Left an American, Returned a Parisian
“Pardon,” I addressed the gaggle of American tourists in front of me, who were blocking the Paris metro doors. The train had just halted at Gare de Lyon, my stop.
The tourists, a few pairs of parents and their spawn, were speaking with one another so loudly in English that they didn’t hear me. One of them was squinting at a map of Paris they held high in the air, completely unashamed. I was a little embarrassed for them –– by some unspoken rule, it’s basically taboo to talk on the metro.
“Pardon,” I repeated, loudly, applying more of an American accent so the word came out in English, not French. Still no acknowledgment.
“Merde,” I swore, and I shoved them in order to open the doors and jump out.
“Oh, my God, Larry, Parisians are as rude as they say,” I heard one of the women remark as I joined the current of bodies walking briskly out of the station. If only they knew I was American, too, and just a few weeks ago, I was as clueless as they were.
Back when I was an eager and ambitious freshman, I made lists of goals. One of my few long-term goals: Study abroad. I had talked to a few college graduates, seeking bits of wisdom I could apply to my own college career and there was a similarity everyone shared: their regret that they didn’t study abroad.
I didn’t want to share that regret. During my third year, I took introductory French courses in order to fulfill my school requirements. My instructor, Odile, was a native Parisian, and her passion for French was contagious –– I soon began watching black-and-white French films and reading the pages of French Vogue. I’d have to take classes during the summer anyways, I thought, so why not learn French in the country that speaks it? I filled out a few applications, wrote some essays and by the end of winter quarter, I was accepted into the UC Center Paris summer program through UCEAP.
The City of Love didn’t love me that much during my first week abroad. I only had the weekend after my last round of finals to pack and prepare for my trip and it was my first time traveling outside of the U.S., so I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris feeling homesick, jet-lagged and the most nervous I’d ever been. I stepped outside and was hit with a strong wave of culture shock. “Everyone speaks French here,” I joked in a text to my mom. I was only half-joking, though –– I still couldn’t believe I made the decision to live all summer in a country that didn’t speak my native tongue.
Within the first few days of living in Paris, I discovered how discouraging it is to not be able to do something as simple as order food without pointing and gesturing desperately. I hadn’t made any friends to share my struggles with, so I felt lonely. I was too scared to leave my small studio apartment to explore the streets after being harassed multiple times while walking home from school. I was uncomfortable.
When was the last time you did something for the first time? I asked myself at the end of the most difficult week of my life. It’d been a while. In the past three years, I’d gotten too comfortable within the clean, semi-boring bubble that is UC Irvine. It felt foreign, this discomfort, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could use this feeling in a positive way. Eleanor Roosevelt’s iconic “Do one thing every day that scares you” tugged at my heartstrings. Okay, Mrs. Roosevelt, I get it. Paris wasn’t going to change for me and my routine way of life. I’d have to be okay with change.
So I stepped out of my comfort zone a little bit every day, and before I knew it, I had abandoned it completely.
I made new friends by approaching them first –– something I didn’t do too often back home –– and I spent countless nights getting lost on the cobblestone streets with these same friends. We’d set off after class to find Musée d’Orsay to admire some Impressionist art, only to hop off at the wrong stop and find an amazing falafel cart instead. We almost never end up where we wanted to, but it didn’t matter, because as cliché as it sounds, we simply enjoyed being in each other’s presence. In Paris’s presence.
I also challenged myself by traveling alone. As an introvert, I’ve always felt comfortable with being alone, but being alone in a foreign country is another matter. Nevertheless, I vowed to go on a self date at least once a week. My first date was a trip to the Louvre at night. I arrived to the obnoxiously-huge museum just 20 minutes before it closed, but I was able to take my time walking the tiled halls, reveling in how peaceful the museum was when it’s not daytime and on the weekend, the prime time for tourists. I turned a corner and to my delight, there was no crowd pressing themselves against the glass case holding the incredibly tiny –– but still breathtaking –– portrait of la Jaconde, the Mona Lisa herself. I allowed myself the pleasure of gazing upon her visage for a good five minutes before I’d had my fill for the night. These dates increased in number, and soon I was going places alone every day after class. As a result, I became confident in navigating the metro and memorizing the locations of each arrondissement (there are 20 in Paris; I lived in the 11th, près de la Bastille).
Attempting to use French constantly in public ensured that I never went a day without feeling uncomfortable. When I was lost, I asked random Parisians on the street for help in French. I ordered my morning croissants and cafés from the boulangerie in French –– no pointing needed. I chatted up strangers in bars and clubs in French. The language proved to be my gateway drug into my exploration of Parisian culture and life and by the end of the seven-week program my observance of Parisian norms and my accent had improved so much that waiters couldn’t tell I was American.
My cover was blown when I had to ask them to speak slower after they listed their daily deals at a rapid pace, but by the time I bid adieu to Paris, I felt like I was leaving my home. My classmates and I referred to ourselves jokingly as temporary Parisians, but our professor, Claudia, shook her head seriously and said “You don’t have to be French to be Parisian.”
Many writers and artists refer to Paris as a place where people are reborn; even Oscar Wilde himself (whose grave I visited every Sunday for breakfast at Père Lachaise Cemetery) once wrote “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” This summer, I explored the limits of my comfort zone and discovered I had none. I saw things I’d previously only reblogged on Tumblr. I experienced things I’d only seen in movies. I’d never left the country before; this summer, I traveled to seven countries and dozens of cities. So, yes, I’d have to agree with all those writers and artists.
I was reborn in Paris.