The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in Paris?

Having a funny accent pretty much guarantees that I’m going to be asked where it comes from, so I’ve had to do a lot of explaining over the past couple of months.

Being asked where you’re from is always going to be a story. It’s one that is constantly retold but also constantly updated—based on your audience and how bored you are.

The thing that really annoyed me and made me homesick was that I always was being asked this question—both at public places (like bars or restaurants or hostels) or at my house (which was practically a public place given how many guests stayed over for dinner or a night or a weekend or a week).

Towards the end of the four months, I really struggled with coming home from answering questions and meeting new people, only to have to do the same thing all over again. If someone asked if I had any brothers or sisters and I was chewing or something, my host mom knew enough to answer and say that I had a younger sister named Erica who was fifteen and lived with my mom outside of Boston (which, to be honest, is a lot to remember so that’s how I really got a sense of just how often I said it).

But at least it made me practice my French, right? And it kind of forced me to think on my feet while thinking French.

See, it’s hard for me to explain when people ask where I’m from even if the question is posed in English. I grew up in a little town outside of Boston and before going to Paris, I went to school in Philadelphia.

But what do you say when the people you’re talking to have no idea where either of those places are?

In the beginning, when I still got excited when I had to explain myself, I would say I grew up close to Boston and now go to school in Philadelphia. But it ended up that not that many French people know Boston.  Really.

I had to show it on a map to my host family. My host parents lived in apartheid South Africa for three months but didn’t know the birthplace of America. I’m judging a little because I knew where to find both of their birthplaces on a map of France (but to be fair, the host dad grew up in Paris so that was easy).

So then I started fibbing a little by saying I was from Philadelphia and that was it. This also coincided with the period of my study abroad experience where I was the crankiest about constantly having to introduce myself.

The funny thing is, I think that maybe it’s because there are more accessible pop-culture references about Philadelphia than Boston. And to be fair, Will Smith never wrote an insanely catchy rap song about Boston…

What, you don't remember this episode?

What, you don’t remember this episode?

Yes, it is true. That was the most common response. I got it in France, Ireland, and Germany—the three countries I stayed in. Some people just asked “Like Will Smith?’ and I would know what they meant; others went further, asking “Like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?” OR EVEN SINGING THE FIRST LINE OF THE SONG.

Because yeah, that happened. It happened twice and both times were extremely magical.

I could put the link up, but you know the theme song already, don’t you? You’ve already thought of the “Innnnnn West Philadelphia, born and raised…” haven’t you? Come on. I know you have. It’s okay. We all have.

Mr. Will Smith and Mr. DJ Jazzy Jeff: making study abroad experiences memorable since 1990. You could even say they’ve been making life memorable since 1990 too, even.

The other big Philly pop-culture reference I got was Rocky. Which, to be fair, is a pretty big Philly-monument—they even moved the Rocky statue to the bottom of the huge stairs outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art because all the tourists were too lazy to job up the stairs in grey sweat suits (or you know, actually visit the museum).

There was even a guy at Temple Bar—the same German from the Awkward Abroad: Inglorious Basterds post—whose wingman friend looked exactly like Sylvester Stallone. He even pulled out his iPhone to show me his friend’s picture via his contact book from when was wearing a grey sweatshirt and I wasn’t lying when I admitted that yes, he really did look like Rocky.

Oddly enough, one of the Germans we sat next to at Oktoberfest stayed for a couple months in Upper Darby (the Philly suburb Tina Fey grew up in). I’m not exactly sure about what he was doing there, but I’m pretty sure I would have asked that day, just because it’s so crazy that he lived so close to Philly in such a specific suburb. So it turns out he really knew Philadelphia, and a Philadelphia that wasn’t taken from someone else’s idea or interpretation of Philadelphia.

And on the other side of our Oktoberfest table, the two thirtysomething Norwegian guys also knew exactly where Philadelphia was and what it was like, because they had lived in Baltimore for two years. But those were the only two instances where people had actually been to Philadelphia, which I usually describe as “a big city south of New York” if someone hasn’t ever heard of it (coincidentally, Boston is described as “a big city north of New York”).

