I am from Chicago, have been on an airplane only three times in my life, and the closest thing I have experienced to French culture is Trader Joe’s croissants and pretending to comprehend my sister’s New Wave French films.
This semester I am studying abroad in Paris at the Institut de Langue et de Culture Françaises. I have been in Europe for a total of ten days now and have already experienced probably a lifetime’s worth of emotions, accents, and (got to love it) awkward cultural miscommunication. In order to grasp what feels like the fifty million things I have seen, heard, felt, and ate in the past week and a half, I have listed below a 100% honest recollection of my findings from my first foreign adventure.
1. Am I disconnected from the earth? Is the internet a real thing?
First thing’s first, jet lag is real and a life–ruiner. Secondly, if you shamelessly associate yourself with the social media/internet crazed generation of today (like myself), you are in-store for huge culture shock while abroad. In America, I was so accustomed to having wifi at my fingertips and not thinking twice about surfing the internet and using social media.
Here in Europe, I have found it to be extremely rare to find wifi. Not going to lie, being in a foreign country for the first time and having extremely minimal (basically nonexistent) ways to communicate with my family was a little terrifying. Before arriving in Paris, I opted for an extra excursion that included a two-day stopover in London. As amazing as the trip was, the only time I could let my family back home know that I survived the 9 hour flight and was not wandering around somewhere lost in Europe, I had to go down to the hotel’s lobby and to use the wifi. After asking the front desk if I could make a collect call from their regular phone, the woman told me I had to pay 20 pounds- which is a little absurd. FaceTime, iMessage, and Facebook messaging are literal life-savers because they allow you to keep in touch back home with no charge once you are in wifi.
Currently I am residing at the Jean Monnet FIAP which is an international hostel situated in the 14th district of Paris. I enjoy the building’s modern amenities and layout immensely but the only killer: you can only get wifi in the lobby. Buying a hotspot for your room is offered, but it can get a little pricey and I would personally just prefer to spend that money on shoes or a year’s supply of macarons. This means my days of surfing the web and watching Netflix in my bed at ungodly hours are long over.
Who knows, maybe this “hindrance” will actually make a 21st century teenage American tech-rat like me go outside and enjoy and explore this beautiful city I get to call home for the next three months?
2. Am I actually an alien?
Back home in the United States, I typically could fill a book of doing at least one awkward thing per day. Here in France, I have probably already created two books worth and am moving on to completing a trilogy.
Cultural mishaps are a given and totally expected to happen living abroad – and boy have I learned a lot from my mistakes already. For instance, in Europe dog owners let their animals roam free anywhere without a leash. I learned this after following a sassy disdainful Chihuahua around a street for a good five minutes trying to figure out how to say “Is this your animal, sir?” in French to the surrounding bystanders.
Another cultural difference that I think is incredibly ecologically smart and America should definitely take after: most grocery stores make you pay 20 cents for plastic bags. Stores here also make you bag your own items; I learned this one after staring blankly at the cashier for what felt like about two years. Long story short, I will never cut it as a bagger at Target.
Another super interesting difference I found while shopping at the Galleries de Lafayette: you have to pay 50 cents to use a public restroom! This revelation didn’t really involve an awkward story, just mainly me trying to read a sign in French (aka hieroglyphics).
All things uncomfortable aside, I have become a world-class charades communicator and am definitely looking forward to more laughable moments and slowly blending in with the Parisian crowd.
3. I may gain 600 lbs. here and I’m totally okay with it
Because everything food-related here is astoundingly beautiful and I just simply cannot resist a tasty macaron when I see one. There are cafes, boulangeries, and restaurants everywhere you turn and each one is equipped with its own Parisian charm that makes you seriously contemplate why there are only three meal times throughout the day.
I even have serious thoughts of creating an éclair appreciation blog based on a pistachio éclair I had from Boulangerie Assas that was actually life-changing. Everything I have eaten here has been so tasty and I cannot imagine anyone ever complaining about French cuisine. Also, people actually do walk around on the street eating baguettes! If you are a fellow bread lover (like myself), Paris is definitely the place for you. If you are a fellow coffee lover (also like myself) get ready to never be the same again. I am already dreading the first morning back in America where I don’t have a freshly grounded double espresso. It is so outrageously good and also surprisingly cheap here- around 2 euro at local cafes. On the plus side, coffee and bread are extremely cheap. On the negative side, water is actually expensive and less available here in France. Unlike in America where you get free water at pretty much any restaurant or cafe, you have to pay for it additionally here. Let’s just say I have willingly accepted the fact that caffeine and sugar will be coursing through my veins for the next three months.
4. Europeans have S.T.Y.L.E.
One of the main reasons why I chose Paris is because of my adoration of fashion. Everyone studying in the field (I’m majoring in fashion business at Columbia College Chicago) knows that Paris is the fashion capital of the world, and if you get the chance to work here, you have a shot at making it anywhere else.
Getting to visualize real Parisian style has been so cool to experience and has definitely encouraged me to up my wardrobe game. Every woman looks so effortless here with very minimal to no makeup, clever layering tactics, and skillful accessorizing.
I have come to find that decorative and bold eyeglasses are a huge hit here, and scarves are an absolute necessity to any outfit. Although Parisians noticeably dress much more minimalistic than Americans, it is not so dramatically different than what I expected. I’d say the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the overall ease of a Parisian ensemble; their outfits really stand out and you find yourself actually noticing the textures and colors and layers of the garments. Everything looks perfectly in place while at the same time remaining charmingly disheveled. If there is one thing I must do before I go back home to America (besides trying every éclair I see) is nailing down this effortless Parisian style. Polly Maggoo– get ready to meet your match.
5. Wow, studying abroad is really cool!
Although this first week and a half in Europe has been an absolute whirlwind of “what am I doing?” and “does this sign say bathroom or emergency exit?” moments, I have already discovered so much about France.
I traveled down to the stunning Loire Valley for a weekend trip, strolled the trendy Boulevard Saint- Germain for hours, and even explored at least nine of Paris’ twenty districts. I have already learned so much about European culture and am beyond excited to continue broadening my narrow travel scope. Paris is truly such a breathtaking city that is filled to the brim with rich history, culture, and charm, and I absolutely cannot imagine studying abroad anywhere else.