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…
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 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.
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!