“The French love ice. Why would we want to break it?” Laurie stated matter of factly. Laurie, a beautifully, precisely French woman, was referring to figurative ice, that which is broken during ice breaker activities, not the ice that Americans put in their water. Turns out that the French don’t like that kind of ice one bit.
In a windowless auditorium, I learned about Paris. While anxiously waiting to explore the city and the culture for myself, I sat through a two-day orientation that included detailed explanations of the peculiarities and specificities of French culture, likelihoods of the abroad experience and the expectations we were to meet. Laurie, along with several other wonderful French administrators of my study-abroad program, spoke for hours on end as a group of 150 students nodded along in a jet-lagged haze. We were relieved to not be scrambling for fun facts about ourselves, but surprised by the number of cultural differences we were to expect in another Western World.
During orientation, I learned that when the French cut their food, they don’t switch their utensils from hand to hand. This is something that I wish I hadn’t been told, as it somehow made me entirely forget how to use silverware in general. I learned that bread belongs on the table, not on the plate, as it is considered to be an extremity of the table setting. It is holy and should be savored to completion as to prevent it from ever staling. I learned that if eye contact with a stranger lingers too long, it is often considered to be a sexual advance. These advances are made frequently, causally and with ease. I learned that the metro closes too early to take home from nights out. I learned that cheese is to be bought at the fromagerie, chocolate is to be bought at a chocolatier and wine from a wine retailer, with the consult of a specialist.
But most importantly, I learned that I should live like a Parisian and not as a tourist. This comes with a genuine attempt to assimilate; to come in with a clean slate and to leave my American preferences in America, where they were acquired. This is what we have come abroad to do, the administrators said. And they were right. To reaffirm this sentiment, the administrators quoted the Association of International Educators (NAFSA) in saying “we believe that it is through international education that we can, as a country, grow our capacity to listen to, understand, and communicate with the rest of the world and to be part of advancing a shared future of peace, security and well being.”
I came to France, in large part, to study journalism and political communication from a foreign perspective. NAFSA’s eloquent endorsement of the abroad experience affirmed my desire to improve my capacity to listen, understand and communicate with the world at large. What a beautiful thing this is.
So I’m trying to assimilate. I’m trying to absorb Parisian customs, pick up the language and live a life beyond that of a tourist’s. I live with a beautiful French family in a beautiful French flat. Despite their flawless English, we speak solely in French, and they giggle along with me as I struggle through every laborious sentence. I frequent a local cafe for homework and for happy hour where the barista knows my name and my order. I’ve finally stopped using Google Maps to get to school and have found comfort in being lost. I’ve been on my quest to assimilate for over a month now, and have acquired several first and telling impressions of Parisian life.
My initial idea of Paris involved flowers, romance, chocolate and wine. All of these things have proved to be prevalent. But more predominantly, Paris feels like a metropolitan city. This place is enormous and dense. I live in centre-ville, and it takes me about 30 minutes by metro to get anywhere out of my neighborhood. There are around 12 million people living in the greater area, but only 2.2 within the borders of the city, as there simply is not enough space for the sheer amount of people who work, live and wander the city. As such, big city customs apply to every aspect of life, just like New York or Los Angeles.
Poverty is prevalent. Life here is expensive. Housing is the fourth most expensive in the world, and height regulations and eviction restrictions make it so that only the extremely wealthy, the extremely lucky and those living in public housing live within the peripherique. As such, homelessness is a significant problem. There seem to be more homeless children in the arms of their homeless parents than there are in the US, but there are also seem to be way less mentally ill homeless. An average French meal at a restaurant is about 20 U.S. dollars, nearly double what you would expect to pay in the United States. Most boutiques are local and individually curated, making purchases generally more expensive. A cup of tea is typically about 5 U.S. dollars at any cafe and you’ll be hard pressed to find a drink for less than 12. Just about everything is more expensive, except for cigarettes and croissants. And it adds up, unless you live off of cigarettes and croissants.
Paris is exuberantly creative. In the United States, the quest to be an artist is taboo. Art History majors are laughed at, and those who quit their day jobs to dedicate themselves to the arts are more likely than not, poor. In Paris, that’s not the case. Every other storefront is a gallery, a design studio or a local boutique. Fine decor and fashion are prioritized. People put effort into their aesthetic, but don’t frequent the gym. It’s not vain, it’s pleasant. And because the arts are prioritized, artists are successful, not starving, and life’s normalities become a bit more nice to look at.
In many ways, France is far more progressive than America. Education is public and most universities are free, or very near to it. Residence of France can see almost any doctor without charge, and emergency room visits are free for both residents and tourists. People are open and proud of their sexuality. Abortion is not commonly contested, nor is it politicized. But France struggles with a lot of the same things that the U.S does, in ways I never expected. Religious tension seems to be far more prevalent in France and a policy called Laïcité prohibits displays of religious symbols in schools. Due to its close proximity to nations currently suffering from humanitarian crises, immigration is more controversial than I have ever seen, especially because the French have an affinity for preserving their unique culture. Racism surfaces differently. People openly identify people by the color of their skin without apprehension. And the concept of “no means no” doesn’t really exist. That being said, it’s no surprise that France still proves to be far more open minded than the homeland in more ways than not.
I wake up every morning confused about how I got here. The view from my window looks out onto a flower box, and beyond it, a courtyard of cobblestone and frolicing French children. And although I am proud to tell new friends that I am from Texas and go to school near Los Angeles, I already know that parting with Paris will be a heartbreak and a half. So next up is finding a charming French husband to grant me citizenship!