An American in Paris: Searching for a National Identity

Karah Kemmerly

Hallo! Or if you prefer, bonjour!

I recently got back from a short, but lovely trip to Paris. My friends and I saw plenty of typical Parisian sights, like Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. We ate soufflés and baguettes and rode the Métro and wandered around in book stores. And we reveled in the Paris atmosphere: bustling and lively, yet so laid back. A city where everyone walks as quickly as possible to reach a café where they sit and drink a coffee for three hours.

Here are some pictures from the trip:

Notre Dame
Shakespeare and Company, an English bookstore in Paris
Palais Garnier
fountain in the Jardin des Tuileries
outside of the Louvre
entrance to the Métro

I was definitely taken with the sights in Paris, but I think what struck me more was the feeling of being American. Because my French is basic at best and my travel companions knew no French at all, we landed pretty obviously in the role of American tourists. This is a feeling I don’t feel often and a role I try very hard- possibly too hard- to avoid.

I fear acting out American stereotypes. I don’t want to come across as arrogant, incompetent and naive about the world. I don’t like my accent.  I am almost never patriotic. If someone talks about the flaws they see with our education system or political system, I usually chime in. And when leaving for Germany, I aimed to blend in as best I could with Germans. Ordering espresso at a coffee shop, I’d ask myself: Do they know? Can they hear my American ‘r’ sound? Is it obvious? I knew I didn’t sound like a native speaker, but I hoped that they at least might think I was from somewhere else in Europe.

Every time I panic about my accent, I think of a conversation I had with one of my friends last year about trying not to come across American. As an international student who hasn’t studied in her home country since she was sixteen, she encouraged me to embrace some of my differences. To be proud of my accent. What matters, she told me, is communication and learning from one another. And though I didn’t totally believe her at the time, I think I’m starting to share her opinion.

Being in Freiburg these past two months has given me a better sense of American nationalism than I’ve ever felt in almost twenty years of living in the United States. Here being American is not always the best thing, but it can certainly be a good thing. I have had the opportunity to share anecdotes and traditions, to explain differences between different regions in the U.S. and to talk about our politics with people on the outside. And many people I’ve talked to have been excited to hear a native’s take on things.

When I talk to German friends about my accent and my fear of coming across as too American and they always kind of shrug at me. “You have an accent,” they say. “But so does everyone. We understand you.”

I’m starting to embrace my accent.