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Freedom’s just another word for “nothing left to be”

One thing that has remained constant, despite me uprooting my life and plunking it down here in France, is my devotion to my favorite NPR shows.

Back in the States, we lived in a rural area of New England, a spot so bucolic that *cable television* had not yet reached it, a monthly subscription to satellite cost more than our car payment and good-old-fashioned antenna television was foiled by the FCC move to digital broadcasts and the shale ledges our house backed up against. To get internet access, the computer had to be connected to the phone line by a cable, and the connection was shoddy.

To get cellphone coverage, I honestly had to walk out into my dooryard, about 50 feet down my driveway, and face east-southeast. At times, it seemed better reception if I raised one arm at a 45 degree angle, but that was never scientifically proven.

But, I digress. My point is, television and the internet were just not options for entertainment out there. We were radio people, rabid Red Sox fans listening to Joe Castiglione on WEEI The Red Sox Radio Network, members of our local public radio stations and devoted listeners of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, A Prairie Home Companion and This American Life.

Now that I’m “across the pond”, listening to the Sox play live entails getting up at 3am, so sadly, that has fallen by the wayside. But my allegiance and enthusiasm for NPR podcasts remains a constant.

All that, to get to the meat of this post.

This weekend, I listened to an episode of This American Life, which was a rebroadcast of an episode from 2000, entitled Americans in Paris . If you aren’t familiar with it, the show is divided into three “acts”, three different stories or interviews, all centering around the same theme. This episode, the first act is David Sedaris taking Ira Glass on an hysterical tour of “his” Paris (which mostly revolves places where people are kind to him — oh, how I relate to this), the second act is a few other American’s opinions on living in Paris (which includes the quote, about falling in love with Paris, “And it’s kind of like falling in love with the most obviously cute boy in the class, or like the star of this– or like a movie star. It’s like being a groupie. And then you try to convince the other 25 women who he slept with the last week, well, you know, I really love him, and I think he loves me, too.”) and the third act is where I sat on the floor of my living room, listening and weeping.

The third act was an interview with the author Janet McDonald, who said “That’s what’s freedom is, though. It’s not about nothing left to lose. It’s about nothing left to be. You don’t have to be anything. I was just thinking about it this morning. It’s like I’m an outsider. I will always be a foreigner no matter how good my French gets. I will never really be French no matter how much of a wannabe I am. And yet, I feel that I’m home. I’m just home.”

And that’s the moment where I just simply burst into tears. That’s *exactly* how I feel.

I grew up in a small town; in the same small town, in fact, where my mother grew up. The bus driver who took me to school is the same bus driver that used to take her to school. And I have a large familial presence in that town — I’m #8 in a line of 11 cousins and siblings who all went to the same elementary and high schools over the course of 15 years. My family are all “good kids”, vaguely goody-two shoes in a moderately artistic sort of way. I think it’s safe to say the most rebellious amongst us is the cousin who *horrified gasp* dropped out of concert band before finishing high school. “Eager to please” is an apt description for the lot of us.

Now, I am thankful that the reputation that preceded me was a good one. I will freely admit, I got away with a lot of crap simply sliding by on my family’s name. But people saw me coming a mile away, and they gently put me in the little box marked “good kid, eager to please, not likely to cause a fuss” and that’s all anyone ever expected of me. That’s all I ever expected of myself. I didn’t even notice my complaisance in my own life.

A few life-changing, earth-shattering moments of self-realization and a decade or so later, I found myself not only in a new town, a new country, but a whole new continent. Other than my husband, there’s no one here who knows anything about me. No one knows the story of me telling my kindergarten teacher the Beatles played at my birthday party (much less brings it up at nearly every family gathering.) No one knows that I hate to eat turkey, and fusses at me about being difficult at Thanksgiving for not eating it. No one would bat an eyelash if tomorrow I dyed my hair brown, or even, blue.

Here in France, je suis americaine, I am American — a phrase which covers any number of gaffs, faux pas and deviations. It is a benevolently-granted excuse for my lapses in grammar and correct deportment (I’m constantly laughing too loudly in the cafe, and I tend to use the too-familiar tu form of verb conjugations.) But it never seems a judgement or a perjorative, just a description of something different — like being a macaw in the peacock sanctuary — perhaps a bit garish and sometimes squawky, but still another beautiful bird.

Here in France, I’m free. I’m free of all the restraints and pressures of living in that same wonderful little bubble I grew up in. Finally, I have come to realize that *I* define me. *I* do not need to live up to anyone else’s reputation. *I* am interesting. *I* am worthy of friendship, love and respect. *I* am enough.

Part of it has to do with the French’s reputation for being “rude” — which, in my opinion, is wholly unjustified. They’re not rude. They are just unwilling to be ingratiating or obsequious. The French are not going to try to make you like them. You like them, or you do not. They are unapologetic about it. Here in France, “No” is a complete sentence. Many Americans take this for rudeness, because there, “no” is nearly always followed by reasons why, excuses, apologies and justifications.

These are all lessons I’ve learned, lessons I’ve absorbed while living here. I used to say “yes” all the time, “I’ll figure out how to make it work”, “oh, no, that’s fine”, “I’ll make do”. Living in France has not only allowed me to shift through myself and find the good parts to keep, but has given me a backbone. “No, that doesn’t work for me”, “I’d rather not” and even “oh hell no” are regular phrases in my everyday lexicon.

I’ll never be French, not truly. But, at the end of the day, I feel that this is home. This is where I’ve found myself again, found the parts of me that *I* enjoy, the parts of me that I’m proud of, the parts that make me audacious and funny. I appreciate my life here. I appreciate the pace of it, the grace of it, the food and wine and the enjoyment of it.

To end, another quote from the aforementioned This American Life interview with Janet McDonald  — “I’ll get tears in my eyes just like– sometimes I look around the subway, and I look at all these French people, and I’m like, thank you for letting me live here in your country”

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