Pictures, museum tickets, open letters and do-not-forget post-its surround the purple computer. The flowery desk is full. To its right, big and medium sized suitcases lay open with souvenirs, shoes and semi-folded clothes thrown inside of them. A pile of French novels, magazines, and newspapers are on the shelf of the fireplace waiting to be packed, too. The wardrobe and the closet are empty. The tall and wide cozy space I called my own (and my roommate’s) for nine weeks is brightened up by the sunlight for one last day.
It’s official: my study abroad in Paris has come to an end.
After nine marvelous weeks of living in the City of Lights with a beautiful French family, the undeniable au revoir moment has come. For the last two weeks, the denial part was easy to deal with; now it cannot be ignored. After so many happy, challenging, exciting, unstoppable days, I have gathered lessons or recommendations I would like to share.
1. Develop intercultural friendships.
I decided coming to France to learn about its culture and to improve my French. But by thinking that was the only thing I would be doing, I got it all wrong.
During the summer, I learned things that unexpectedly surpassed the all-things-French experience. Thanks to my international classmates, their openness and their willingness to share things about their lives back home, I was able to have very interesting conversations and got to know a little bit about other cultures. For example, talking with my Puerto Rican classmates, I learned about the differences in Spanish from Mexico and from Puerto Rico; with my Taiwanese housemate and friend, I learned about the usage of the traditional (non-simplified) Chinese in Taiwan, as well as some of the traditions and how to say “My name is…” in Chinese.
In other words, you can get the most of your time abroad if you open yourself up to getting to know other international students!
2. Avoid speaking English.
Use your time wisely and take advantage of every opportunity you have to practice the local language. I do not mean to say “go mute” and forget your mother tongue, but the more you try the better you will get, and the more you will see you have improved. The level you are in does not matter. Even if you are beginner, going to cafés or sitting at benches and opening your ears to get a grasp of the language might help you learn things that books won’t teach you.
3. Don’t be afraid to do things alone.
Whether it is traveling, going for a walk, having lunch, going to school, or anything else, do not stop doing things that you would like to experience just because your classmates or friends are not interested. If they can go, cool. If they can’t, cool. Even though I learned this late in the summer, I definitely appreciated it. Enjoy your company. Date yourself. Have lunch in the restaurant you pass by every day. Yes, studying abroad is about getting to know others, but it is also about learning about, growing and understanding yourself!
4. Venture into the culinary world.
If you chose to live with a host family while studying abroad, you were probably given the opportunity to use the kitchen for cooking. Take advantage of this. One of the things I enjoyed the most was going grocery shopping and buying things I had never tried so I could create dishes on my own. I have to say, I am not very into cooking, but studying abroad changed my interests for good. Eating out is always nice, but a piece of French bread with butter and Serrano, or mozzarella with tomatoes and balsamic is always yummy as a snack at any time of the day.
5. Be like the locals: picnic.
This might not apply to all places, but in Paris, picnicking is a very Parisian thing to do. After my classes, my friends and I would go to a boulangerie or supermarket to buy lunch and then head to the Luxembourg Park to picnic. It was a very nice experience and I would recommend you do it if you live in Paris. If you’re in a different city where parks allow it, do it! It is fun, healthy, and cost-effective.
6. Don’t leave things for later.
I remember the day of my arrival to Paris: my roommate and I walked around the neighborhood to get to know our surroundings. We were on our way back home, when we ran into this souvenir gift shop that was located in a hidden passage. They had so many beautiful postcards, and not the traditional picture-of-Paris type of postcard that can be found at all touristy places. These were different, and I did not even consider buying one because I thought I would see postcards like that later. Wrong.
I don’t mean to suggest you buy everything you see, but I do recommend you think about the opportunities you will have in the future to find things you really like. The “I will come back” is so commonly said, but in reality, nobody can guarantee you that chance.
7. Go souvenir shopping before the last week.
Again, do not do everything on your last day. If you want to send postcards to your family and friends at home, ask them for their addresses in advance. This way you can have the information on hand and, whenever you have time, you can write your post-cards at a café, in a park, at a plaza, or wherever you like.
8. Don’t leave packing for the last minute.
If you are like me, it may take you forever to pack. Should this be the case, make time to carefully go over the things you would like to take with you and the things you don’t really need. If you are like my roommate, who packed everything in less than two hours, this might not apply to you. But it is important to consider whether or not you can give the things you may not use again to a local charity. You don’t want to take unnecessary extra weight.
9. Calmly explore the city where you live. Really.
One of the coolest things for me was the public transportation system because getting around was so easy and convenient. One day, however, after visiting a museum, I was unsure whether to take the subway or a bus to go back home, and after some minutes thinking about it, I decided to do neither. Instead, I chose walking back home.
I unplugged myself from my headphones and let the fresh evening breeze that ran into my face be my music. I took the promenade with no rush and stopped every now and then to admire buildings calmly. I eventually took some pictures, but not many. I wanted to see the city by its forms, shades, sizes, sceneries, streets — as much as I could — and by doing so, I felt the city.
10. You are not a machine, and that is OK.
At the beginning of your study abroad experience, take time to think about the things you would love to do and organize yourself so you can accomplish them. But do remember that you are not a robot that can keep up with the crazily active routine of always being on the go. Staying at home is okay. Taking naps is okay. Going home after a long day is okay. Have fun and take care!
11. Enjoy the scenery at a fast speed.
Run, but not because you are late for class. I have to thank my roommate for getting me into the habit of going running while studying abroad. At home, I would go swimming if I wanted to exercise. In Paris, I thought I would limit myself to the commuting walks as my main source of movement.
I first started running to a park near where I lived, and then I discovered I enjoyed running around the neighborhood more, despite having to pay extra attention to the traffic and pedestrian lights, cars, bikes, and others. Even if you are staying in the city for a short period, the adventure of going running and discovering the parks and/or streets nearby is amazing. Doing so would really make you feel like a local.
12. Learn from yourself!
At the end, reflect on the you before and the you after studying abroad. You will be impressed how you (your habits, tastes, desires, priorities, etc.) have changed throughout your weeks or months overseas. You will still be the person you were when you arrived but with different viewpoints and experiences. Cherish your time abroad and learn as much as you can!
This post was contributed by Andrea Fernández Velázquez, who spent her summer studying abroad with AIFS in Paris, France.