Sting! Sting! Sting!
I can live in France, right? I mean, it can't be that different; France is my neighbour; there is nothing but a little channel of water that separates us. Some people even swim across it.
I heard that in order to swim the English Channel, you have to cover yourself, top to toe, in one thick layer of slippery gel, this is to stop the jellyfish from stinging you. I can imagine line after line of these jellyfish making a great jelly-wall around France to stop the swimmers getting through.
I can live in a country protected by jellyfish, right? If the swimmers can make it to France in their slippery swim-suit then so can I in my, er, aeroplane. Well, not my aeroplane...
As it turns out, living in a different country, for me, is like living in a sea full of jellyfish. Invisible ones. Every time I go for a little swim, sting! One gets me. Every time I do something that seems natural to me, it becomes quickly obvious that it is not such a normal thing to do in France. It's a stinging realisation.
On my first week here I bought a yummy French croissant and was popping bits of it into my mouth as soon as I left the boulangerie.
“Stop eating fatty!” I heard. Sting! Where did that come from?
Another day, I was walking back from the supermarket when it started to rain. Admittedly, it was very, very light rain, but to protect my make-up I put up my umbrella.
“Surely it's not raining enough for an umbrella?” I heard. Sting!
Why, why, why, is that any of your business Mr So-and-so? You don't have make-up to worry about. Or hair.
And then there is my favourite... “I knew you were English because...”
“I knew you were English because you have nail varnish on...”
“I knew straight away that you were English because of your green socks...”
“I just knew you were English because you're drinking tea...”
Sting, sting, sting... I felt like I was being studied. And then:
“Look, you've gone all red! That's so English!” Sting again. Surely it wasn't like that for everybody? I mean, can sock colour really indicate your nationality?
Some of the other English girls, my colleagues, are like big slippery fish who are really good swimmers and especially good at avoiding jellyfish. And then there are those that just swim right into them but don't feel the sting, just a bit of a tickle, and so they laugh. They're just big, slippery, sock-wearing, tea-drinking, croissant-in-the-street eating, umbrella-bearing, manicured fish.
I thought they were just so lucky to be like that.
Then one day my friend called me: “It's nice when people say what they think,” she said. “And when you meet someone from a different culture, obviously you think about it and so you talk about it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “But the umbrella man didn't know I was from a different country. And 'Stop eating fatty'? Was that really a nice way to say what he was thinking?”
“That could happen anywhere!” she said. “The only reason you notice these things is because you are in a different country.”
Good point. All this time I had been looking for jellyfish stings. Ouch! That's not such a clever thing to do.
So, thanks to my friend I came to the conclusion that all of these jellyfish only existed in my head. After all, that is exactly why I'm here, right? To discover another culture; and at the same time this culture wants to learn about mine. And why not?
I needed a change of attitude.
Yes, it's true that I haven't seen many brightly coloured finger-nails here, French girls have a very natural look. And their world-celebrated sense of style obviously rejects green socks. And everybody knows that we like our tea in England, whereas the French drink little black coffees.
“I drink coffee too you know,” I said the next time the subject came up in a café, with a French girl.
“Well of course you do!” was the reply. “ And I often drink tea.”
“Yes. But not with milk and sugar, like you.”
And so I told her all about the 'things that make me English.'
“Well I usually paint my toenails,” she said. Interesting... I hardly ever paint my toenails. My toes are just too far away. But my mum does. My sister does. Generally, women do.
“Of course you are going to wear different clothes and of course people are going to notice. We can't all dress the same way in every country,” she said, glancing at my feet. “Maybe, next season, no French girl will leave her house without her green socks.”
There, you see? They are only very tiny details, but finding these little similarities and differences and talking about them is one of the great pleasures of an adventure abroad. And ultimately I've realised that I'm not so different.
“I'm so pleased to talk to you,” I said, grinning.
“I know,” she said. “You've gone all red. It's because you're English.”