What I Learned When I Was Given A New Name

I had been in Paris for 48 hours when my French professor told me I was pronouncing my own name incorrectly. I had introduced myself on the first day of class in a flurry of Frenglish: “Je m’appelle Hannah,” I had said, the first half in my best French accent, the second half sounding like home: hard H, emphasis on the first syllable, rhyming with banana.

“Non,” she said, shaking her head. “Ah-NA.” Silent H, stretched As, emphasis on the second syllable.

“Oh, non, je m’appelle Hannah,” I repeated, stressing the first H. Maybe she misheard me as Anna the first time? I spelled it out for her.

“Oui, Anna,” she said. “Quand tu es à Paris, tu t’appelles Anna.” When you’re in Paris, your name is Anna.

I nodded and she moved on, reassigning new, French pronunciations to my classmates’ names. We were in Paris now — at least we could sound like it. I got used to being Anna over the next few classes. I liked how the airy, elongated vowels floated out of the professor’s mouth, but it sounded clumsy when I said it. Was I forcing the emphasis on the second syllable too much? What kind of idiot can’t say her own name correctly?

Outside class, it took no time at all to fall in love with Paris. I live around the corner from Trocadéro, which has the most stunning views of the Eiffel Tower in the whole city. Every afternoon, I can run over to the Musée d’Orsay to study the Impressionists, or wander down narrow side streets in the Marais blooming with boutiques and falafel shops, or practice my accent by mimicking the automated voice on the Metro. At night, my roommate Morgan and I sit on our windowsill with glasses of €3 wine and listen to Carla Bruni. It’s easy to fall in love with Paris because it’s just as lovely as I had imagined it to be.

Three weeks after I arrived, I boarded the 11 train and was hit with an odd wave of emotion I hadn’t ever felt before. I wasn’t quite homesick, but I was aware of how very, very far away I was from home. My hometown in Boston and my life at NYU were 3,500 miles and six time zones away. A twenty-something guy with shaggy hair and thick-framed glasses sat down in the empty seat to my left and opened a worn copy of Lolita. It was an English copy! There were a few underlined words and margin notes scribbled in pencil. I tried to guess based on his marks whether he was a native English speaker or if was reading to improve his English. I decided he must be American, because that made me feel less far from home.

When I got off the Metro, I wanted to treat myself to a cup of coffee. That tends to make me feel better at home, but it’s not the same here. Parisians sit in sidewalk cafés to chain-smoke and sip tiny, bitter espressos from ceramic demitasses. They don’t run from place to place while clutching oversized vats of coffee, either; they lounge in cafés until they finish their drinks, then walk at a leisurely pace to their next destination. There’s something to be said for the slower Parisian way of life, but it’s not for me. I wanted 16 or 20 ounces of drip coffee with skim milk in a to-go cup, preferably served by a barista with three-day stubble and a questionable chest tattoo in the East Village. Good luck finding that in Paris.

I caved and committed the ultimate American faux pas: Starbucks. Paris, I am so sorry for failing you.

After I ordered my americano, the barista — clean-shaven, no tattoos in sight — asked for my name. For a moment, I was caught up in the familiar Americanness of it all.

“Hannah,” I said.

He paused, Sharpie hovering over the cup. “Pardon?”

“H-A-N-N-A-H.”

He paused again and scribbled Anna on the cup. Starbucks is notorious for getting names wrong all the time, but this felt more intentional. It hurt.

Why did it hurt? I mused on the subject as I drank my decidedly American cup of joe. The hard H sound and emphasis on the first syllable aren’t common in French. Every time I’m called Anna, it’s a reminder that my name doesn’t work here. I’m an outsider. While it’s natural to want to preserve elements of my American identity while I’m in Paris, I only get to live here for four months. This is temporary and I should make the most of it.

I didn’t endure the comically rude French embassy staff and move my entire life across the Atlantic just to whine about missing home. I did it to experience Paris. I want to become fluent in French, befriend Parisians, and carve out a slice of the city for my own. I want to be able to come back to Paris in 20 years and have my own assortment of favorite places: the courtyard at the Louvre, picnics on sunny days at Parc Monceau, the café across from school with delicious onion soup. There’s a Hemingway quote I like:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

So while I’m here, I want to embrace everything about Paris, even if that means becoming Anna for awhile. Maybe she can teach me something. In New York, Hannah doesn’t sit to drink her coffee. She fidgets while she waits for it to be ready, then grabs it and speed-walks down Fourth Avenue because she’s five minutes behind schedule. It slops over the lid and burns her hand repeatedly, so she arrives to class wet, frazzled, and over-caffeinated. In Paris, Anna doesn’t have anywhere to be, so she can sit. She can savor her coffee over a copy of Le Monde or the New York Times. It feels decadent. If I can get used to my new name and if I can find a slice of home in Paris, I can keep Paris with me for the rest of my life.

Recently, Morgan and I were walking home from the Metro after a night out with friends. There was a party somewhere in the neighborhood; we could hear music pulsing and people laughing. As we approached our apartment, we realized the party was in our building. It was late and we were tired, but why not go? There was an open invitation hanging in our lobby. If I want to soak up as much of Paris as possible, that means taking every opportunity. We followed the noise to the apartment above ours and opened the door. Inside, sweaty dancers bobbed across the living room with cigarettes dangling too close to each other’s hair, and a DJ blasted house music. The coffee table was littered with dozens of half-empty bottles of champagne.

The host leaned in to introduce himself. “Comment tu t’appelles?” he shouted over the music.

“Anna,” I shouted back. He nodded right away. I felt like I belonged. TC mark

image – wlappe

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