I have been in Paris for a week now and I am still feeling a little bit of culture shock mixed in with consistent excitement. I feel as if I am stuck in a whirlwind of sights, sounds, and smells I don’t understand but am growing to love. The confusion that accompanies the inability to speak the dominant language of the city is only magnified with every excursion I make away from my dorm, and I am finding myself quickly rearranging my perception of how words should sound and look. Alongside this comes a constant observation of the people around me, and what is culturally acceptable or not. Here are some of the things I’ve learned so far:
When I arrived on Sunday, August 18th, two other students and I thought it would be an ideal time to venture into Paris to find groceries for the week. After passing street upon street of closed stores and cafes, we quickly found out that most businesses are not open on Sundays, and that we had landed in the middle of a high vacation time for Parisians. This encouraged us to take advantage of a very small market tucked into the corner of a building, and to make do with snacks until the following day. Once we were able to make a formal shopping trip, we were amazed at the food selection, and the fact that most food items are far more natural and organic by default than what we could find at home.
I remember a number of study abroad meetings at the main campus where we were told how to behave while in France. The American concept of customer service does not align with that of the French, and it became real the moment I arrived in Paris. No matter the business, I am incredibly aware of the fact that I must address each employee I meet and acknowledge their presence. I cannot brush past them the way most of us would in Seattle. Demanding, aloof, or indignant behaviors are not appropriate here, and I am surprised at how much I enjoy this aspect of the culture. This is where I have come to realize that “French rudeness” is a myth of sorts. You will only receive less than courteous treatment if you fail to observe these cultural norms in the first place.
The transportation system is amazing. We received weekly passes that allow us to use the tram (streetcar), the metro (subway), and the buses. Everything is efficient and I can literally travel from one end of the city to the other in less than 20 minutes. However, with this comes a new necessity; constant vigilance against pickpocketing. Though I haven’t experienced it, there are signs and announcements at nearly every terminal warning passengers to guard their things. This is more difficult during rush-hour, as the idea of personal space does not exist, and standing squished between ten other people on the metro is unavoidable after five o’clock. But with a little caution and a bit of common sense, there is generally nothing to worry about.
My classes are wonderful, and my professor is so knowledgeable of this city that I am completely comfortable with every bit of advice he has to offer. We are learning about the Paris of the 1920s and an explosive art movement named Surrealism that sought both to negate art and to change the perception of it irreversibly. Pablo Picasso, Andre Breton, and Louis Aragon are just a few of the many artists and writers who have contributed to art’s divergence from pre-nineteenth century concepts into Cubism, Dada, and finally Surrealism. Our wanderings with our professor have led us to the parts of Paris that many tourists overlook and have given us a wider understanding of its culture and its history.
Overall, I am still reeling from beauty of the city and the waves of new information rattling my brain. I am looking forward to my next set of adventures and I am extremely grateful to the university for giving me an opportunity to venture into the city of my dreams. The thrill of being here is overwhelming, and I am so anxious to see everything that I have already blistered my feet from the walking. I am jumpy and giddily anticipating whatever I am about to experience next, alongside the fascinating nooks and crannies that our professor plans to lead us to.
There is so much to say! However, I am afraid I’m going to have to end here. I will post again soon with any new adventures or learning experiences that I have for you. Thanks for reading!