Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why my pants have changed, but everything else is pretty much the same

If 2010 turned out to be not all that stellar, it was momentous in at least one way: it was the year that my passport expired. It seems almost impossible; ten years felt like such an interminable amount of time back in 2000, when I got it to replace the passport I had gotten at fifteen, which was only valid for five years. But expired it had, and between September 28 and yesterday, when my new passport arrived, there were a good three and a half months in which I was unable to take off on a last-minute international trip, a prisoner in my own country. I lived every day in dread that my rich millionaire would suddenly and unexpectedly show up and want to jet me off to Paris for the weekend, and I would have to refuse for lack of proper documentation--but luckily, or unluckily, however you want to look at it, that scenario never came up.

Whatever else this decade brought (coming of age? loss of innocence? the beginnings of a hard and crusty veneer of bitterness and jaded cynicism?), this was definitely the decade of travel. The decade of three visas and dozens of trans-continental plane flights, countless hours spent cramped and desperate and definitely not sleeping in a metal tube hurtling over the Atlantic. Dozens of stamps, back when they still did arcane things like stamp your passport. Heathrow, Gatwick, Lyon, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle. All of that evidence gone, forfeited for the privilege of a pristine, blank, new passport with no history, no story. All those stamps, all that evidence of another life lived, gone for good. So you know I had to document it.

In 2001 I arrived in France for the first time, apart from a whirl-wind 36 hours in high school, sandwiched in between Spain and Italy, feeling almost like an afterthought. In 2001 I arrived in France for the first time that counts, landed at Lyon's Saint Exupery Airport, and I only regret that nothing can ever possibly seem that new and different and exciting again. I lived with a host family. I took public transportation for the first time in my life. One day on the bus, heading home after an appointment at the coiffeur, a boy leaned over and sniffed my hair. I narrowed my eyes and shot him my best I-am-not-to-be-trifled with look, a look I aparently had years to go before perfecting, because instead of taking the hint he started talking to me. "It's not the 1960s, ya know," he said, or rather I thought he said, though I couldn't fathom why. "Your jeans?" he said, in response to my blank face. "People don't wear bell bottoms anymore." I glanced down at my faded jeans, the bottoms sloping out gracefully over my sneakers. It was 2001 and the height of the boot cut jeans era. Boot cut, flares, call it what you will (anything but bell bottoms, thank you very much), I had them. Then I looked at his skin-tight denim-clad legs, tucked into his white high-top sneakers, and smirked. The skinny jeans craze was still years away in the U.S., and had he been on my turf he would have been laughed right out of Western Maryland College, right out of the entire Old Navy-loving U.S. of A.

"Well, they are à la mode in the United States," I replied haughtily. (Being French, he of course understood that à la mode means "in fashion," and not "with ice cream.")

"Well you are not in the United States," he logically (though a bit irritatingly) replied.

I decided I hated him, though I couldn't help secretly being a little pleased at the fact that I was having an actual encounter with an actual French person. And what's more, I understood him. And more than that, he understood me. I must be making progress.

"So, you are American?" he asked. "East Coast West Coast?" he said in English, now. "Snoop Doggy Dogg?" They surrounded me now, him and his boy gang circled around me like wolves. His earnestly French pronunciation of "Snoop Duggy Dugg," though, made them all seem somehow less menacing.

"Err, yes," I replied. "Um."

"Is it true what they say about President Clinton?" he asked, followed by a lewd gesture. "Have you..." (lewd gesture) "...with President Clinton?" His boy gang snickered in the background. So much for multi-cultural exchange, I thought. In the background a conversation ensued regarding whether or not I was hot, and if so, to what degree. No agreement was reached at this meeting of the minds. Snoop Dogg chimed in with his opinion. "Je te trouve jolie, mais..." he trailed off and waved his hand in a circular motion around his face, his eyes searching and quizzical. This would become a favorite story among all my American study abroad friends, but especially for one girl in particular, who never tired of repeating the punchline, "I find you pretty, but..." with the accompanying vague and yet all-encompassing hand motion, and then cackling in glee. It was official. I hated him and his asshole friends. I shot him a withering glance that I hoped was more effective than my previous don't-mess-with-me glare, and attempted to gaze purposely and meaningfully out the window. To my relief they soon got off the bus, and I was alone with my thoughts and the scent of my freshly washed hair, that had started all of this in the first place.

Over dinner, I told my host parents what had happened, that a boy had smelled my hair on the bus. Or did I accidentally say sniffled? In any case, my host mother interrupted before I was through. "Were they Arabs?" she asked, her tone turned serious.

