Study abroad journal: France

Vanessa Weller

I am sitting in a bus in northern France, watching the cows pass by, the sheep, the poplars that, despite the proximity to the English Channel where everything from lemon curd to weather patterns is imported, spring up from the marshes.
The rain comes in sheets. We pass one church, then another. Suddenly, the farms and churchyards clear into a field, and beyond the horizon is the shore: Omaha Beach. The bus stops in the parking lot, and a voice from behind me sighs, “It’s good to be back on American soil.”
True. This little stretch of land has been claimed, as if it were an extension of the embassy in Paris, or a fragment of Maine that floated across the ocean to reattach itself onto another continent. The original Breton name has been long forgotten. Tourists and locals alike refer to the beach, in fact the whole area where American, English and Canadian troops disembarked on D-Day, June 6, 1945, by the code names given by the Americans during the war.
Being an American abroad has never seemed as much a collective identity as this past weekend I spent in Normandy. The beaches where American soldiers disembarked during World War II, the American cemetery where thousands of fallen soldiers are buried, the museum commemorating the war in Caen, teem with Americans. I recognize them by the hands-in-pockets amble from faraway, the American Eagle jeans, Columbia or North Face jacket, and when they speak with each other, it’s an all-out cacophony of whoever can bellow the loudest wins.
I notice this with my compatriots — the other Americans from IES on the trip organized by the institute — not so much when we’re in Nantes together, but now, in a small town where any foreigner is automatically dubbed American. It’s strange. I feel as if being recognized as an American is a blow to my “European” identity.
But what does that mean? I suppose, in all honesty, I have since August been trying to conceal the fact that I am American. No, not because I’m ashamed of my nationality, or because I dislike being American, but because I have been playing a part — a role in a play or a film. Sort of a guessing game between me and the rest of the world. And, again, in all honesty, I don’t quite know how I feel about this.
Being judged as part of a group rather than as an individual must be most of it. And the stigma of American imperialism. It’s certainly the case that most Europeans see Americans as loud and fat and obnoxious, and rather out of touch with the rest of the world. We are a third of a continent, after all, and many Americans never leave the country.
It’s true that America “saved the day” so to speak, in World War II. It’s a well-known historical fact that France officially ceded to Nazi Germany in 1940, but that was almost seventy years ago. In a world where getting along is integral to the survival of the planet — the threat of Global Warming, for instance — I feel that things as petty as who won which war slowly grate on my psyche.
And with the all-time high of the Euro, 1:1.59, Europeans are a little indignant at a time when some Americans act as if we’re still living in the 1950s and a trip to Europe is just an extension of the American Dream, whatever that may be, though, truth be told, the Americans I’ve gotten to know abroad are less of spendthrifts than the French I’ve met.
Normandy is beautiful. The beaches stretch for miles, with wild brambles growing along the cliffs and oyster shells washing up with the waves. It rained all weekend, which has probably left me in this bad mood. And thoughts of war at every turn. Perhaps this little sliver of “American soil” has, in its own way, made me feel patriotic. I don’t quite know how I feel about this.

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