This sign hung outside of Lycée Bourdan where I work.

This sign’s message translates to, “Yes to liberty. No to fear.” It hangs outside of Lycée Bourdan where I work.

People thrust pencils and pens into the air as a fine rain fell on the crowd. Even in the darkness, “Je suis Charlie” was visible on shirts, coats, and banners.

On Thursday, a rally for the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack took place in my town. A few hundred people came, which is a lot for somewhere the size of Guéret, and attendees stood for a moment of silence in front of city hall, still decorated with white Christmas lights. It was a stirring show of solidarity for the victims and for liberty.

This demonstration is one of three that have taken place in Guéret since the attacks in Paris.

The French people feel shaken, to say the least, by the events of last week. The changes are even visible in my sleepy town. My lycées don’t usually have extensive security, but when I came to one of my the schools on Friday, a guard stood outside the locked gate. “Je suis Charlie” is on cars, hung in shop windows, on bags, and plastered onto the teachers’ cubbyholes in school.

My friends and family abroad have contacted me to make sure I’m safe. (I don’t feel in danger.) I’ve seen status updates on Facebook ranging from people showing support for the victims of last week’s attacks in Paris, to Facebook friends encouraging Jewish people to vacate Europe. (Which I don’t plan on doing.)

This is one of the largest acts of terrorism to shake France in recent history, and a tense feeling permeates the air, even hours away from Paris. What was surprising to me as a new resident of France was that the protests and rallies take place beyond Paris and the larger cities. My region, which has one of the smallest populations in the country, has had a choice of rallies to attend. And almost everyone who I know has participated in at least one.

I feel that in America, demonstrations tend to have a more homogeneous crowd, depending on the rally’s subject matter. But out of all this misfortune, it is heartening to see the French people stand together, not just in the well-publicized Paris demonstrations, but also in the far-flung cities and villages across France.

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Lyon is the second biggest city in France, and as you can see, quite hilly.

Lyon is the second biggest city in France, and as you can see, quite hilly.

In many ways, living in my department of France feels like stepping back 50 years. Stores close early and often, the world stops on Sundays, and everyone drives a manual car. But there’s no stopping technology, even in rural France. And because of this technology, I feel like I’ve been able to get closer to France than was possible ten or even five years ago.

I’m talking about the sharing economy, the system where people share their resources with each other. We see it in companies such as Uber (people acting as taxi drivers), Lyft (people lending their cars to others who need to drive), and Airbnb (people renting their spare rooms to travelers).

Besides these services saving users money compared to more traditional means, they also have another benefit: forced interaction with others. The fruits of the sharing economy have proven perfect for a temporary French resident such as myself.

Let’s take my recent New Year’s trip to Lyon, France as an example. To get to and from Lyon, which is a three-hour car ride from Guéret, I used a carpooling website called BlaBlaCar, which allows car owners to advertise trips they’re taking, selling the empty seats in their cars. Last week, a driver drove me and another BlaBlaCar user to Lyon for about 25 euros each, meaning the driver made 50 euros during his Guéret-Lyon trip.

BlaBlaCar does more than generate gas money for the driver and save passengers cash and time compared to the trains. It also allows me as a French visitor to get to know people. With my BlaBlaCar trips to and from Lyon, I got to see what some French people do for a living, listen to others’ music, hear a few gripes about the government, and share friendly conversation with people to who I would have never had the chance to speak otherwise.

When I arrived in Lyon, I used Airbnb to stay in the apartment of a couple around my age for a few days. I was a solo traveler and had no plans for New Year’s Eve, so the couple invited me to spend the evening hanging out and playing games with them and their friends. Greeting 2015 in the company of seven people from not just France but around the globe, felt like the culmination of what Airbnb is about.

What would my trip to Lyon have been like just five years ago? I would have taken the train, which is two hours longer than a car ride and at least double the price — and I would have read a book the whole time in lieu of speaking to my fellow passengers. Instead of using Airbnb, I would have stayed in a hotel, where I would not have spoken with anyone who lives in Lyon, and probably spent New Year’s Eve watching television.

The sharing economy has so many benefits, but a great one for a traveler like me is the ability to get to know France a little better. It helps me to interact with a wider spectrum of the French population than those in my town, and further improve my speaking skills and comprehension of other accents. That’s definitely something that would have been more difficult 50 years ago.

The French flag flies at an Armistice Day ceremony in Guéret, France.

The French flag flies at an Armistice Day ceremony in Guéret, France.

