How to be French pt. 9: It's Okay to be in Awe (and to not be French)

We actually came THIS close to missing our bus to Spain. I swear, I will never understand the French logic when it comes to transportation. In short, the type of bus we were supposed to take was actually different from what our tickets told us. And it took frantically asking about four different people in our best French, and madly pointing at our tickets then to the bus that was about to leave, to determined this.

As Moriah and I collapsed into our seats on the bus, we burst out laughing, drawing attention from the other tired-looking travelers en route to Spain. We were destined to always be those Americans who were too loud and too lost (and maybe too happy?). But by now, we are okay with that.

I sat across from Moriah on the bus, both of us shuffling through our backpacks for our thrifted French novellas from an outdoor market in Tours. Moriah had also scored a an old film camera. The French couple she’d bought it from was sweet enough to forgive our limited vocabulary. Moriah’s accent was better than mine so I let her do most of the talking.

But if France taught me anything,  it’s that you truly can’t take the country or the cultural (or the absurd ability to get lost) out of the girl. But you sure can take the girl out of the country. My first few weeks in Europe, I despised how loud our group always was going anywhere, or how much we talked or how loudly we laughed. We got so many looks. The kind of looks that made me believe we had the word AMERICAN in flashing neon lights above our heads at all times. It hasn’t been until recent that I realized I actually really love this about myself and my fellow Americans. I don’t know what changed, but I have a feeling it’s the beginning of truly appreciating who I am and where I come from. I find myself laughing more loudly when someone struggles with opening the bottle of wine or reading the map wrong. We all laugh a little louder, I think, totally and completely aware that we are getting glares from the primly-dressed couple sitting one bench over. I’m more than okay if we smile or laugh more than some people.

In fact, I don’t think we can help it.

We can’t help who we are because we just are. Nor can we help our joy and wonder when we see something as incredible as Versailles. So, in actuality, it’s the monument’s fault for provoking our American-ness. But what can we say to the wonder or the joy that we feel?

Nothing can steal our joy.

There was a moment while wandering up the stairs of Shakespeare & Co. for the first time in Paris. I found a typewriter sitting unoccupied just begging someone to clack away at it’s ancient keys. There was paper in it, so I hastily looked left and right to make sure the coast was clear, no one coming up the stairs and no one reading one room over. I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself than I already did just by being constantly in awe of the place . . . but then again, what can be said of awe when it’s as raw as the night sky or shelves upon shelves of dusty books, or a city humming with life and poetry?

Awe is simply a state of being when you are a twentysomething and have absolutely no idea how you ended up in Paris or how you end up anywhere for that matter. It’s a state of pleasant uncertainty that comes with giving up on trying to figure out how things work.

So what, then, can be said of awe?

I sat down and began to type out my favorite quote by Hemingway.

“Live the full life of the mind . . .” clack . . .clack . . .clack.

I peeked my head around the corner of the little alcove where I sat. Someone had wandered up the stairs, but I kept typing.

Clack. . . “Exhilarated by new ideas . . .” clack.

This stranger was poking around in the section labeled “Poetry” so I figured if I was quoting Hemingway, no matter how noisy it might have been, they would want me to finish the quote.

“Intoxicated by the . . .” Clack . . .Clack.

I was so focused on how loud the typewriter was that I did not hear the stranger approach and look over my shoulder.  

“Romance of the unusual,” someone said behind me. I nearly jumped off the little bench before the typewriter as the stranger from the poetry section finished the quote out loud, and rather close to my ear. I spun around to find a man who could have been 100 -years -old.

He wore spectacles and a black beret, cocked slightly to the right on his head. His denim jacket was two sizes too big and his pants were hiked up by a pair of black suspenders. An unlit cigar sat promptly in his jacket pocket. A pink carnation was pinned to his collar. He could have been Hemingway, himself.

“Sorry, if I disturbed you!” I said almost mechanically in French. I had gotten used to saying it, since I always seemed to be turning the pages too loud or eating my toast wrong.

“Pff! It’s a typewriter, madame. I’m 92. It’s a sweet sound,” the old man said, smiling, his French clear as a bell. I was happy I understood him.  


He held what looked to be a book of poetry by Jacques Prevert in shaky hands. He fiddled with his spectacles to get a better look at what I had typed. “Hemingway knew the truth about life,” he said.

I looked at him, intrigued. He looked and sounded like he walked straight out of one of Hemingway’s books---maybe a character from The Sun Also Rises, off to run with the bulls.

“He really did,” I agreed.

The old man looked at me and then at the typewriter again. “Never apologize for how you experience the world,” he said to me, in English this time.  

I blinked and swallowed hard because that’s what it had felt like the last few days, constantly apologizing for how we Americans experienced awe.

“Who said that?” I asked.

“You better type that one up too,” he said, tipping his head in my direction. A small bluebird had been embroidered on the front of his beret.

I looked back at the typewriter and then went to ask him again, but he was already making his steady way down the stairs. I quickly typed up the sentence, in hopes that if I could see it in front of me, I could make it more real.

Never apologize for how you experience the world.

Never feel the need to subdue your smile when you witness something beautiful. Never contain your laughter when you get hopelessly lost in the streets of Pamplona and end up finding the best bar for tapas. Never apologize for your wonder at how gorgeous the Eiffel Tower is when it sparkles at the top of the hour. Never feel shame for skipping through the Luxembourg Gardens because all of the fallen orange and yellow leaves make you happy. Never apologize for how you experience the awe that lies around every corner of the world.

So to all of France, if we ever made you exasperated with our rowdiness over the best cappuccinos we’ve ever tasted, I can not apologize. If we ever made you roll your eyes because we could not believe the rainbow colors of the stained glass in Sainte Chapelle, I can not argue. If we ever offended you by being too in awe of your country, I am not sorry.

I can’t apologize for how we’ve experience this world.