built man in his 30s who looked inordinately happy to see me. A dark-haired young woman behind a counter seemed to share his feeling. To my surprise, this unnerved me. I stopped where I was for a moment, halfway between the door and the counter, to collect myself while the two of them smiled broadly in my direction as if I were a celebrity. This was of course completely normal, I knew, especially in a semi-rural area of the Midwest. But their attentiveness somehow struck me as aggressive. I went up to the woman to explain what I was there for, hoping I could get the PIN number changed without too much delay.

“How are you doing today?” the woman asked, before I could speak. I had a curious urge to back away and almost narrowed my eyes at her. How can she be so personal when we’ve never met until this moment? And yet, countless times in my life, I reminded myself, strangers had inquired as to my well-being and I’d never been bothered. In fact, it was nice that she’d asked. Feeling more and more out of place, I managed to react as a normal American would, telling her I was fine and returning the question before going into the situation with my card.

Using the word “you” to address her suddenly also felt odd, overly intimate. But there is no “vous” in English. I wanted to reach for a more formal equivalent that just wasn’t there.

For a debit card problem I would need to speak with Doug over there, the woman informed me. She motioned to a corner, bracelets clinking, and I turned to see the tall man grinning at me from the entrance to his padded cubicle.

After shaking his hand and going through another how-are-you-good-and-you, I dutifully sat down, with a growing sense of unease, in front of Doug’s desk while he called up my account details on his computer. This took a few moments, which gave him time for chitchat. “So, what are your plans for the weekend?”

What? My mind raced. Why would he ask that? The question took me off guard—it felt invasive and wrong, the way it would be if a casual acquaintance at a dinner party asked you to state your yearly income. I fidgeted with my cardigan, pulling one side up over the other. “I’m spending a few days in Minneapolis with my sister,” I confessed, unprepared to make up an alternate story but feeling a bit violated. Come on, I told myself, he’s just being friendly like everyone else here. I got more flustered and began inspecting my nails.

“Small world—I’m going there myself tomorrow to see some old college buddies,” he replied. “We’re going to the beer festival. Have you been to the Twin Cities before?”

Somewhere around this point, I felt myself sort of split into two. The American me recovered her senses and joined in the talk without missing a beat. Yes, I’d been there many times since my sister moved there ten years ago. Yes, I liked the city and we did have some fun things planned to do during my stay. The non-American me (I prefer this to the overly restrictive “French me”) was appalled at his presumption and mentally crossed her arms over her chest. What’s it to him if I’ve been there before? What’s he after anyway? Say you’ll be really busy so he doesn’t get any ideas. Say it!

Meanwhile, American me kept talking. She made a final few remarks about the size of the art museum and the nice restaurant scene in Minneapolis before moving on to the second order of business: finding out how to deposit a check remotely. Doug explained that I could download the bank’s app and just scan it. “Here, let me show you.”

American me turned on her phone and went to the App Store but remembered she had no network there with her French phone plan. “The coffee shop just next door has wifi,” Doug volunteered. “You can download it over there. I’ll go with you if you like.” Non-American me poked American me in the shoulder, a little too hard. Why would he go so far out of his way to help? We’d better get out of here.

The encounter ended without incident and I was soon on the train to Minneapolis, musing over my bizarre experience. It had been like inhabiting two sets of consciousness at once, with two simultaneous sets of reactions. Two identities superimposed in the same body. Clearly, the bank representative hadn’t had any ulterior motives in my regard and was just being friendly. If he’d been after something else, American me would have detected it. But non-American me was taken aback by his approach, automatically filtering it through the prism of what would be normal in France, and couldn’t help wondering what he was up to. At the very least, she was so unused to a stranger showing an interest (however transient) in her personal life that she was disturbed by it.

For the first time, I had experienced American culture directly through foreign eyes, having the visceral reactions of a non-American myself rather than just imagining what someone would think or feel in a given situation. The new identity I had developed over the past eight years could not so easily be set aside.

Even if unfamiliar with French culture, you will have deduced from this story that customer service in France, where I live, is quite different from the American approach. In France, the default behavior of people working with the public is one of businesslike straightforwardness largely devoid of emotion, an attitude that often strikes Americans as cold or rude (but actually is not). In your everyday life in France, whether you’re buying bread at the bakery or trying to return the wrong size shoes at a department store, you’ll usually be assisted by no-nonsense individuals who greet you courteously but don’t act like they want to be your friend. There’s no “How are you?” because that’s perceived as nosy.

Customer service people also don’t fall all over themselves to assist you. They’ll help you when they’re good and ready. If you’re standing at a grocery store check-out, your items on the conveyor belt in full view of a cashier already busy stocking a shelf, they might come over only once they’re done. And this isn’t meant to offend; there’s just an understanding here that customers need to be reasonable and patient.

