Salut, tout le monde! Today I have a guest post for you coming from one of my readers named Natasha. She blogs over at American Mom – French State of Mind where she writes about her unique perspective as a wife to a Frenchman named Yannick. She’s from a small town outside of Philadelphia and is the second oldest in the line of six girls. She grew up in a predominantly white suburban town with her five sisters, mom, dad, and stepfather. Enamored by the big city, Natasha made the move to New York City in 2015. Fast forward five years later, and she’s married to Yannick… with a baby, dog, and the whole family en route to France in May 2020. Fun facts: Natasha refers to herself as the little bird, and her three younger sisters are United States Marines. So here’s Natasha!
Prince Charming of the French variety
Growing up in a small country-like town in Pennsylvania, USA, one might think I would easily fall into the category of wanting to be with an All-American man. Yes, I spent my childhood dreaming of princesses and Prince Charming, but my Prince Charming was always of the French variety. My fascination with Frenchmen and the French culture didn’t just come out of thin air, you see. My mother, an African-American woman from Philadelphia once told my sisters and me of how she met my father that changed my lens on the French culture. My father, an African-American man from Phoenixville, PA, USA, is the classic American-country man.
They were the epitome of City Girl meets Country Boy. The two met one school semester in the 1980s during a college French Language class. My father claims to have been the bee’s knees of the French language; however, my mother claims otherwise. Some aspects of their story always remained the same: the French language is mysterious, beautiful, and complicated. They talked of how the French people are a part of blood, how learning the language is essential, and how we would all visit one day.
I was intrigued for sure. I wanted to watch all the French movies. For example, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, does that count? I tried to research all of the future locations in Paris I could visit. I even dabbled in trying to learn the language.
From Tinder to travel abroad
It wasn’t until I moved to New York in the summer of 2015 that I met Yannick, a Caucasian Frenchman from a small town outside of Montpellier, through Tinder.
Swipe, anyone? No shame in my game.
Our love story snowballed fast. At the time, I wasn’t sure if this was a French guy thing or just the nature of being in New York City. Nope, definitely a Frenchman thing. Once you seal the date with a kiss, it’s all she wrote folks. Before I knew it, he invited me to France after only being together for less than 6 weeks! Let’s travel to Montpellier in February, he said. It will be GREAT! He told me of how we would meet his family and stay at the house he lived in during his teenage years.
Honestly, I was beyond excited to go, but I was nervous as all hell to meet his family. Yannick told me to erase everything I thought I knew about France. 1) France is not Paris. 2) France is not just a bunch of rude people running around with baguettes and berets. 3) France is not all glamorous and romantic.
Everything he said went in one ear and out the other. I worried about what his family would think of him bringing home an American girl and a Black girl at that. From my experience, small towns usually had a severe lack of diversity coupled with a case of close-minded tendencies.
Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE small towns. The people are friendly, they actually smile when you walk down the street, and would give you their last can of soup if you ever needed it. I worried that the small towns of France wouldn’t be as receptive.
Would they have any black people there at all? I never saw them in the French movies apart from the African Doctor (Bienvenue à Marly-Gomont) and in a small cameo appearance like in Call My Agent! (Dix pour cent). I knew the struggle was about to be real.
Okay, but where are the Black people in France?
When Yannick first told his family that he would be bringing a “friend” with him, I immediately thought to myself, “What kind of crazy brings their ‘friend’ across the ocean to meet their entire family? Do they know I’m Black?” I am not sure why I even worried about the latter at this point. I am sure he must have brought it up when talking about doing my hair. He was a hairstylist after all, and hair was like his love language.
Nevertheless, I was stressing, people. I mean, my family was shocked to learn I would travel such a long way to a small town when I already lived in a small town prior to moving to New York City. They were excited that I would be experiencing a new culture and even more amazed that I would be the first person in the family to travel to Europe. My mother was especially excited to hear about how they handled meeting someone outside of their race and culture.
Arriving at MPT airport was surreal. I was sweating profusely and had butterflies thinking about meeting Yannick’s family for the first time. At this point in my French language journey, I was not confident in my abilities to speak conversationally. I had taken some French classes at CouCou in Brooklyn back in NYC but those skills were not good enough to actually communicate full-on sentences. I could, however, read and write what I wanted to say.
Once we collected our luggage, Yannick decided it was time for a smoke break. I figured we’d go outside… WRONG. To my surprise, there was a designated cubicle for all the smokers. It was like something out of a movie. I never imagined something as trivial as a smoking area to surprise me.
Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Where were all the Black people in France? I couldn’t decide if I was more surprised by the smoke area or the utter lack of Black people inside of the airport. I wondered if any Africans or Afro-Americans lived in this area? Are they in Paris and I just missed them? It’s crazy to think of how I never worried about this before. Being in a foreign country will make your mind wander, especially when meeting your potential in-laws.
