All my friends told me the same thing before I left: “You’ll see. You will meet someone over there and you will bring her back home.” Yeah right. Crazy friends. I had other plans. They were wrong. But so was I. Yes I did meet Her, and I did marry Her. But I never really came back.
Born and raised in France, I once dreamed about traveling and seeing the world. To that end, I joined and served the French Navy for quite a few years, which allowed me indeed to discover and enjoy numerous new countries and exotic places all around the world. One day, the military gave me the opportunity to go meet our cousins from across the pond.
At that time, when I was offered the possibility to join this exchange program with the U.S. Navy, American troops had been fighting in Iraq for a over a year while France had been “teased” (remember the freedom fries story?) for refusing to join Uncle Sam in this war. So not the best time ever with our cousins, to say the least.
But to me, there was something about the U.S., I could not believe that after so much history and friendship our nations had shared, mainstream media on both sides would polarize our relationship this way. There had to be something else, other than what the news were saying. I had to go check it out myself. So I signed up for that program and came to the U.S. two and a half years later.
Fast forward, here I am, landing in Virginia during a very hot summer (although triple digits temperatures seemed to be normal for the locals), ready to report to my new ship. Then began the challenges and life changing experiences.
First, of course, the language. Maybe was I naive, but initially I thought that my good grades in English classes in high school and college would be a great asset. Once on board, it became very clear that what I was hearing had little to do with this fancy British language I had been taught in school. Or maybe was it the realization that I should have listened better to my teachers every time they said “Attention! Americans don’t use the same word for this or that”, so, for instance, when trying to find a place where to live in town, I should have known that “Where can I rent a flat?” does not really sound right over here. Or, after my first appointment with my banker, “When will our next rendezvous be?” was not appropriate either.
To make matters worse, my shipmates were speaking with this weird American accent, something that sounded to me like they were chewing tons of gums while trying to generate words out of their mouth. And the cherry on the top of the cake: my Chief (THE guy I had to be able to communicate with in order to do my job on board) had “a few” front teeth missing… You get the picture.
Somehow – thank you Good Lord ! – I managed after a few weeks to make some progress and understand my shipmates much better. As for my ability to speak, it came to the point that I felt comfortable enough to go buy a car on my own.
You see, most of the other junior French military personnel stationed in the U.S. (either part of another exchange program, liaison or embassy) were fascinated by the myth of the Mustang car, which is understandable. It is a very beautiful car and an American symbol. Most of them even brought their Mustang back to France once their assignment in the U.S. was over.
But me, I bought a truck. A big 97 Chevy Suburban, with a broken A/C (great for summer in Virginia) and an engine that probably never heard about the concept of gas mileage (like the Mustang). But I loved it instantly. And that was it. I was hooked. Of course, the salesman didn’t miss that, which allowed him, with the help of my foreign accent, to overprice the beast. But I digress.
Then seven-month deployment with my proud USN warship, home coming back to Virginia, birthday celebrations, 4th of July celebrations, more celebrations, and boom, there She was. Love story right away, we moved together and one year later, we were engaged, then married a few months after that.
Bye bye Navy, bye bye France. The land of the free became my new permanent home. A nice little house in the Southeastern country of Virginia, a few miles away from the North Carolina border. Very country, at least me.
After all this time, I thought for sure that my accent disappeared and that I became English native fluent until I talked to my new landlord and neighbor. Very nice Southern guy. We talked to each other in a very courteous manner, acknowledging what the other one was saying with some “um-um” and big smiles, and when we thought the discussion was over, we turned to our wives, walked a few feet away and asked them “What is it that he just said?” Southern accent vs French accent. Priceless.
Nowadays, my landlord and I understand each other much better, which leads me to think, every once in a while, that my American accent is now just superb. Then I go to Walmart and when the cashier asks me where I come from, the reality comes right back to me.
So in this Southern little house, my wife and I established our family. For a while, she had a truck too. A nice and beautiful 2000 F150, with the big mud tires and the lift kit. And I am proud to say that it is with this big truck that I drove her back home from the hospital with our first son.
Today, with two young boys, no more trucks, 5-liter V8 engines or big tires. Instead, a mini van and a sedan. But the spirit is and always will be here. In the quiet country of Southeastern Virginia, I still ride a truck. It is a little bit smaller than the two previous ones. But it is green and yellow, and it has the name John Deere on it.
See you until next story.