Nailah B. currently a Campus Reporter blogger at SYA France. Nailah comes to SYA Deerfield Academy (MA). Read more of her work throughout the year here.
At this time in our world's history, it seems that across nations, peoples, races, religions and beliefs we are more connected and interdependent than ever. We are simultaneously so separate and out of touch from one another. It has been a blessing to be able to share my insights, my worries, and my sorrows about my nation, and the way I see the world with my host family. They in return have offered me solace and understanding through shoulders to cry on and reassuring level-heads. Together, we are on the pursuit of understanding as we look to improve during these times of confusion, change, and chaos.
My First Attempt: President Hollande The Apple Man?
It was my very first Sunday living in the Voisin household. I sat on the living room floor, my lanky legs, deeming me the daughter of Lebron James in the eyes of Baptiste, my 19-year-old host brother, were crammed under the coffee table. Not yet completely comfortable in my new house with my new family, I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible as I attempted to fork morsels of my galette complete into my mouth. As I mentioned, my legs are rather long, too long to be situated comfortably under the coffee table. As result, I found myself in a perpetual game of dodge ball with my knees as I tried to eat my Breton delicacy of runny eggs and ham wrapped in a brown crêpe. As I forked, Andrew Hollande, the president of France, and Prime Minister Manuel Valls flashed across the TV screen in a press conference. "Yes", I thought to myself, taking a deep breath, "Here's your chance, Nailah". Over and over again in my head, I rehearsed the simple line that would have indicated my knowledge of the two French figureheads. And then, mid pep talk, the channel went on a commercial break. "Ah oui! C'est Andrew! Je le connais", I blurted out as an animated apple-man advertising Go-Go Squeeze, an applesauce or compote as the French called it, walked across the screen. My host mom craned her head in my direction, smiling down at me as if I was a young child, "Quoi ma chérie?"
"Andrew Hollande" I repeated, lowering my voice and my head in embarrassment. Clara, my 17-year old-host sister, exchanged glances with Baptiste,"Tu penses que la pomme s'appelle Andrew?" Clara asked, contorting her face as she looked up at me from her plate
"Non Non, le président de la France s'appelle Andrew Hollande", I said with a bit more conviction in my voice and my demeanor, pleased with the delivery of the phrase, "No No, the president of France is named Andrew Hollande"
"Nay-la", Baptiste began, already beginning to chuckle, "Il s'appelle François, François Hollande, pas Andrew."
Trying to divert attention from myself, I attempted to take another bite of my galette complete. Of course, in the aftermath of my international politics fiasco, I forgot that I was in a dodge ball tournament with my knees. Raising my fork to my mouth, I stabbed myself in the knee, and my morsel of the Bretagne specialty tumbled off the fork and onto the shag rug.
All three of them, Clara, Karine, and Baptiste, already laughing at my Hollande mishap, continued their uncontrollable laughter. I, though completely mortified, chuckled a bit too, remembering that I must learn to laugh at myself, all non-François Hollande knowing, 1.73 meters of myself.
Discussion During Toussaint: Why Do Elderly People Bag Groceries In Florida?
"Pourquoi est-ce que les personnes âgées ont mis mes provinces dans mon sac en Floride?"
It was the evening of Toussaint, or All Saints Day, a holiday dedicated to honoring the lives of deceased relatives and biblical saints, as well as celebrating love and life with loved ones. As I sat sandwiched between my host grandparents, this was the first question my host mother Karine posed of the night: "Why did elderly people bag groceries in Florida?"
The question, left for me to answer as the only American in the room, was random, and complicated to answer, so I did what anyone would do, I ignored it, continuing to munch conversationally on my before meal snack, or aperitif, of lightly salted potato chips. As my luck would have it, I wasn't escaping that one. The entire table brought their discussions to a grinding halt and turned their attention to me.
"Comment," I stammered out frantically, communicating to Karine that I did not understand the question. In all honesty, I understood the question; I was really just trying to buy myself some time to formulate a response to this question that tugged at the roots of the building blocks of America's work force in somewhat coherent French. My head was racing as in the background, my host aunt, Nath, tried to explain to me that in France elderly people do not work. Even if they want to work, there is a strict age limit at which a French citizen is no longer permitted to hold a job.
