Sunday, July 4, 2010


First, get into a vehicle of some sort and drive, fly or sail across a border.
Get out of the vehicle and bang, you’re a foreigner.
Funny thing is, nothing has changed about you.
You’re exactly the same person.
But suddenly you have an accent, the trademark of the foreigner.
And people are suspicious of you.
Because you may look a bit different from them.
You feel they're different, but majority rules.

If you stay for longer than a vacation your concept of "foreignness" starts to evolve.
You begin to adapt to the new culture.
You dress differently, you eat differently, you speak differently.
Sometimes you have to learn to speak a new language.
Learning a new language is a wonderful thing even though you
feel like an idiot for not being able to say the simplest things for a few weeks.
Locals will also think you’re an idiot for not being able to say the simplest things in their language, forgetting that you can say them perfectly well in your language which they probably don't speak.
In a couple of months, you find that you can speak with ease.
And you’ve learned more than just words.
New customs have been absorbed and you perceive the world differently.
You’re enriched, expanded, grown.
And now, when you go home, you’ll be treated like a foreigner.
Because I’ve lived in so many places, I’m a universal foreigner.
There’s nowhere I can go without hearing:
“You have an accent.  Where’re you from?”
On one hand, I’ve been massively enriched by other cultures 
and experienced thrilling things.
On the other hand I don’t belong anywhere.
In a patriotic, flag-waving way.
And this isn’t a bad thing.
The world could do with less jingoism and xenophobia.
There’s no reason to be defined by our birthplace, something over which we have no control, for heaven’s sake.

I’m a citizen of the world and I wave whatever flag I fancy.
I’ve chosen the country I call home and it’s not the place I’m “from”.
On June 26th I celebrate with champagne and quiet satisfaction, my personal independence day, the day I left my birth country for the country I consider home. 
The day I became a foreigner.


Claire King said...

The thing that resonates with me most about this article is that others think you're an idiot because you make simple mistakes in your second or third language. It makes me want to say 'I have a degree, you know!'
I find in France that is much more pronounced than in Ukraine, where people were so surprised to hear you speaking their language, even when I bungled it completely they still tagged me as some kind of genius.

Nora Lumiere said...

There’s a great deal of bigotry against foreigners everywhere and the contempt of uni-lingual people for those who learn their language, is a reflection of their own ignorance.
Yes, I’ve also noticed that Russian-speakers from Ukraine and Uzbekistan are amazed and grateful to hear even the most primitive forms of Russian from non-Russians.
The fact that there’s is no word for “empathy”in French may explain a lot.

billynojob said...

Very interesting post, and as I'm intending to become a full-time foreigner at some point, a very uplifting one. Except for your wildly optimistic "although you won’t know it for four to six weeks while you learn the basics". Four to six weeks? What? I've been making efforts to learn French now for 20 bloody years, and I still "feel like an idiot"! I must be even thicker than I thought...

Marisa Birns said...

Citizen of the world is what we all should aim for in this day and age.

France is a place I would be nervous to try to utter a word in French, because friends who live there tell me there is no patience for non native speakers.

Hoping that's changed, though.

Nora Lumiere said...

When you consider that thousands of tourists a day descend on France using bad French or some other language (usually English), you can understand a certain local irritation. I’ve seen Parisian bus drivers deliver patient and polite directions in English to rude tourists who didn’t even make an effort to speak French and many other French people who’ve gone out of their way to help. There are rude French people, but there are also rude tourists who tend to forget that France is a place where people are trying to go about their lives; it’s not Disneyland.

Nora Lumiere said...


Lol, that would be 4 to 6 weeks sur place. It's all about immersion.
You sell yourself short, why only this morning you told me there IS such a word as "empathie."

Claire King said...

You're right - London gets a lot of tourists too but almost without exception they try to speak English. I certainly don't mean to imply the french are universally rude. The people I work with are very accommodating of my linguistic quirks. The most condescending, I find, are telephone cold-callers. They often ask if my husband is home "maybe he speaks better French..."

Nora Lumiere said...

Groan, the “May we speak to your husband?” line!
(It amazes me how paternalistic France still is and not because French women are shrinking violets. But that’s another subject.)
English may be an easier language to speak, it’s certainly more widely used than French. I think London is perceived as a “serious” city where people actually work, whereas Paris is seen as the dream destination full of frivolity, food, fashion and “ooh la la” and there to amuse tourists.

elleonthego said...

I can certainly emphasise with your post.I was an expat child and never felt like I belonged anywhere but I certainly feel "enriched" too for having had such a rich mix of cultures and a gift for languages.
I'm still an expat these days but I'm lucky to speak french without an accent , the funny thing being I'm sometimes regarded with suspicion in my own country !
I find there are nice and not so nice people everywhere , I've made very good friends in France and love the way of life, most of the time...


Nora Lumiere said...

Nice to hear from another universal foreigner.
Living in another country quickly dispels the fear of foreignness and everybody should do it.

paris parfait said...

Having lived in several countries, I've found some problems are universal (other than language). Bureaucracy is the worst and France does not take the prize for this. Having recently dealt with bureaucracy related to my late husband's estate in three countries - while hailing from a fourth - I've wondered about my place in the world... particularly since my country of birth now seems unfamiliar, in so many ways. I think when you've lived a lot of places, you're never really at home anywhere. There are always elements - and people - that you miss. I can live almost anywhere, but I guess the 'home' I seek travels with me.

N. L. Lumiere said...

Given the ugly jingoism we've seen in post-Brexit Britian recently perhaps the concept of a "home" country is over-rated.
Once we start to travel we may never feel quite at home anywhere again but, on the up side, the world is our home and we're not afraid of "foreigners" anymore. We know a foreigner is just us with an accent.

As you say, home travels with us. Someone wrote: "Home is the bright cave under the hat".