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Christina: They call me mademoiselle

March 22, 2010

They call me mademoiselle here.

The first time, I had just arrived in France and was on the fast train from Paris to Montpellier. I was gazing out the window at the lonely countryside, my head was aching from blurry town merging synchronously with darkening sky and verdant hill, and the undulations of the train were starting to lull away my fears of being in a foreign country. If this was France, it certainly looked the part.

The train conductor arrived to check my ticket and said with delightful French spirit: “bonsoir mademoiselle!” It was a word I knew well, but the feeling was new. I had no idea that being called mademoiselle would feel so stunning.

Now, not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me for directions, always prefacing the request with “excusez-moi, mademoiselle…” Or, “mademoiselle, où se trouve…” I am not French, and I hardly know left from right in Montpellier, but no matter. He just called me mademoiselle!

I go to my favorite place in Montpellier, an underground café full of tiny pots of tea and books just dying to be read, and after I place my order, the shop keeper always asks, “et autres choses, mademoiselle?” It’s enough to make me want to buy everything on the menu just to hear him say it once more.

They greet me with the eternally confusing bise, they serve me grand French dinners, say good-bye with a cheerful au revoir. And they call me mademoiselle.

Yet, I don’t feel French.

Before I arrived, the question of French identity fascinated me. To become French, to find my French heart—what would I have to do? What a strange surprise to find that the people here are equally obsessed with the idea. The separation of church and state, the obstinate protection of ancient history, the académie française, and the controversial immigration laws: it’s all part of the national movement to define what it is to be “French,” something I’m no longer sure I’m comfortable with. The more I love France, the more I realize I’m not a part of it and that it will never really be mine.

But the way they call me mademoiselle: it’s an unfamiliar thing, and it’s a thing I adore. I have an inconvenient tendency of idealizing what I don’t understand, and it’s because of this that I will always love the ever-mysterious France.

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