The French really love a good debate. I really don’t. I’m a delicate flower who takes the slightest disagreement as a dagger straight to the heart, which doesn’t bode well for the witty repartee that many use to communicate around here. Still, I’m doing my best.
The most debating I’ve ever done in my life was over two years as a lawyer in high school mock trial, during which time I improved my public speaking skills at the steep price of constant terror and discomfort. Since then I’ve reserved most of my verbal sparring for select topics with my parents, which is only possible because their unconditional love removes my fear of falling short in my desperate need to be well-liked by all. Most other people with whom I disagree get a “well I don’t know about that” from me, or simply a glazed look in my eyes with a vague head movement that neither agrees nor disagrees with their statement. I am Julia, hear me roar.
Thankfully, around here I tend to be more or less in agreement with the opinions I hear at home or in the teachers’ lounge, so I can smile and nod along without putting much effort into my responses. Most strangers’ first questions for me as an American have something to do with Donald Trump, and I’m getting used to that. I say I’m not a fan, and from there they either nod approvingly, question answered, or they launch into the latest ridiculous thing he’s done, and I just go on agreeing with them, which doesn’t require much more complicated French than ah oui, oui je sais, ouais c’est incroyable ça, and so on. Easy peasy. I even had a couple of 3rd grade students ask me about Trump in class, one of them saying he was mean and scary, and while I’m not supposed to express political opinions in school, I did permit myself a chuckle and a nod.
The thing is, when I was in the 3rd grade, I’m not sure I could have named my own country’s president, much less someone else’s. They’re so well-informed, it’s frustrating. Even though the current administration has scared me into staying more on top of American politics than ever before, every once in a while I’ll learn something from my French colleagues in the morning that doesn’t show up on my newsfeed until the afternoon. It’s astounding. When they launch into a conversation about French politics, I can assume my favorite role of the attentive listener, but when it’s my country that’s been misbehaving, my opinion is suddenly important enough to be sought out, when I’d otherwise be perfectly content to sit quietly. There’s some pressure in being the token American.
What’s worse is when I’m asked a factual question rather than a general opinion, because while an opinion can’t necessarily be disproved, a statement definitely can be, and ours is a big, confusing country with big, confusing laws. So, especially with the Parkland shooting and all the wonderful student activism that has followed, I’ve been getting a lot of specific gun questions, not all of which I know how answer. If someone asks me how I feel about guns in America, it’s easy for me to say that I find it absurd, but if someone asks me the particulars of gun rights in different states, I have to do the best I can with what I’ve read lately, plus a ton of qualifications. With every “but I’m not totally sure” that I sprinkle in my explanation, a little more disappointment appears in their eyes.
The worst of it all is when I come to the horrifying realization that I disagree with a French person. If it’s a statement of fact that I think is incorrect, then I end up second-guessing my own knowledge. One colleague said that high school students in certain states could bring guns to school, perhaps confusing them with college campuses, and I wasn’t sure whether or not to contradict her. She’s knowledgeable about everything else in my country, so should I assume she’s right about this, too? If I’m absolutely sure someone's incorrect, I can bring myself to speak, but my nervousness tends to degrade my French to the extent that nobody can understand what I said, anyway.
I won’t even touch on my personal crisis when an opinion comes up that I disagree with or find offensive, as that’ll take a whole blog post in itself, and y'all know I need some time to journal out all my feelings about it first. Just know that when you come here, people will want to know your thoughts on a variety of topics, and then they'll challenge them, politely, over wine.
It’s a tough country for the spineless. So who knows how I got here.