The Eiffel Tower in the background is so pretty.

The Eiffel Tower in the background is so pretty.

The most surprising “Yes, I know Philadelphia and this is how I’ll prove it” reaction that I got was for the Philadelphia Eagles. I think I already wrote about that, but it came from the awkward laptop bises guy from the first house party my host sister threw.

I was standing by the table, pouring myself a mug full of crappy red wine after walking up the stairs and seeing all of the people dancing in the living room in the wee hours of the night. My host sister was introducing me to some people and said “This is Alissa. She’s from Philadelphia.”

I was met with blank stares from a girl, a guy who had either the most ironic or most sincere imitation Civil War-era handlebar mustache, and the awkward laptop bises guy. Until awkward laptop bises guy enthusiastically said “Eagles!” and then literally walked away from the table three seconds later.

Football americain, as the French say, isn’t that important in France. Most people only know it as that crazy game Americans call “football” even though it’s mostly played with their hands. So I would have been impressed if he knew any football team, let alone the one from my college hometown. But he did, but I never asked how he knew.

Betcha this is how he knew the Philadelphia Eagles.

Betcha this is how he knew the Philadelphia Eagles.

It was at that same French house party that someone asked if I lived in Philadelphia “like Tom Hanks.”

I was tempted to make a joke and say yes, but I don’t have AIDS (haha … kind of).  But it was early in my French experience and I wasn’t sure how good I would be at making jokes in French … no worries, turns out I’m pretty awesome at it.

Interestingly, that girl didn’t ask if I lived in the Philadelphia streets that Bruce Springsteen talked about. There are posters all over for The Boss’ Parisian concert in June, so obviously there’s a market for him over here. Oh well.

And, even more of a disappointment  I haven’t gotten a single cheesesteak reference. Which is weird because that gets mentioned all the time back home. But I still have a couple of days left in Paris to find that special someone!

How to Live in Paris and Not be Awkward

I am now seven weeks into living in France. SEVEN WEEKS! It’s astounding to think how long I’ve been here.

Yestrday was the first time I went on the Metro and didn’t wonder if people thought I was French. I don’t feel like a secret agent anymore when I wander around Paris and blend in with the Parisians. So that’s nice.

Basically, I feel like I’ve finally earned all of the moments where French people or American tourists ask me for directions in French. Although, I could have done without the two French girls asking me where the McDonalds is…

What I’m trying to say is that I feel like a true Parisian and have learned the tricks of how to survive in France. And now I will share with you the Dos and Don’ts that I have learned along the way, so you don’t have to have all of the awkward or newbie experiences that I have had. And lemme tell ya: I have had A LOT of those awkward experiences.

And to make matters worse, there literally isn’t a French word for “awkward,” because French people are way too cool like that. Like, you know in the States if something awkward happens, someone (usually me) always says “awkward….” to comment on it? Yeah, can’t do that here.  So that makes this even more awkward….

Although I am embarrassingly awkward in English without any cultural or linguistic excuses to fall back on. So I guess I’m kind of a pro on being awkward. No biggie.

For example…..

DO: Mentally prepare yourself to have French people ask if you are British or Australian or Irish. It doesn’t matter where: the Metro, the bar, the café, the street, the museum, the shops. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting with my friends or on the phone with a friend or, in one case, when I dropped my bag and swore in English. And it doesn’t matter the age or gender of the curious French person. I get mistaken for a non-American every couple of days.

It’s not annoying to have people eavesdrop or interrupt your conversation. Having someone think I am Australian (the most common, actually) is the opposite of that. It is literally the best feeling in the world, especially if you’re a young girl like me who swoons whenever she hears a British or Irish or Australian accent. And to think that someone might feel that way about my (faux British or Irish or Australian) accent? It’s powerful stuff, man. It’s the nicest compliment especially when it’s for something I don’t have to try to be good at. People just automatically think I’m British and that makes me very, very happy.

The French are usually decent at speaking English, but they’re not so good at figuring out what type of English they’re hearing. I’ve tried to talk in a Southern accent, then a Boston accent, and then my regular accent to French people and they’ve all honestly said that they couldn’t tell the difference. Crazy, right?

