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Americans Abroad

I Believe I Speak for All of Us

Being overseas, the traveler is often taken for a diplomat—to explain his native country’s strange ways and beliefs. For example, why do all Americans belong to cults? What does Michelle Pfeiffer eat for breakfast? And why so many guns?

I grew up in central Pennsylvania, the so-called keystone state that fits all 50 together. I’ve always considered myself a proud, red-blooded, can-do American—it says as much on my birth certificate. I have to go back more than five generations to find family arriving from Wales and Germany. Still it may also be true that I've never fully belonged. Ever since the days picturing the other side of the rolling hills from our Bluebird yellow school bus, I dreamed of some kind of elsewhere, exotic or foreign or simply apart.

Since then I’ve made a life in France. I married a French woman and followed her to the mid-size city of Dijon. In this country, not fitting in is my full-time toil. I not only look American, I am its breathing, slouching embodiment for the majority of locals I meet. Having been at it for years now, I like to assume this role is earned and probably official.

Michael Scoggins, All-American Family XII, 2010. Courtesy the artist and SALTWORKS.

Nutritional Facts

“What do you have as a breakfast?”

My heating and ventilation repairman is curious about the first meal of the day in America. He uses the word “vous” with me, meaning in this instance “you people.” He sets down his box of tools beside the new thermostat he may get around to installing. I don’t know how we’ve gone from the problems with my radiator to “my” breakfast.

“You know,” I offer, “for instance, I often enjoy waffles.”

“Ah yes,” he says. “In France, we only have coffee and pieces of bread with butter. This is not sufficient. “

I don’t mean to rub it in, but I continue nonetheless. “We also like to eat bacon on the side. And maybe eggs that are scrambled.”

“Scrambled?”

“Completely mixed up. With cheese.”

“This is all in the very same meal?” he wonders.

“Often, sure. Then we add maple syrup, of course, and maybe strawberries on top of the waffles.”

“Wonderful.”

“After a breakfast like this, we usually have to lie down again for a while.”

“It’s a dream for me.”

“It’s true. It is dreamy.” 

Home Entertainment

I teach English on Saturday mornings to a 13-year-old girl in a Dijon suburb. I’ve explained that after growing up on the East Coast I lived, for a time, in California. The Golden State part is what she remembers. Because of it, I come to her from the movies; I trail Hollywood pixie dust.

“You did saw stars?” she asks in English one morning, off on a tangent from the lesson I’d prepared on auxiliary verbs.

“Did I see stars? You mean, movie stars?” I clarify. She wants to know if movie stars were on the street with me on a daily basis. Now that I’m her teacher, they are a mere degree of Kevin Bacon, or better yet Justin Bieber, away from her. “Yes, sometimes I did,” I say.

“How many?

An image blips in my mind of the time I saw Pauly Shore in the toiletries aisle of a Rite Aid. I think harder. Sadly I summon no news of Bieber, Selena Gomez, or Brad Pitt.

“I once saw Michelle Pfeiffer in a restaurant,” I tell her. “Have you heard of Michelle Pfeiffer?”

The girl shakes her head, concerned.

“Michelle Pfeiffer has been in a lot of films. She’s a good actress. When I spotted her, she was eating a salad. I didn’t talk to her or ask for her autograph. You know, people leave movie stars alone.”

She beams at this. It fits her idea. In America, movie stars are apparently so abundant that other Americans barely notice. We are casual and chummy with the stars. I start to enjoy this idea as much as she does.

“It’s funny, too,” I say, “Michelle Pfeiffer looked very much the same as she does in the movies. She was as far from me as that bookshelf over there.”

I point to the bookshelf in the family living room. We both stare at it for a moment.

My student proceeds to asks me what Malibu looks like.

We were separating the personhood from the abstract context. Something about me dragging the personal back into discussion strikes me as desperately American.

In What We Trust

“Do you have cults at your place?” my father-in-law inquires.

“My place?”

