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Hiba Essa Al Ateek: Bloom where you are planted
January 30, 2015
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From where I write in Paris today, I see the river Seine only metres away glistening with rare winter sunlight spilling through overlooking tall bare trees. I can almost see the Eiffel Tower gazing down in all her glory — The Iron Lady. C’est la vie, right? The thing is, it’s taken me over a year to fall in love with Paris.

A friend was teasing me eight months ago. “You’ve lived in Paris for a year and you still don’t speak French?” Oui, oui ... I wasn’t proud of it but it’s the truth. During my first year in Paris, I couldn’t fathom the French. The idea of living in Paris seemed daunting. I had no friends, no job and I didn’t speak the language (unless Bonjour, Merci, s’il vous plait and au revoir counted).

My husband worked really long hours so I’d walk around the city visiting The Eiffel tower, Arc De Triomphe and stroll by the Seine. This was all great but living in Paris is nothing like the tourist life. Unconsciously, I started to only see its faults and how it failed to live up to my expectations.

For starters, it was always so crowded and everyone insisted on speaking French (immediately making me regret dropping out of that French class in middle school). There was far too much cheese everywhere and it smelt funny. There were endless strikes around the city, which seemed to put everything on a haul. Oh and the French don’t pronounce the letter H so they’re never going to say my name correctly.

Nevertheless, I tried to ignore those obviously life threatening disadvantages.

I tend to get very attached to coffee shops. They become like friends to me. First stop was the famous “Cafe de la Paix” (café of peace) and I was disappointed to realise cafes in Paris were too crowded. However, no one seemed to be bothered but me. The waiter came to take my order “Café latte, s’il vous plait,” I said awkwardly. “Cafe crème,” he corrected.  Moving forward, the number of times I said “No parle francais” seemed never ending.

My husband was so supportive encouraging me to start French classes and introducing me to his native French colleagues. With time, my French slowly progressed and I was beginning to get a hang of the accent.

However, I always felt my IQ instantly dropped 50 points trying to express myself in French to native speakers. They would continue the conversation in simple English probably because they couldn’t stand listening to me butcher their beautiful lyrical language any further. The French are notoriously famous for their impatience with foreigners who don’t speak French. 

My husband convinced me that the trick was to get over the fear of sounding foolish. Some days were good and other days I almost gave up. I remember the first time I celebrated my perfect attempt of short sentences with a chicken dance inside my head! The transformation was taking place. I was becoming French.

I educated myself on all the important little details. The difference between a macaron and macaroon, the bus routes and arrondissement, practiced my Oh-la-la’s and shrugging like the perfect French woman. 

I visited old museums, hidden courtyards filled with sculptures and fountains, old bookstores, flea markets where I marvelled over postcards from the turn of the century. I took countless of pictures. The day always ended with delicious Cafe crèmes while people watching. 

It’s in these cafes I imagined conversations that took place in the 1920s between Zelda and F. Scott Fitzergerald. I felt like I was in a timeless French postcard. History was everywhere. In their cuisine, art, fashion, lifestyle, history and even their bad habits. I guess you can say I became a certified Francophile.

I try not to look back and instead take the lesson and move forward. I remember celebrating this change with a box of macarons and later on devouring a fresh baguette. As one does. Le Sigh.
 
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Hiba Essa Al Ateek is an Emirati woman who swapped the
corporate world in Dubai for life in bustling Paris. Hiba is a
self-confessed coffee addict who, for the remainder of her journey
in France, is determined to master the French language and discover
what it really means to be a Parisienne in the 21st century.
 
 

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