DON’T: Say you are from China if someone asks you where you’re from, especially when you are a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl like me. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate. I’ve received a couple of blank stares from people after that joke fell flat.

D0: Expect to have random strangers come up to you and strike up a conversation based on your accent. If you’re with a group of American girls in a bar, chances are you’ll end up talking louder than most French people, and since you’ll be talking in a foreign language, you’re going to attract attention. It’s an instant conversation starter that can last all night and it can be very informative and funny to compare customs or phrases or movies or shows.

And it is very, very odd to realize that just because you are American you are instantly cooler and more interesting.

I’ve literally had a group of Texan boys walk by me and my friends in a bar, then turn around and point to us and say “Americans.” And, this is true, I only knew that they were Americans from that first introduction because Europeans would never have been that rude.

DON’T: Shy away from the conversation. It sounds sketchy, and if someone back home tried to pull the “Where are you from?” I’d be a little annoyed and like “Really?” But here, I’ve met really great people from all over—Norway, Germany, Ireland, and mostly France—just because they heard me talking. I’ve had Americans come up and try to talk to me too, just to talk to another American. The conversation can be awkward and stilted sometimes, but usually it will turn out to be pretty funny.

DO: wear deodorant. Dear God, please wear deodorant or antiperspirant or even slather on some hand cream under your armpits, just so you don’t smell like B.O. It is so, so obvious when someone isn’t wearing deodorant. Not in a HA I’M SO CLEVER, I FIGURED IT OUT kind of obvious, but more in an obvious way like you pooped your pants and you smell and your butt is brown and yeah it’s obvious.


DON’T (bother) wearing perfume if you go out: you will inevitably end up smelling like cigarette smoke because everyone and their mother (literally) smokes here. Why put on purchased perfume when you’re going to wear free eau du cigarette anyway?

DO: count on seeing blazers, leather jackets, nautical striped shirts, endless colors and types of scarves, skinny jeans and pointy shoes (for men and women). Every other stereotype about French fashion is true. BUT…

DON’T: count on seeing a beret. Seriously. Start prepping yourself for endless disappointment and no beret-sightings as soon as you make up your mind to go to France. No berets ever.

No. Berets. Ever.



(Imagine the last line said in the high-pitched Gretchen Weiner “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” voice)

DO: Get ready to kiss cheeks. A lot. All day, every day. I feel like I’ve gotten, if not better, than at least less awkward about my bises. You just have to get used to it, I guess. Practice makes perfect. And it’s not worth complaining about the bises to French people, because then they don’t know what to do when you go to say goodbye or hello to them and they awkwardly stick out their hands. It’s so awkward that kissing them is just the better alternative (never thought I’d have to ever write out that sentence, am I right?)

DON’T: Hug. No hugging, ever. You know how in Arrested Development  there’s the running joke with George Bluth Sr. in prison where he touches one of his family members visiting him and that prompts the guards into yelling “NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!” and he immediately puts his hands up and repeats “NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!” That’s what I’m like in France. NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!

I’m such a huggy person, it’s embarrassing. I hug for the dumbest reasons. You got an A on your exam? HUG! You failed your exam? HUG! You went to your exam today? HUG! I am the opposite of the hug Nazi—HUGS FOR EVERYONE! And I have to remind myself not to hug people. It’s hard for me, all right?

DON’T: order shots at a bar. They will be ridiculously expensive. Like, 5 euro expensive when a beer is 5 euro and a mixed drink is 8 euro. And they won’t even be good shots. It’s tequila, rum, or vodka here; and none of that flavored stuff either. If you ask for a shot of vodka you’re going to get a shot of Absolut and no chaser. It is not worth it. And the cutsey, fruity, sugary shots are usually more expensive when they’re available. The French don’t binge drink, ergo they don’t need shots.

D0: Buy wine. A bottle of wine at a grocery store costs as much (more or less) as a shot at the bar. Sometimes it cost less than soda or juice. Good wine too, not just shitty wine.

[sub-don’t]: Buy the disgusting rosé for two euro that came in a plastic bottle, like a soda bottle. It came with a plastic cap and everything. Wasn’t even worth a cork. with a cap and everything. Good story, bad wine.

