My experience in Paris has been invaluable, though by no means what I expected. I am currently studying at the Sorbonne University in Paris, in an intensive language program for foreign students. Other than two hours of grammar every day, every other week I have an hour a day of phonetics. The phonetics class has yet to present a flaw, and the time is used more efficiently than in just about any other class I have ever taken. In addition to the French, I have just finished a class on black and white photography.
When I applied to study in Paris, and even when I first arrived, I expected an opportunity to learn French at the world famous Sorbonne University and experience Parisian culture. I expected to go to photography class and take pictures of fabulous and well know sights. In comparison to regular life at UTD, I expected a vacation (a vacation with a purpose, but a vacation nonetheless).
In orientation sessions upon my arrival, I was warned about culture shock. I was told that I would first be awed by the city and the experience. I would then go through a phase where I would probably be more tired than usual, would complain about Paris, would miss home, and would exhibit any other elements of dissatisfaction. Eventually, and towards the end of the trip, I would grow to love Paris and be sad to leave, even to the point of experiencing greater culture shock upon returning home.
I would love to say that I did not experience culture shock. At the beginning of my trip, almost three months ago, I thought that there would be no way I would go through those phases. I was sure that I would be different. I certainly entered with a different attitude than most. When I arrived in Paris, I was not as starry eyed with the culture and mythology of the place as other students in the program. Perhaps my attitude came from the general unease between the US and Paris, but I think more so, I simply came to the situation with what seems now to be a flippant attitude. I wanted to have an open mind to new experiences, but was not going to cut the culture any slack or be blind to the flaws in the situation.
And there are flaws. But more interesting than the flaws are the differences between the US and French cultures. Even more interesting are the dichotomies that exist within the French people themselves. One of the first really bizarre differences I noticed and inquired about is the parallel parking situation in Paris. There is almost no parking at all in the city, and the parking that is available is on the side of some streets. When the French park, they leave their cars in neutral. This allows the cars on either side, whether entering or exiting the parking place, to bump around and have a little contact. Every bumper in Paris, from the nicest Rolls Royce to the tiniest Smart Car, has dents, dings, chipped paint and scratches from parallel parking.
A more major difference between the cultures is the idea of time. In Paris, everyone is in a rush, but one can never appear to be pressed for time when dealing with a one on one situation. When I entered the tenth bookstore in a row looking for an out of print book, I rushed to the counter and asked where the grammar section was located. The man behind the counter took his time and finished stamping the book he was working on, placed it on a stack of books, looked up at me, and said “hello, how may I help you?” I wanted to scream, but then remembered where I was, that I was entering his store, that was his guest and was requesting his permission to look around. I gathered my thoughts and, composed, returned the hello, said I was sorry to disturb him but wandered if he could help me with something. He said yes, and only then did I have permission to actually repose the question I had asked more than two minutes before.
The French also put more of a priority on leisure time, as I have seen with the massive number of cafes around the city, and in discussions of the thirty-five hour workweek. In France, by law, no one is allowed to work more than thirty-five hours a week, to theoretically create more jobs. In reality, less gets done.
In seeing these and many more differences, I have realized why I came to Paris, and why studying abroad is so important. The experience I have had has not really been fun. I have seen museum after museum, lost myself in the Louvre many times, but do not feel more cultured. I have sat in cafes drinking espresso and café-au-lait’s while surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke from neighboring tables, but do not feel more Parisian. I have eaten an innumerable number of crepes, both meal and dessert crepes, but do not feel more French. I have spent days speaking only in French, reading only in French, hearing very little English at all, and I do not feel closer to the new language and farther away from my native tongue. I have ridden every line of the metro, waited in lines, stood shoulder to shoulder with crowds of people, and walked for hours each day through ancient stone buildings, but do not feel more a part of the city.
But I feel more a part of the world.
My experience here has provided me with an invaluable level of inconvenience. My lifestyle has been forcibly changed and, though not necessarily pleasant, I feel that I understand the culture and lifestyle at home more now than I ever have before. By living in a different place, I feel that I appreciate much more what our culture at UTD, in Texas, and in the United States has to offer (I will avoid details here, because that gets more personal than necessary). And I also know that things are not set in stone and that I have a broader experience with which to question some aspects of our culture that I may have overlooked before. And for these things, I feel that my trip has already been a success.