Americana à la Française

Jamie Hensley

© Copyright 2003 by Jamie Hensley

Photo of Lance Amstrong and others during the Tour de France.

This is a story about living in another culture, thinking of home, and loving both places.  We can't be in two places at once, so how do we cope?

I think everyone has dreamed of dropping their present life and moving to a far-off land to start a new one; a life that would invoke exotic adventures, packed full of so much excitement we would never be bored again

 That is what my husband and I did.  One night after discussing the woes of living in our miserable, monotonous small town, we dreamed up an eccentric plan.  Our brainchild was to move across the globe to be alien residents in a foreign land, so to speak, and live out our fantasies of leaving our home town far behind.  Not realizing that within the year, our wildest dream would come true.

After much planning and a few miracles we, along with our four year old daughter, jetted off to our new home in the south of France, the beautiful city of Toulouse.  We were to live in a tiny, but furnished flat to live for several months.  We already had some family who lived there, but we had high hopes for making new relationships with future friends.  We wanted to eat, live and breathe like the French.  We wanted to strip ourselves of our telltale American ways and blend in so perfectly that we would be mistaken for a native.  Was this possible?  Yes! Because we had the hunger!

After we were there only a few days, we began to feel as if this was our home we never knew existed before.  We didn’t feel we had to try hard to fit in, my husband even told jokes in French by using his pocket dictionary.  He got lots of laughs, and we were determined to believe that they were because his jokes were funny, not just a lame attempt at speaking a language he didn’t know.  We wrote to everyone we knew back home, raving about this place, our new life.  How exciting every little tiny thing was to us, down to the cute packages of sugar and chocolate that came with every cup of coffee.  We were in our destined place!  We soon started to scheme about how to get jobs and raise our kids here…..

However, I must admit, once in a while, the homesickness reared its ugly head, and we longed for a slice of the familiar.  Though we loved France, it seemed that everything was just, to put it bluntly, so French!  Once we tried to satisfy that bug by going to Les Golden Arches, and braving Mad Cow disease to get some Americana .  After all, what is more American than a Big Mac?  To no avail, however, since it was still an experience française.  We had to order our burgers with a faux French accent to be understood:  Sheez-boor-gehr, see voo play.

Another time we decided to go to a movie at the local cinema which was playing in English.  We sat for two hours immersed in 1940’s Americana, every single word in English.  What relief!  When it ended, forgetting we were still in a foreign country, we walked out the door of the cinema into the blinding sun…into France.  We had instant culture shock, as if we’d just step through a portal into a hostile territory.  After we stood there a few moments, listen to the foreign chatter of people eating lunch, and hearing the strange sirens and motor noises, we realized we had been living in this country for months now.  This was our reality.  We loved it, but it was marred by a feeling of wanting familiarity so badly.  What exactly did we need that we didn’t know how to satisfy?

As July approached, we heard rumors that the famous bicycle race, the Tour de France, would pass nearby.    The only thing we knew about this sport came from our own experience of purchasing mountain bikes and letting them sit in our garage.  Could a Texan on a two wheeler satisfy our temporary hunger for the homeland?  We decided to give Lance Armstrong a chance.

My expatriate uncle came to our little flat to pick us up and drive us into the country, along part of the route the cyclists would soon follow.  Race enthusiasts lined the narrow country road, with signs touting the name of their favorite contestant.  But not one sign had the name of our American racer.

As my uncle navigated the twisty road, we pondered how to let Lance know that people from the United States had traveled to this remote corner of the world, ready to brave hostile hordes and shout encouragement… in English of course!

After brainstorming rhymes reminiscent of Dr.Seuss, we decided on “Go Lance, Dance on France!”  Swelling with pride, we nailed an old sheet to two sticks, and making it official, sprayed on our clever jingle with some black La Krylon.  Surely the cameramen in the helicopters overhead would notice it, zoom in, and voila!  The world’s spotlights would shine on us!  Our fans Stateside (aka: our family) would turn on ESPN, seeing the birds’ eye view of the crowd, spot our sign and scream “There they are!”

