overseas briefing

By Middlebury Campus

PARIS — Out of all the things I was expecting to be different when I went to France, I never thought I would have to consider my Nalgene. I thought about bringing chic clothes, because the Parisians definitely dress up. I thought about drinking wine at every meal, because the French love their wine. I thought about doing lots of things to avoid standing out as “The American” — but I never thought about my Nalgene.

My Nalgene has been a great companion to me these past couple of years. I’m rarely seen without my Nalgene. When I first came to Middlebury, my Nalgene immediately made me feel like a member of the club. I could go on real Midd Kid hiking trips. I could put my drinks in it for pre-gaming. Wherever I went, my Nalgene went with me.

It followed me to Prague, where I spent my first study abroad semester with NYU. With all the granola-y backpacker kids passing through this semi-out-of-the-way city, my Nalgene and I blended right in. There were dreadlocks and threadbare clothes to spare in Prague, and the Nalgene fit right in. My Nalgene was a great voyager; it had a great time.

And then, suddenly, after I arrived in Paris for my spring semester, I discovered something terrible: my Nalgene shocks the French. It happened one night at dinner during my first week in Paris as I went to fill up my Nalgene at the sink in my host family’s kitchen. Just as I turned on the water, my host dad exclaimed, “Mais c’est quoi, ca?” he asked. What is that?  “Uhh…” I replied. “It’s a water bottle.” “Mais” he said, looking at it quizzically, “c’est pas très erotique, non?”

My mind did a double take. Not very erotic? My Nalgene? Who would ever even consider a Nalgene erotic in the first place? I was dumbfounded — but then, as I had learned to do, I put myself in the place of a French person. Oh yes, I see it now. Big, green, plastic-y. Definitely not very erotic.

“Well, you’re right, it’s not very chic is it? I can put it under the table if that’s better,” I said. “Yes,” he answered as he poured our carafe of wine, “maybe that’s a good idea. It’s a strange-looking thing, isn’t it.” So the Nalgene went under the table for dinner, and I laughed a little to myself throughout the entire meal.

Of course my Nalgene would upset the French. The Nalgene is the opposite of all that is French.  The French, who adore luxury, fine goods, and high fashion. The French, who are known for being sensual, natural people who can talk for hours about lingerie and delectable snails.

At Middlebury, seeing someone drink out of a Nalgene is a perfectly common, everyday experience. But suddenly, in Paris, I found myself feeling self-conscious. If I was on the metro, I thought, should I pull out my Nalgene? Just take a sip, since I’m thirsty, or should I wait until I’m in the privacy of my own home?

But isn’t that the whole idea of studying abroad? They welcome us into their country to learn a little about them — and we, in turn, teach them a little about us. If I keep my Nalgene to myself on the metro, I look more French. But if I take it out, I offer the people a glimpse into a life they might not have known about before — the life of a Midd Kid, of a non-erotic water-drinker. That’s what study abroad is all about.

So I decided to keep drinking out of my Nalgene. The French people would try to pretend they weren’t staring. It’s ok, though —  what’s important is that we’re all learning, one snail, one hamburger, and one Nalgene at a time.