THE BLOG

Striving For Unity: Living As A Foreigner In A Post-Terror Attack City

18/10/2016 13:35

November 13th 2015 saw Paris, France, Europe and the rest of the world, come together as one to show their grief and disgust at the acts of terror that had taken place.

The terrorists attacked Paris, but in doing so they attacked every tourist, every native and every foreigner that has and ever will step foot on French soil, this was a grief very specific to French people.

I was in Paris for my University year abroad and teaching in two French middle schools at the time of the attack. As such, I was thrown into an unfamiliar setting both in the sense of being caught up in a mass murder of such size and horror that it will be always remembered and also in the sense that it was not my country that had been attacked, merely one that was hosting me for a little while. Nevertheless, my desire to be unified with the people of Paris was something I felt and still feel very strongly about. The thing is, it's hard to feel unified with a country you don't actually belong to.

Something that immediately set me apart from my fellow Parisians in the aftermath of the attacks was the fact that I am not actually French and Scottish values are not overly reflective of French ones. I felt like a fraud for caring so much about a country I clearly didn't belong to.

I like colours and manners and smiling - things many people of Paris are wholly unfamiliar with. I learned to frown, constantly. I became a lover of monochrome clothing and above all, I learned to stop being so polite. Adapting yourself to reflect the characteristics of the people in an unfamiliar country is a sure fire way to keep yourself under the radar. If you can mimic them, they have absolutely no idea you aren't one of them: until you open your mouth that is.

Another major hurdle I came to in my struggle to feel united with those around me was the Sunday following the attacks. Looking to pay my respects to those who were killed, I went with some friends to Place de la Republique. There, hundreds of people were lighting candles, singing songs and standing together for the world's media to see.

Inevitably the French national anthem the Marseillaise was started. We stood in silence whilst those around us furiously displayed their national pride. If this didn't expose us as people who were clearly not French, nothing else would have. However, while we stood in the crowd electrically aware of the weight of what had happened; we realised something; we didn't need to know the national anthem to show our shared devastation with the French people.

It's the same in any situation abroad, it's not entirely necessary to know all of the ins and outs of a country's culture, but it is necessary to respect that culture and those who are part of it.

Another issue that I and potentially many more ex-pats in Paris faced was a language barrier. Despite studying French there was still some language I'd never heard and this made it difficult to find the words to talk about the attacks with French people - particularly my students.

In one of my classes, multiple students had lost someone in the explosions at the Stade de France. The language barrier for me was something I eventually moved past, but it's not always that easy and I was terrified that people would think my opinions towards the attacks were me jumping on the band wagon rather than genuinely caring.

If, god forbid, another attack was to happen in a country where I didn't know the language, it would be very difficult. It did teach me, however the deep importance of preparing for language barriers when going or living abroad, and thankfully because I had, I was able to work my way through.

In the grand scheme of things worrying about unity was unnecessary; despite not being French, the attacks affected me too so I had every right to feel the same devastation as native Parisians. I had been welcomed by my colleagues and acquaintances into their culture and as such it was not only my right, but my duty to grieve with them in the aftermath of one of the worst terrorist attack since 9/11.

Top Tip

If you're planning on travelling abroad, whether it be to live or just for a holiday, make sure you are aware of important cultural differences. It's also worth checking the Foreign & Commonwealth Office's latest travel advice for the country you're visiting, where you can check the current terror threat.

To find out more, take a look at the FCO Travel Aware advice here for helpful guides on how to stay safe in a foreign country.

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