One of my secret shames is that once every week or two, I eat fish and chips for lunch. The restaurant, just blocks from my apartment, is decked floor-to-ceiling in British-themed paraphernalia: photos of the royal family, posters of London landmarks, red telephone booths and matching buses. There, surrounded by the wrong red-striped flag and pictures of the Queen, fingers dripping with grease and malt vinegar, I can stop thinking about the stresses of being so far from home.
It’s hard to say why I feel so comfortable there. The images that adorn the walls certainly aren’t ones I have any particular attachment to. The music—British rock of the sort my parents raised me on—reminds me of home, but I could get the same feeling by going on my computer and listening to The Essential Clash. The food, though delicious, doesn’t hold any more of a special meaning for me than most French food does; indeed, crêpes and quiches were far more common growing up than anything fried ever was.
I wouldn’t be the first to note the tendency of Americans living abroad to seek out other native English-speakers, American or not, and cling to them for dear life. We don’t do this for the sake of finding a shared culture, though that’s certainly present to some extent in the Anglophone world. Rather, it’s about finding fellow misfits: people who, no matter how hard they try to hide their accents and blend in, still have to double-check the numbers on their coins before paying. It’s about knowing that even if you feel isolated and lost, you’re not actually alone.
Maybe that, then, is why I like eating fish and chips now and again. When you’re constantly trying—and often failing—to fit in, it’s comforting to be somewhere that is so clearly, intentionally, and obnoxiously foreign. Somewhere that says, “I’m different, and that’s okay.”
So I’ll keep going to my little chip shop, with its Queen soundtrack and its “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. No matter how French I try to be, I’m always going to be American. My accent is noticeable from a mile away, and the attitudes and habits I’ve developed after 19 years of living stateside aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon. While those things make life here difficult for me at times, once in a while it’s good to remember that in a strange land, it’s okay to be a stranger.
This piece is cross-posted on the Georgetown Study Abroad Blog, where you can read about the experiences of Georgetown students studying across the globe.