Smiling is purely optional. Even catcalling men on the streets of Paris have never told me to smile. (What do they say, you ask? Just last week, one of them trampled upon all the rules of civilized society and yelled Bonjour! Ça va? in my direction.).

To be fair, most of my experiences with France are concentrated in Paris, and as any non-Parisian will tell you, this city is not representative of all of France. Like in most countries, attitudes in smaller towns tend to be friendlier than in large cities. Parisians themselves are aware of their general reputation for unfriendliness. In this short comedy sketch from 2003, French actor Omar Sy (The Untouchables, Mood Indigo) plays a Malian immigrant who quickly learns that his natural friendliness is not welcome in Paris. He decides to assimilate to the culture of his new home, becoming just as grouchy, unhelpful and unapologetic as everyone else—a move that earns him the approval and respect of his next-door neighbor.

In the US of course, people working in customer service are encouraged and expected (by their managers, by society) to be very friendly, smile a lot, and make small talk. This is famously interpreted by many non-Americans—not just the French—as fake and superficial, as they suspect these people are not really so happy to see them. Yet when you know the culture, you understand that there isn’t any duplicity in it because the other players of the game (other Americans and people living in the US) already know that it isn’t meant to be genuine, that the friendliness is intended to last for the duration of the encounter, to create a cheerful ambiance.

Of course, these tendencies are merely the default; exceptions can always be found. Smiling customer service people do exist in Paris, although this is more likely to reflect their genuine mood of the moment, and I certainly encountered some gruff, grumpy characters during this stay in the US—most notably, and just as genuinely, at the DMV.

I had a few more culture-difference annoyances during this stay, particularly at restaurants. I myself worked as a restaurant server in the US for years during my university days and completely understand the reasons behind a waiter or waitress’s accommodating—some might say obsequious—manner. But I was more irritated by it this time than during other visits back. I just wanted to be left alone, even if it meant I would have to chase after the waiter in the event of a problem.

And now I will reveal a paradox. In spite of my reactions at the bank and the restaurants in the US, in spite of what I’ve grown accustomed to here in France, friendliness among strangers (to a point!) is one of the few things about the US that I miss.

My context-independent, innermost feelings about smiling and being friendly are complicated. Despite my nationality, I am by nature a rather solemn, poker-faced individual and an introvert, a condition that’s only exacerbated by working as a freelance translator. So on the one hand, my natural disinclination to smile too easily means that I’m comfortable (to a certain degree) living in a non-smiling place. But on the other hand, I’m aware that smiling can be good for you, physiologically speaking, as long as you don’t feel forced. And it can be contagious, helping lift the moods of people around you even if just by a little. When I’m in the US I find it’s good for me to be prodded by social situations into smiling and opening up a bit rather than staying encased in a shell as I would otherwise, or as usually happens in Paris.

I will admit I’ve sometimes given in to the temptation to make small talk in France (strategically, to the right type of person—recall my reaction to Doug), partly out of a real need to talk to someone besides my cat.

If it were up to me, I would probably dial American effusiveness down a bit and turn up the volume on smiling and small-talk in France. Some people are just never satisfied. 😉

Just how American am I now? How French/non-American have I become? I’m sure that my inner core is still quite American, having been forged in the US over several decades, and that if I were to move back I would shed my non-American reflexes after a while. But for the moment they’re still firmly in place.

The very last day of my five-week visit, I was back at that same train station with the mass-shooting video and nearly collided with a woman coming the other way around a corner. At a speed exceeding that of rational thought, an apology in French rather than English burst out of me. Whatever my cultural behaviors might be, the default public language of my operating system has clearly been reset to French.

Something from nothing

As a translator, I’m not used to creating something from nothing. I’m not accustomed to writer’s block or, as they say in French, l’angoisse de la page blanche (blank-page anxiety). Always, in my work, there is some existing something to be transferred, transposed, flipped or otherwise shaped into another form. It’s just a matter of starting, as I always have a lump of predetermined raw material waiting for me in what we refer to as the source file.

Freestyle writing, as it could be called in contrast with the writing of a translation, offers a tremendous amount of freedom. If a sentence isn’t working out, I can abandon it and move on to a new idea rather than being stuck molding and massaging until it reaches a satisfactory state, no matter how long this takes. It’s a bit like being used to walking with heavy shackles around your ankles and suddenly being freed from them. Now you can easily go anywhere. But then the page blanche question pops up: where will you go?

After reading blogs for many years without any intention of starting one myself, I’m now curious to give it a try. Partly to share my culinary experimentations, travel discoveries and anecdotes from a life lived abroad, but also as a reason to more regularly practice original writing—setting down some of my own ideas for once.

It’s a strange feeling, knowing that I’ll be creating something from nothing. But it won’t really be from nothing. Like with any kind of writing, there will be a formless something hanging about in the ether that needs to be caught and expressed. I don’t know quite what it will look like, but finding out may be kind of fun.