Julie doesn’t know.
A French expatriate, Julie oversees the French literature section of the biggest independent bookstore in London. I work there as well, albeit in another department. We see each other every day, but she still doesn’t know we come from the same country. I hold on to my Americanized accent. I point at French books instead of naming them.
Is that weird?
But I can’t tell her. If I do, she’ll want to speak French; if I oblige, I’ll end up excluding and offending my English-speaking colleagues, and if I refuse, I’ll end up offending her. No, trust me, it’s better this way.
And before you say it, no, I’m not running away from a problem. It’s not running away if the problem has no solution. In a situation involving both non-French speakers and my fellow French expatriates, there is just no way of pleasing everyone.
I came to this conclusion while still studying English in Tarrytown. I quickly understood that speaking my native language in the presence of Americans was rude, but the reaction of my compatriots when I began requesting we don’t speak French in the presence of non-French speakers came as a complete surprise.
“And which language are we supposed to speak, Korean?”, asks Joris, daggers in his eyes. I have just suggested that we keep the use of French to a minimum so long as our German classmate, Natalie, is sitting at our table. “French is our language, it comes naturally to us, certainly Natalie can understand that. It’s your business if you have a problem with your own language, don’t take it out on us.”
Of course, not all reactions were this extreme. Throughout the years, I did meet a number of French expatriates who were happy to switch to English in the presence of non-French speakers, but all of them, without exception, would eventually attempt to pull me into a side conversation in French, and showed various degrees of annoyance at my reluctance.
Not that the problem is exclusive to French people; I have seen several of my foreign friends subjected to the same ordeal. Because there is no way out of it, they end up choosing one side or the other, usually that of their fellow countrymen, because it’s easier. As for me, I am not ready to offend anyone, so I am quite happy standing on the sidelines by posing as a native English speaker.
But the question is, can I really pull it off? I have to keep quiet and not reveal my name so neither native English speakers nor fellow French people can call my bluff. It’s a lot of silence for a social situation.
And wait… Julie knows my name. She has to know I’m French- coming to think of it, didn’t my manager mention my nationality when she first introduced me to Julie? Oh God. She probably thinks I’m rude. I have probably offended her already.
I guess I might as well come out of the French closet. The harm is done anyway.
“Hey Julie, why don’t we ever speak French together?”
I am gripping a copy of Notre Dame de Paris so tightly I might be strangling the hunchback. Julie turns around, a nonchalant expression on her face.
“I don’t know, I thought maybe you were more comfortable with English, or something.”
I relax my grip on Quasimodo.
“Oh no…not at all. I just…wasn’t sure what you preferred to do, and didn’t want to impose anything.
– No problem, really. Sometimes it feels good to speak French though. Some situations just require French words…”
And we go on to complain about difficult customers – in French. It’s ok though, there’s no one around who could feel excluded.
When I next see Julie, we are once again alone, and we exchange a few words in French. One afternoon, she walks past as I’m doing research with a Spanish colleague, and makes a joke- in English this time.
Wow. Being in the middle sucks, but apparently it also comes with pleasant surprises.