Fun Fact: Black hair is special
Then it was time to meet the family. I gave the three-kiss southern greeting and tried my best to speak in French. His mom, sister, and nephew were all excited to meet me and honestly didn’t give a crap about me being Black. It didn’t shock them in the slightest. I think they were more shocked that I referred to myself as the little bird.
Upon arriving at the home and having a quick power nap, I awoke to a home filled with more family than I knew how to handle. The mentions of “first time in France and not seeing Paris,” “Staying in Mudaison for two weeks,” and “How’s your French,” were on repeat. I was elated that no one gave two craps about me being Black. Didn’t faze them at all.
Now my hair, on the other hand, was a different story. Yannick normally did my hair for me, but for this trip, I wanted my hair to look special. I got African braids done in Harlem prior to leaving NYC in order to protect my hair. I really wanted to soak up the south of France sun in the pool without damaging my hair to bits. To Yannick, it was second nature to touch my hair since he had been doing my hair exclusively since the day we met.
I could feel the family staring at my luscious locks. I knew it was just a matter of time before the big question or lack thereof was coming… “Can I touch your hair?” Normally I would say HELL to the freakin’ NO or reply, “Touch it and get popped.” #sorrynotsorry
But in this instance, I could sense that their energy was coming from a place of sincere interest and amazement, so I made an exception. Black hair is something that a small town like Mudaison does not see! I can promise you now there was not a single black person in sight. I’m pretty sure the neighbors secretly wanted to touch my hair as well. I can’t say I blame them. Black hair can be styled in a million different ways and tell a story of our historical past.
Yannick’s 88-year-old grandmother meets a Black person for the first time
It must have been fate or serendipity when I finally met Yannick’s grandmother. She spent her entire life in Mudaison and only traveled to Paris ONCE in 88 years. 88 YEARS, people. I remember thinking that I wanted to impress her the most. The look on her face when we met was pure joy. I don’t think there’s a more magical feeling than meeting someone’s grandmother and completely hitting it off.
Reminder, I did not speak French well enough to hold a conversation, so our interaction was purely off of me smiling and listening to her speak. Yannick loosely translated that Odette, his grandmother, had never met a Black person before, and she wanted to touch my skin. She remarked on how beautiful it was and was smiling from ear to ear. You would have thought she won the lottery with the amount of childlike joy in her eyes.
How could an 88-year old who saw so much in her life be amazed by a Black girl from America?
A part of my brain shut off when she was talking to the family about my skin. I NEVER would have imagined letting someone I just met, let alone knew beforehand, touch my skin. There is something to be said about the innocence behind it all. The French are often known as rude, and perhaps dare I say racist at times.
In all actuality, I do not believe the French are rude but instead unapologetically blunt. Exhibit A: Mr. French, aka Yannick, when he’s discussing the differences between American and French hairstyles or aesthetics in general. I’ve always believed that the vast majority of French people are not racist but are instead plagued by their historical past.
The truth of the matter is sometimes the French are just too curious for their own good. As soon as Odette got the all-clear to examine my skin, the other family members joined in. I hate to say it, but it felt like being Beyonce herself.
Fact: Lotion is the key to great skincare
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Throughout my two weeks in Mudaison, I kept thinking this is the best vacation of all time. Everyone is just like the people in my childhood town. They are kind-hearted, welcoming, but downright shocked that I would want to spend time in a small town vs. Paris. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to leave the New York City February winter behind and be in the south of France?
I recall attempting to dip my toes into the pool of his mom’s house but quickly realized I didn’t pack any lotion. As a person of color, you cannot, I repeat you cannot just go splashing around in the water unless you have lotion. Your skin will turn “ashy,” which is basically dry and brittle skin.
Sadly, the type of cocoa butter lotion I normally used was nowhere to be found. Do the French people of Mudaison not know that lotion is the key to great skincare? Tragic. I had an easier time finding a McDonald’s than finding Black skincare items and hair products. The family was really incredible in offering products that would work. Mustela was a fan favorite for me; however, the hair products were not cutting it. You win some. You lose some.
In the end, I realized I really had nothing to worry about in the first place when it came to meeting Yannick’s family. Mudaison may be a small town in the south, but the people there are bold and unapologetic when it comes to being their authentic selves. If they want to talk about skin, hair, and meeting their first Black person, they will. The same as the people in my hometown of Pennsylvania.
In the end, I had no reason to be concerned about being Black in Mudaison, France. Truly people were more shocked that Yannick brought home a girl who at least attempted to speak French than anything else. The experience I had throughout that time sticks with me and is still a topic of discussion on trips back to France. Now, when I do move to Mudaison officially, I’ll be ready to bring a pop of color to the quaint little town.
Thanks, Natasha! Hope you enjoyed her guest post. Be sure to check out Natasha over on American Mom – French State of Mind.