A few weeks ago I had never been on a plane or in an airport, and had never been out of the United States besides a drive to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls when I was about 3 years old and long before a passport was required. Due to a spring break study abroad opportunity this semester, I got to change all of that very quickly and spent a quarter of this month in France!(!!!) Since it’s no secret I have been trying to work on learning the French language for a while, this was a pretty exciting development, as I’ve always envisioned Paris as my ideal first overseas travel destination. While I’ve had a busy semester and could have really used that week break, I am so grateful I chose this experience instead. It’s cliche to say that traveling abroad is life-changing, but it really does open your eyes to different people, different culture, geography, politics and norms, etc. It’s just one tiny new sliver of the world that is no longer part of a big unknown, one extra sliver to expand your heart to all that is contained in the world. And above all, even though European culture isn’t the most contrasting to American anyway, it’s also a fresh reassurance that all humans are more similar than we are different.
Because it was a media communications study abroad class, I got to participate in visits to a few social media and news organizations local to Paris, and attend a few lectures and discussions with journalists and other media professionals that offered a more inside perspective of the culture, in addition to visiting the major tourist destinations and exploring the city. I will say that I typically prefer to skip some of the touristy stuff in favor of more niche exploring, so the one major con of a short study abroad like this, for me, is that you’re kind of chained to the class itinerary and the group as a whole most of the time, or at least that was the case for this trip (we were told we would have more free time than we were actually given, but that’s a whole other story). Therefore, I didn’t end up with the freedom to explore certain things that I had hoped to, however, I also experienced so much that I wouldn’t have been able to on my own. All the more reason to start plotting a return visit… 😉 So, with that preface, here’s Paris from my perspective…my first and then general impressions of the city of light.
We landed at the Charles de Gaulle airport around 8am on Saturday, March 9th (quick fun note: we arrived in Paris the day before our daylight savings began in the US, but France’s daylight savings doesn’t start until March 31st, so for the first day it was the full +6hr time difference from home, but the rest of the time there it was a +5hr time difference) and took taxis to our hotel on Avenue de Clichy in the 17e arrondissement. That first taste of France was so surreal. The highways seemed fairly similar to American, and in France the cars are similar as well (steering wheel on the left as usual) just generally smaller, and more motorbikes, so it wasn’t a huge culture shock. It was just the subtle differences, passing trees and looking closely and realizing they’re just….different from the types of trees I’m used to and such. We arrived at our hotel and had to wait a bit to check in to our rooms, so we all just wandered down to the bakery on the corner to get espresso and treats. A café crème and a croissant became my go-to breakfast. Once we were able to settle in to our hotel rooms, the group voted to rest for a couple hours, being tired from the overnight flight. However, one of the other girls and I agreed we’d be better off if we kept moving, so while everyone else napped/rested, the two of us set out on a walk to explore a bit of the surrounding neighborhood and wear off some of the excited jitters of being in this beautiful city for the first time.
That first walk ended up being one of my favorite memories from the trip. It was so great to just leisurely soak in our new surroundings apart from the larger group. To get a feel for the area, for the particular energy of this city and our little section of it. Parts of it definitely reminded me of past experiences of Georgetown in D.C., and NYC, especially at night. But it was of course distinctly Paris, packed with beauty and character and history unlike anything I had ever experienced in the US. I immediately felt like I could explore this city for the rest of my life and never see all of it, never run out of interesting things. There were charming cafés around every corner, every building had its own interesting architectural details, every door was beautiful and unique. That’s one of the first things I noticed, as someone who appreciates little details like interesting/colorful doors, I very quickly realized I couldn’t keep stopping to take a photo of every cute door or I’d never get anywhere, haha.
The people are friendly, as long as you remember to say bonjour and merci. But really, I found no proof of “the French are rude” stereotype in my experience of Paris, quite the opposite, really. I also think the stereotype that Parisians wear lots of black and very little color is a bit over-exaggerated. Black is always going to be a common apparel color, especially in cooler seasons, but there seemed to be plenty of pops of color in the streetwear I observed, besides plenty of camel and mustard as the other dominating neutrals. A common trend seemed to be women in feminine skirts with sheer black tights, paired with either short boots or stylish sneakers of varying styles (for a comfortable commute, I imagine). Sheer black tights toujours. Lots of variation in coats, but I definitely felt right at home with the gray wool overcoat I brought as I saw many similar versions on women and men. There were so many cute kids and so many cute dogs. It seemed like every other person was walking either a small dog or a small child down the street, and yes, often with fresh baguette(s) tucked under an arm as well. People watching really is the best, especially when taking the metro or sitting outside at a cafe (every Parisian restaurant or cafe had outside seating of course, and often heat lamps above so it really doesn’t matter the weather, day and night, warm or cold) and everyone looks interesting in Paris so it’s impossible not to people watch. It was all a bit of sensory overload, but in the most satisfying way possible. Everything felt both familiar, and life-changingly new to my eyes.
I quickly absorbed details of the surrounding streets of the neighborhood where we stayed, after a few days it was easy to recognize certain shops, graffiti, and the architecture. The same went for the metro as well, despite the multitude of trains and stops, if you get to know your “home” station(s) and just check out the map, it’s not too hard to figure out which line to take to get where you need to go. If you’re taking it during the typical rush hours, get ready to embrace the lack of personal space, because people pack into the cars like sardines. But hey, it’s kind of fun quickly searching for a spot to wedge yourself in…at least it was for the week, maybe not for a long-term daily commute, hah. A good time to perfect saying pardon in your best French accent. You might even get lucky and end up in between a couple of flirty Italian guys who speak only enough English to tell you “your face is nice” like one of my friends on the trip. 😉
Speaking of language, it was certainly interesting finally getting to put my French to the test. Initially, any speaking/accent abilities of mine went out the window from the nerves of interacting with actual native speakers and I kept it minimal, but over a few days I started to get a little more comfortable and eventually there were even a couple occasions where someone didn’t immediately assume I was American. I really only got to use the basics, but it was nice to be able to order food competently and understand a few menus and signs that didn’t have English translations included, or pick up bits and pieces of overheard conversations. Also, the most helpful thing for me was that I was the only student on the trip who has been actively studying French, or at least the one with the most experience with it, so I became a sort of go-to French dictionary and pronunciation guide to many of the other students. I’m still on a very elementary level, but it felt nice when the others asked me simple questions and I was able to offer help and answers. It kept me on my toes, testing my comprehension in a fun way, though I definitely still said “I have no idea what that means” or “let’s try google translate” a few times as well. 😉
Initially, I was planning to give a chronological recap of my trip, but I think it will be smoother if I break it down into categorical sections. So, these have been my impressions and general observations, and I will follow up soon with a post about the classic tourist destinations I visited (the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, etc.) and then possibly another post about the lectures and educational activities (the “study” part of this brief study abroad), maybe even a post about the food or other details, we’ll see. My cousin (shout out healthtreeliving.com) and I were just discussing blog post ideas, so while I’ve had quite the lull in posts the past few months, it’s looking like I have a fresh wealth of things to write about, not to mention some old drafts that could use finishing. Although, this one already took way too long to write, so it’s always a matter of finding the time. Between you and me, I’m also itching to give the blog a fresh redesign…again, time.
Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed a taste of Paris from my viewpoint, à bientôt!