When the plane took off for my first trip to France, I was sure I was going home. With my dark hair, thin build, and enormous nose, I considered myself French through-and-through. Since my French heritage comes through my father’s side, I’d even inherited a French-Canadian last name and an unfortunately low tolerance for lactose. Not to mention my lifelong attachment to bread that has always alarmed my mother. Eager to reconnect with the Mother Land, I frantically sought to blend in.
I packed dark clothing, since I’d heard Europeans avoided bright colors. I trained myself out of smiling at strangers, since educational pamphlets warned I would seem mentally ill if I smiled on the metro. I abandoned the Germanic Emily and embraced the French Emilie (Ay-mee-lee). Then, last of all, I reclaimed the accent mark in my last name that was rightfully mine.
At first, I thought it was working. Even without the accent mark on my passport, French airport officials would look up, surprised, and say “Your last name sounds French.” I would exclaim, “Mais oui! C’est Quebecois!” at which point, they would lose interest. Each time I wrote out the full Emilie [plus French last name] at a museum or visitor center, whichever employee was helping me would say, “You have a French name,” in a congenial, informative tone. Apparently assuming I didn’t know about it. Initially I was excited each time they noticed my name, but as time passed I grew distraught over their surprise. All my life I’d been told how French I looked. Wasn’t it true?
The story behind my French heritage is this: two of my great-grandparents were genuine, francophone Quebecois. After crossing the border (illegally, if family legend can be trusted), they settled up in Northern Maine, in a community composed mainly of other Quebecois Americans. My grandfather was therefore full-blooded Quebecois, and my father half. So, not counting my mother’s and my paternal grandmother’s Quebecois heritage (it’s hard to avoid it when you’re a multi-generation New Englander), I am one fourth Quebecois. Probably a full half Quebecois when you get down to it.
But what does that really mean? Even if my Quebecois ancestors were full-blooded Francais, they removed themselves from the French gene pool in the 18th or 17th century. To my great surprise, my blonde roommate who didn’t have a drop of French blood in her looked more like the French than I did, because she was short and very thin. In fact, our host mother often ignored me in her excitement over Tiffany. She threw a little birthday party when Tiffany’s birthday came around and bought her a present; when I emailed my host mother after my return to the States, she didn’t even bother writing back.
At first I was discouraged that the Mother Land hadn’t swept me up in its baguette-toting arms. Then the World Cup tourists blew through Paris, and in came the Brits. They were tall, they were blond, their men had big shoulders and legs that were wider than mine. And suddenly I saw the Brits as my true cousins. After all, there was at least as much of the UK in me as there was “The Continent.” When I spent a weekend in London, I felt even more at home. The architecture had sprung from the same loins as New England architecture. The people spoke with the Briticisms we New Englanders were so proud of. Even the weather reminded me of New England. I grew excited over each muffin I bought, each gust of wind I felt on my face. This was home.
And then I remembered that I don’t have all that much English heritage. The English heritage I do have comes through a rather old colonial line, one that leads back to the monarchy. But all that prestigious heritage is by far outweighed by my French, Welsh, and even Scottish heritage. With my ultra curly hair, my petite build, and my hazel eyes, I look like a cross between a Welsh person and a French person, Exactly as my parents’ birth names would predict. But I don’t truly belong to either group.
And that was when I realized that where my ancestors were living a few hundred years ago says a whole lot less about me than the cultures I choose to embrace as my own. I prefer British and English Canadian Lit over American Lit. I speak with one of the most British-esque dialects multi-generation Americans can have, and a genuine English man once told me I had a British accent. In fact, people mistook my accent for an English accent all the time when I was in high school. Not to mention the other kids who’d make fun of me by asking me if I wanted any tea and crumpets.
Does this mean England would embrace me as her own if I spent more than a weekend there? Probably not. But I can trace much of myself back to England and France, whether they’re really in my blood or not. After all, I am a multi-generation New Englander.