Americans harbor an intense love for the Stars and Stripes.

It’s a common sight to see the American flag not only flying at many businesses but also at sporting events and outside people’s homes. The flag is on T-shirts, hats, and even bikinis (which were designed in France, by the way). For the United States, the flag stands as a symbol of patriotism and acts as a popular motif.

Here in France, I see the French flag outside of government buildings (namely city hall). I also saw it during an Armistice Day ceremony to honor military forces. But I don’t usually see it anywhere else. No one wears T-shirts with the French flag.

I asked some of my French coworkers about the protocol for flying the flag. They said displaying it outside one’s home makes a statement, and not a patriotic one like in America. If a French home flies the country’s flag, it signifies that the household supports the National Front, an anti-immigration political party in France.

It’s strange that displaying a country’s official flag in that very country can be controversial. I never even realized that Americans have such a fervor for their flag until a few weeks after living here. This week, I taught some of my classes the national anthem of the United States, playing a rendition by Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl in 1991. I started seeing the video clip how my French students must see it.

There are so many flags being waved. 

Wow, there’s one flag as big as this classroom.

That’s weird. Someone in the crowd is holding up a sign that reads “God Bless America.”

Americans have a great love for the flag, and they don’t reserve it just for Independence Day. But I wonder if the flag’s power is cheapened because of its overuse in bikinis, underwear, and other places where you probably don’t want to see your national flag.

Our Thanksgiving dinner in France included

Our Thanksgiving dinner in France included braised turkey legs, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, stuffing, gravy, apple pie, and wine.

I’ve found that it’s possible to celebrate Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, in France, the most cheese-filled of countries.

I spent the whole afternoon making dinner with another American language assistant and an assistant from England, who both live in Guéret. Our meal was likely the only Thanksgiving dinner in town, as the only two Americans in Guéret are the other assistant and me. But we had all the traditional fixings: turkey, mashed potatoes, apple pie, stuffing, green bean casserole, and even cranberry sauce (courtesy of our British friend snagging a jar of it from England).

And what do the French lycée students know about Thanksgiving? They know that Americans eat turkey, and a few have heard the children’s story of how the Native Americans and Pilgrims worked in harmony for their first Thanksgiving meal. But that was the extent. Their general impressions after I taught them the basics of our Thanksgiving traditions:

  • When I explained the phrase “giving thanks” to the students, they immediately thought it was a religious concept. It took a bit to tell them that no, Thanksgiving isn’t a religious holiday.
  • The students have no idea who Native Americans are. They knew they were also called “Indians,” but the students didn’t know who they are — that they lived on the American continent long before the Europeans.
  • I told the students what the Pilgrims really did to the Native Americans back in the 1600s. A few asked why we would celebrate murder. I quickly explained we don’t celebrate that — Thanksgiving is more about giving thanks and eating.
  • When the students saw a photo of President Obama pardoning the turkey, they thought he was killing the turkey.
  • I showed the students a photo of sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows; they thought the marshmallows were mushrooms.
  • They kept thinking pie is the same food as cake. It isn’t.
  • The French students thought the Thanksgiving meal looked delicious. I can’t argue with that.
Limoges, France is about an hour from Guéret.

Limoges, France is about an hour from Guéret.

I’m a different person when I speak French.

I don’t mean that my personality has changed or that I’m a transformed person, like after a spiritual search or a really good haircut. It’s just that the way in which you present yourself to the world evolves when you live in a language that isn’t your langue maternelle (a French phrase that means “native language.” I had to look up the English translation for that because French is slowly seeping into the English parts of my brain and causing me to forget basic words. But that’s a blog post for another time.)

French isn’t my native tongue, so my speech is more stilted. It takes me longer to think of responses in conversation, so I fall back on a few choice French phrases way too often and don’t express many ideas that are too complicated. When speaking with a group of French people, they talk so quickly that it makes it difficult to comprehend what they say, think of a response, and then say it in French before the conversation has moved on. That means I’m quieter. Lastly, I don’t grasp all the nuances of the language, so I can’t be as humorous as I would like to be.

For all these reasons, I’m convinced that people who interact with me on a daily basis in French may have a different interpretation of my personality. Perhaps they think I’m more straightforward, quiet, and serious than I truly am; perhaps I’m a different person in French.

This led me to a whole other realization. When we English speakers meet non-native speakers who aren’t yet fluent, the person’s personality may be a toned down version. In short, my respect continues to grow for people who move to another country for a long period of time, especially when you need to speak a language that isn’t your langue maternelle.

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