"What?" I asked. I didn't know why she would be asking. They weren't wearing turbans or flowing robes or riding camels or anything, if that's what she meant. "No, I don't think so," I said. "They were, they weren't."

"What did they look like?" she persisted.

"I don't know," I said. "But they had this accent, it was sort of..." I trailed off, because I didn't know how to say "ghetto."

"They were Arabs," she replied confidently.

"Ok, but..." I couldn't believe how entirely she was missing the point of my story. "I mean, he sniffled my hair. Isn't that weird?"

It was the first time I had encountered the term, let alone the myriad and messy connotations and ramifications of it. Years later I would teach classes full of Ahmeds, Djamels, Farouks, Fatimas, Hamzas, Mehdis, and Youcefs. Years later I would only begin to understand the thinly veiled current of racism running through the country, and how it figured at the center of nearly every question up for national debate: unemployment, immigration, police relations, elections. At the time, I knew none of this. Looking back though, this kid on the bus, contrary to my host mother's steadfast belief--he wasn't even Arab. His skinny jeans and high tops, his tough street accent, his love of rap--he was just a white boy on a bus, trying to be gangsta.

Or maybe he was an Arab after all, what do I know? Maybe my memory fails me, or maybe I just didn't know what I was looking for. I was an immigrant too, after all, and anyway, he was way more French than I would ever be. Really, we were more alike than either of us knew. Just a French boy on a bus, dreaming of thug life in America, and an only borderline pretty East Coast girl with the wrong jeans, desperately wanting to be French.


  1. Oh Rachel, a fabulous story, comme habitude!

  2. Oui, génial! Rafraîchissant de lire ce point de vue sur la question des maghrébins en France.

  3. I had to giggle at the jeans thing, because I was in France in 2002, with my faded flared jeans and my pink Sketchers that had no backs to them (remember those?!). I recall seeing a LOT of skinny jeans then and thinking, well there's a trend that will be in North America in about three years, but I'll never wear it. Well, here it is almost ten years later, and the skinny jean trend has been here for a long time. And I'm wearing them. (But I still also have faded bootcut jeans to mix it up a bit!)

  4. very interesting story! thanks for sharing :)

    just wondering about your passport..did you get to keep the expired one or did they confiscate it? I keep all my old ones for memories...

  5. Crystal--I had to surrender it to get a new one, which bummed me out a little. That's why I made sure to take pictures first.

  6. Just goes to show that you can be French and still be an asshole. Just a French asshole.


  7. Now I recall what your story reminded me of. A while back I tortured myself by reading this blog and some sites I stumbled upon about the "pick up artist" techniques. If you don't know it, be thankful. A lot of it was about how to pick up girls by insulting. You find some girl you think is attractive enough to sleep with but not "hot" whatever that means, therefore -- they postulate -- if you are insulting but pay her attention she will become so involved in trying to respond before you know it you are getting oral sex from her. Or at least her phone number.

    If you ever want to read something that makes you wish being a lesbian was an intellectual choice one could just MAKE (instead of the way people are made, which is what I believe) about that, then google it. Truly nasty.


  8. I've got some news for you. They send your old passport back to you, at least they did with mine, then again Charlie Brown there could be a Frog in a passport office laughing evilly as he tosses yours into a shredder.

  9. No, I didn't get the old one back. I don't think they do that anymore, 'cause then you could just sell it on the black market to a terrorist, no?

  10. i just got mine renewed this year and they sent it back with a nice hole punched in it. Somewhere i hear laughter.

  11. I got my old one back too, just this year. It arrive about two weeks after I got my new one.

  12. Really? Well maybe there's hope then! I had no idea we get it back. I'll keep my eye out.

  13. I renewed last year and got mine back as well.

  14. The sooner I get rid of my passport the better - I look like a murderer in it!

    I do wish that everywhere would stamp it though, I'd love to know how many flights I've been on.

    By the way I take it the call from the millionaire never came? I'm glad for you, that would've been terrible!

    Rapunzel x
    *Tales from the Tower*

  15. You guys were right! I got it back! Woo hoo!

  16. Man, I hated France. I wouldn't mind never returning. Everyone was haughty and rude. I remember excusing myself once, and a woman at the bus stop laughed at me and said, "You are so American!" and I asked her why, and she said, "The French are entitled. They never excuse themselves for anything." Then some asshole yelled at me for saying "bon jour" after six pm. I wanted to cut a bitch.