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Proud to be an American Alien

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“I’m moving to France…”

This is hardly an easy phrase to digest, but when followed by “For six months. Then I’m coming back.” it gets complicated.

My friends were upset and the farewell was tearful as I left my little hometown in Pennsylvania halfway through junior year. I was going to Strasbourg, France. New school, new people, new culture, new language.

Terrified, alone, it’s my first day of school. I steel myself and pass the threshold. French class. Their eyes are bluntly curious, there is confused silence and the smell of chalk. A girl in the middle blurts something incomprehensible.

“What?”

“Oh, you are not Russian?” Her English is thick and rolling.
No, I am not Russian. Russian? Why? My false calm screams and burns…

“Uhhh”

And they laugh. I hate them and I can’t do this! I don’t want to be here!

Two days later I walk as purposefully can be managed to my school, past the smoking, glaring students who tended to congeal outside the school gate. This same Russian girl appears, mutters “Hey, come on” and walks in the opposite direction. Absurd!

“Where are we going!”

“Gym class!” she shouts back.

And I follow her to an elementary school. It’s gym blurs bright light and assorted faces. “New girl, she’s nice. Une nouvelle, elle est gentille.” Students surround me and respond by kissing me, once on each cheek. One boy puts his arm around my waist, another hangs on my shoulders. In response to all, I muster my best deer-in-headlights impersonation and force myself still for the kissing onslaught. Some don’t speak English, from them I get blank looks. They are Russian, Armenian, Greek, Afghan, Ukranian, Check, Polish, German, Spanish, Peruvian, Sri Lankan, Italian, English, African. They are fellow aliens, students learning French, immigrants to a completely different universe. Now there is an American in their ranks.

I learned not to take it personally if Russian students ignored me occasionally. I got used to the cheek kissing (albeit slowly). I made friends. During lunch bands of us would wander cobbled streets in search of food then eat it on the riverbank , waving to passing tour boats. My tongue adjusted to switching between two languages constantly: English and French. Students speaking three, four five fluent languages became normal. Locals would respond slowly to our accents, confused. We didn’t mind.

Yesterday I had gym class. The last day of school. I smiled for a picture, my arms around them, before kisses, hugs, and finally departures. Then they were gone. These beloved aliens of mine I may never see again. In a few weeks my plane will leave for the US, and I’ll go full circle. It will be another strange culture. Strange language. Strange school.

I’d give anything to remain here, but a new life beckons from an old place. What lies ahead will be upon me as I never forget and will never be the same.



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