As of today, I have officially spent a week in France! Might I add that this was probably the longest week I’ve ever experienced, and that may be a result of a combination of jetlag and adjustment, in general. I, luckily, got to spend this wonderful Friday on an excursion at a little French town with a very small population, Saint-Guilhem-Le-Desert. Despite the absurd amount of obstacles I experienced this week, I really don’t want to return home, right now. Ever. Yet, if you would like to hear more about my Saint-Guilhem-Le-Desert and other adventures, follow me, either on Facebook, Twitter, BlogLovin’, etc!
That being said, it’s about time to give you a full recount of my first week.
For those of you who don’t already know, I am studying abroad in the south of France, right now. No, I am not “derping” around Europe or taking a gap semester from school. I am here to learn, and I think that is something that a lot of us forget when we study abroad. We are all caught up in being culturally shocked, when the real cultural shock is embedded in the curriculum.
With my program, even if I didn’t want to learn French, I think I would still be fluent by the end of the semester because of the way this is set up. Originally, I was a little hesitant to study abroad in my second year of college, but my mother really pushed this idea. She did a program similar to this when she came to the United States, and that’s basically how she learned English. She warned me that this wasn’t going to be easy, but she said it was time.
This didn’t really hit me when I left the airport. Or on the train where I sat with a huge back pain. Really, it was right before I stepped into the train station and I saw my host family. It wasn’t until then did I realize that I was going to have to communicate in a language that I was not comfortable using. I don’t thrive in an uncomfortable environment, and my confidence was never truly tested until now.
I’ve already gone over a lot of those first-impression shenanigans, so I’m going to get into the nitty gritty. Chelsea, what really are the differences between the United States and France?
It’s important to understand that stereotypes may not be true. Some may be, but mostly they’re not. As someone who dieted heavily, I take body image and looks fairly seriously. Yet, I didn’t realize the role of health in our daily lives until I got here. My host family is very bio-friendly. Our house is powered by alternative energy sources, and I got yelled at for leaving the kitchen light on for about five minutes. My dinners last about two hours long, at least.
Why do these last so long? Well, here, dinner is different. In college, I was very used to eating for about ten minutes and then leaving for class or studying. I eat fast, and even if I was with my friends, I would eat for about thirty minutes, because we all had things to do. In France, everything is much more valued. The food is healthier for you (even the ice cream!), having no preservatives and mainly being home-grown in gardens. For those of you who were wondering, this is why French people are so skinny. I’ve actually lost weight since I’ve been here. The idea of “wasting” anything is out of the question. You must turn the lights off when you leave a room. You must eat every little crumb on your plate until it is clean as a board. You eat only what you can eat and do not serve yourself more.
There’s another huge difference I want to point out, one that is a very obvious stereotype we have in the United States: lot of things in France are simply just smaller. The state, itself, is smaller. When I got to my host families’ house, I didn’t know it was a house at first, because it looks very different. The apartments are much closer together and the idea of “personal space” is very different.
You’ve probably heard the stereotype that French people are “snobby,” because they ignore people when they pass them on the street and refuse to help others. That is not true, at all. Yes, they may come off as snobby, but culture is different. To refuse to make eye contact with another person or to hug all your bags at once makes sense around here, because the idea of “space” is a lot smaller. You don’t have room to be loud and make big hand gestures, here. You have to avoid looking at strangers, or it will look like you’re inviting them over to talk to you. You have to keep your hands on your bags and close to your body in order to avoid gypsies from trying to steal them.
Of course, as the loud American, I did not know this, initially. As a matter of fact, I think on my first day of school, I walked and smiled at people. This led to a lot of cat-calling and unwanted attention for me. It was very obvious that I was American, and as someone who likes to feel comfortable, I strive to blend in most of the time. The long tee-shirt and shorts won’t cut it here in France, and it feels weird to wear jeans with a nice blouse every day. I’m still conjugating verbs during conversation, struggling to remember the differences between conditional and future tenses.
But when I talk to people from the United States, they say how lucky I am to have this opportunity to go abroad. And I am, but this isn’t rainbows and cotton candy for me. To be honest, this may be the most difficult journey I have ever decided to take part in. Within the first couple of days, I felt so alone, because nobody in my house speaks English. I couldn’t understand a lot of what was happening around me because the cities and the people are not anything like what I’m used to at home. I have never had to be so cautious with my bags or aware of how I dress until I arrived.
I realized something, though: just because you don’t speak the language doesn’t mean you’re incapable of understanding the circumstances. What does this mean? Well, you’re smart, no matter what language you speak. French people talk about the same things as American people, yes. And it took me a few days to realize that, sadly. For some reason, deep down inside, I viewed this language as one that was completely alien. I never listened to anyone speaking in French outside of the classroom for the eight years I trained in this language. So when I first heard people speaking French on the streets, I immediately got scared.
It’s all about confidence, though. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you won’t be able to accomplish anything. That’s what study abroad is really here for. You have no parents. You may have no friends, initially. And you know nobody.
How much farther can you be pushed out of your comfort zone?
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