This always sounds strange to me. In French, he’s said “chez toi,” which translates as either your country, your city, your house, or your body. So it’s my place, America, where we may have cults.

“For instance, you have this cult of the Amish. Such a self-contained, religious community would never be allowed to exist in France. But Americans tolerate religious cults.”

“Well,” I counter, “we don’t consider the Amish a cult.”

A large Amish community thrives near my hometown, a fact known to my father-in-law. Since I’ve now revealed what he assumes to be a deep denial over the fact that the Amish are a cult, he’s begun to doubt my viewpoint as objective. I am too close to the subject. I am perhaps part Amish even.

“They do pay taxes, then?” he asks, like he’s conducting an audit.

“They pay some taxes but not all. Like no Social Security, for example.”

“Do you have friends who have joined cults?”

“No. Most Americans are sensible about religion.” I blink and repeat, “most.”

“You also have God on your money at your place.”

“Yes. And we are less sensible about money.”

“I have also heard that yoga classes are recruiting centers for cults.”

“This is not true.”

“I have heard it.”

“Actually, let me go back a second—money and religion are problems Americans have trouble being honest about.”

Foreign Affairs

Some people I meet assume Americans hate the French. This is considered a given. Largely, the French people think the term “frogs” and the stereotype of walking around the streets of Paris as mimes is both absurdly hysterical and a reason for gritting their teeth all over again at what is surely our world-view.

“So Americans need to stop bad-mouthing the French,” someone tells me at a mutual friend’s wine-soaked birthday party. We’ve just met. He rolls up the sleeves of his shirt that reads Elk Valley Series XXL in generic vintage 70s style lettering.

“Well, the stereotypes come from stupid people,” I reply. “Really, we are fascinated with the French.”

“Yes, but the Americans I mean. They have a bad feeling about us.”

We are in the musty, low-ceilinged cellar of the friend’s house, surrounded by bottles of Burgundy on the racks of all four walls. As the others present refill their tasting glasses, I’m still stuck on the “yes, but the Americans” comment. I want to remind the Elk Valley friend that I’m American and he’s trying to tell me about my own country. In my pause, he senses I’ve taken some sort of affront.

“I’m not talking about you, of course!” he says, quickly slapping me on the back.

“Of course!”

We were separating the personhood from the abstract context. Something about me dragging the personal back into discussion strikes me as desperately American.

“In general, Americans think we are assholes. Ridiculous frogs!” At this, the others in the cellar, not listening up until this point, raise their glasses with hearty hoots and hollers.

“Me,” I say, “I find the French magical.”

“Yes, but you must be the exception.”

“Not so much…” I perform the French gesture where one holds out a hand and wobbles it from side to side. I want it to communicate “you’re wrong,” which is how I’ve always liked to interpret this gesture. I have chosen to forget that it means “comme-ci, comme ça.”

You see, I’m in this magical country to descend into its cellars and change things.

Bon Retour

The plane touches down. My young daughter continues to work on the piece of chewing gum I gave her upon our initial descent to stave off ear-popping.

“This is a trip very, very long,” she sighs using the syntax—adjective after noun—that she’s acquired from her mother and country of birth. She sees no problem in blending it with her father’s vocabulary.

The flight has been long indeed and the hour is past dinnertime in the time zone we have left behind, but my daughter is wide awake. I point out the window, even though she knows what I’m going to say.

An airport worker in a neon vest and sunglasses is smiling as he steers the luggage wagon across the tarmac. In the distance, the trees are deep green and waving like backup singers. My daughter may never peer through the window of a yellow school bus, but because she is awed by America, seeing it as a fresh, faultless world of inconceivable possibility, she belongs in the country perhaps more than I do.

“There it is,” I whisper, “of all places.”

Nathaniel Missildine lives in Dijon, France, with his wife and two daughters. His recently published travel memoir, Save for Fireflies, chronicles a road trip across America as a kind of native tourist. For more, visit his website. More by Nathaniel Missildine