There were expressions of shock, disbelief, and even twinges of condemnation targeted toward the ways of the nation I left behind two months when I explained to my extended host family that my 66-year-old grandmother works as a part-time preschool teacher, and my 70-year-old grandfather conducts a bus for a college.
"Sont-ils payés?" Karine demanded, which translated into a very concerned, "Do they get paid?" Baptiste, taken aback by the absurdity of his mother's question, replied with a snarky "Bien sûr Maman. Ç'était une question stupide". I chuckled a bit as Baptiste rolled his eyes and fell back into the sofa in exaggerated exacerbation.
Karine and the other members of my extended host family couldn't quite wrap their minds around the idea that many Americans enjoy working into their years of senior citizenship. My own mother has an 80-year-old mentor who still works as the Director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. Not because she needs to, but because she loves the work. Americans tend to think they will die or become ill or immobile if they are not busy. As I struggled over phrases and minced the translations of economic and societal jargon as I attempted to explain this cultural difference, the looks of genuine interest in my words that adorned the faces of my adoptive family encouraged me to continue.
During that one little exchange, Baptiste and I reached a moment of comfort with one another, as did Karine and I. Baptiste was the slightest bit rude to his mother in front of me for the first time, as if I was his real sister, and Karine felt comfortable asking this somewhat silly, and most definitely loaded question. The conversation over our mini-meal was a perfect moment of imperfections, encapsulating beautifully my time here with my host family thus far.
Post-Election Conversation: Nailah's Tears
Standing squished between the Bretagne rainwater soaked coats of friends, classmates, and interested strangers hailing from both countries that I have come to call home in the Institut Franco-Americain, I found out that Donald J. Trump was the president-elect of the United States of America.
Tears falling in my mind, muddying every thought I once had about my nation of citizenship, I returned to school, not allowing actual tears to fall until the school day's end. Returning home, everything looked the same, yet was existentially different. Like clockwork, my host mother and sister greeted me with their "Cou Cou Nailah, ça va?" This simple familial phrase, translating to "Hey there! How's it going?" to which I was supposed to reply, "Ça va bien, et toi?" meaning, "It's going well, and you", was a struggle to croak out in my usual cheery voice because it was untrue – all was not going well.
"J'ai pleuré aujourd'hui", I blurted out to my host mother. "Tu as pleuré? Pourquoi, ma bichette?" Karine demanded with an expression of genuine confusion and worry strewn across her face. Her simple question of, "You cried? Why, my darling", in the wake of the globe-altering choice made by my country just hours before, surprised me and made me a bit upset. "Because Donald Trump is the President of the United States!" I spewed in French, letting my emotions echo through the words as I felt my head go dizzy and the tears start to well. This was my first time uttering my nation's reality and quite frankly, the world's reality and these words were uttered in French.
Karine still didn't comprehend my pain. She didn't understand that I felt like the weight of hundreds of years of oppression were falling on my shoulders as I watched a man who promised to undo years of progression become the 'leader of the free world'. She didn't understand the pain of what it meant to have my black tears fall on French soil.
But how could she when even I wasn't really able to comprehend my thoughts, my worries, my fears, and my anger? How could I expect Karine, my French host mother who has little to no knowledge of America's history as it pertains to African Americans and thus would not be able to understand what Trump's election might mean for black people, or any minority who calls the U.S. home? I couldn't.
"Tout va bien my bichette."
"Everything will be okay."
One day soon, I hope to be able to express every emotion, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to my host family in flawless French. I hope to be able to explain everything from life insurance to school systems, from the worry I see when I think about the state of our world, to the beauty I see in the fact that we can come together as one human race despite linguistic and cultural differences, and everything in between. I wish for all of this and more as I continue down this path of global citizenship and cultural competency with my host family by my side, ready to be there for me in times of need, and to push me to my limits in times of challenge.