 In the petit village of Caraman, where the Tour would be passing through, we secured a spot on the sidelines on an incline so that the bikes would be going more slowly for our video camera to better capture Lance’s delighted expression when he saw us.  There my husband and uncle unrolled the sign for the world to see.  Well, at least for the whole village to see.  As our proud statement unfurled, the crowd’s shock made me understand, that for these villagers, we had unveiled a monstrosity.  Our grand plan for a global début as Lance supporters now threatened to initiate an international incident. A definite faux pas, at the least.  Without delay, my native French aunt and I defected to the other side of the street - unfortunately no wider than a Peugeot – pretending not to know the Yankee invaders.

At our horror, an old timer approached and challenged our guys with a French expletive, but they only raised the banner higher.  Would Lance appreciate the courage (or audacity) of his supporters?  Surely, on seeing our slogan, he would wink at us, and propelled by the energy of we who’d come so far to cheer him, he would surge ahead of the pack, and on to victory!

Having taken up positions, we waited anxiously for the racers to appear.  A publicity caravan preceded the event.  What a parade!  Smiling hostesses rode loud, honking sponsor vehicles crafted like wheels of cheese, watches and little red sausages.  This advertising convoy chucked promotional items to the waiting crowd.  Yes, they actually hurled watches, cheese and sausages at us!  Logo-laden knapsacks, hats, and notepads rained down from the motorcade.  Surprised by the deluge, we didn’t get much loot, since our first reflex was to dodge!  (Had Americans become targets, we wondered?)  Finally, my husband did catch a bright pink CD holder, but not on purpose, and not with his hands, which were busy holding high our homespun banner.  Remember I said we had ‘breathtaking’ experiences?  That certainly took his breath away.  And he didn’t even manage to keep the offending projectile as compensation.  Nope, while distracted by the agonizing assault on his manhood, he couldn’t prevent a Frenchman from snagging the coveted prize.

After an hour evading stinky cheese missiles, and combating irate villagers, we finally spotted the cyclists coming up the road!  We strained to glimpse that famous yellow jersey, anticipating Lance’s reaction on seeing his friends from the States.

Coming closer!  The tight-packed group peddled on.  A rainbow of colors blurred before us.  Where was the yellow?  There!  There! Speeding past us, going, going, gone!  I had caught a glimpse of yellow. We knew it was him, but to our disappointment, he did not notice our sign.  He couldn’t see how much we wanted him to dance on France.  All those hours of anticipation, all our creative energies composing this welcome banner for him, …..and he didn’t even notice us, what a letdown!

But then we saw it.  Standing in the road dismayed in the wake of the frenzy, with only our tattered dreams and war-torn sign, we saw it winding slowly up the road.  It gave us a friendly honk, and its passengers gave the thumbs-up.  They’d seen our sign, understood what we needed.  Yes!  It was the United States Postal Service Team car!

We had begun to feel out of place, homesick, and it began to make us look at France and its ways negatively.  We were downbeat because we stopped seeing the country in the eyes of a tourist, and it started to feel monotonous.  Which was similar to the way we viewed home before we decided to begin this adventure.

After getting even more immersed into French culture that day at the Tour, we had a renewed excitement of our new homeland. This was the once-in-a-lifetime experience that we dreamed of, planned for, and it wasn’t over yet!

 Later, back in our little flat in Toulouse, we had a feeling of wellbeing, simply because something almost insignificant – just a familiar logo on the side of a car –was here with us on the other side of the globe.  Our homesickness vanished and we realized that we had gotten what we desired. We felt so happy to be there and we could mentally return to our New Life in the Old World that we loved so much. Our life of crusty breads, superb wine, and all-things-French.  Including the Beeg Macs.

I am 30 and a stay-at-home mom of two kids, and one of my passions in life is traveling.  I love to see the humor in life or embarrassing situations, especially if it is during one of my travels.  Naturally, I love to write about it.  I think my next piece will be about when I slipped on olive oil in Italy and threw out my back.  Now that's  embarrassing.

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