DO: Eat bread. Eat all of the bread you are offered and don’t feel bad. Bread and carbs are your friends here. No, scratch that, they’re more than your friends—THEY ARE YOUR AMIS! Trust me, that low carb/no carb crap? It’s a mean American invention that just magically doesn’t exist in France so you should definitely take advantage of it while you can.

Pro tip: Keep your bread on the table, not on your plate or your napkin. Don’t worry about the crumbs, because the French don’t. Just trust me. I’ve eaten a lot of French bread in a lot of French places.

DON’T: Look to salad to being your healthy meal. Salads in France are loaded with weird, random, not-salad ingredients, like ham and deviled eggs and lots of other lunchmeat. If you go to a café, or even a take-away café, the salads are usually at least 3 euro more expensive than a baguette, and it will be salad with lunchmeat or eggs on it and maybe tomatoes.

And if you buy a prepared salad at a grocery store, it will usually have cold cooked pasta on top of lettuce. SO WEIRD. It is completely acceptable, therefore, to take pictures in the Franprix of “Penne salad” that is, as the simple title states, penne in an Alfredo or olive oil-based sauce on top of a bed of lettuce. Even if there’s more on the salad, like chicken or carrots, you’ll still get the pasta with it too. So they’re not always as super healthy.

I’ve even ordered a salad in a restaurant with mayonnaise as a dressing (with the other toppings being shrimp, grapefruit, apples, and tomatoes). And it was called La Salade Louisiane, or the Louisiana Salad. Although I’m pretty sure that salad doesn’t exist in Louisiana or in all of the United States. Because mayonnaise on salad doesn’t exist.

Basically, the French aren’t AMIS with the salad. Therefore, Alissa isn’t an AMI of the French salad.

Pro tip: Best bet for an American salad is to buy your own ingredients and just make your own. Just don’t expect to find any salad dressing either.

DO: eat Nutella on everything. Your takeaway from this is that you should eat Nutella always. It’s a free pass! Nutella for breakfast? Okay, sure! Nutella crepe for lunch? Why not? A knife’s-worth of Nutella for a snack? Sounds good!

DON’T: NOT eat Nutella on everything. Your host family will think it’s weird you don’t put it on chocolate chip bread, American bread, or a baguette for breakfast. And they will laugh when you say it is too early to eat something so sweet.

DO: speak French as much as you can. Even if you know a little French, like “Bonjour” or “Merci!” it will go a long way. And if you know more than that, like how to order food at a restaurant, then you should totally use it.  The waiter or the French speaker might switch to English, but stick to your French guns if you know enough vocabulary.

I’ve also done this with French people at bars, where we agree to talk in our other language until we get to a word or a phrase we don’t know and then we switch back to our native tongue. For whatever reason, that makes the idea of conversing in French less daunting for me, and I think it really helps everyone out in the end. Usually I’ll try and describe a thing in French and ask what that word is in French before I’ll just say the English word. It really has been helping!

DON’T: be afraid to ask someone to speak slower or repeat or explain. Maybe it’s because I do this with my host family more than with random people, but I’ve gotten rid of my fear and embarrassment about this.

DO: Study and practice using the different colors and sizes of Euro bills and coins so you won’t fumble with them when you buy something. You will be tested on this and just like regular tests, it is not a good feeling when you fail or do poorly on them. Your tests are when you try and buy something and you have exactly 0.5 seconds to get the right change out before the shopkeeper starts judging you. Not the best feeling in the world. So it’s worth dumping out your change and wallet on the bedspread and pretending to play “shopkeeper” with yourself so you know how to do it in the real world. No shame.

And, you know, if you can get a friend to play with you, you’ll probably feel like less of a loser…

DON’T: Call the different colored Euro bills cute. The French do not think they are cute. And they will not think you are cute for calling their money cute. Just trust me on this.


DON’T: worry about making a fool of yourself. Just accept it. It’s gonna happen so you might as well have fun and get a laugh and a story (or a blog post) out of it. It doesn’t matter anyway because you are in France and that means everything will automatically be better, even the bad parts.