Back to Study Abroad Land

Aaaaaaand I’m back! A record-breaking month-long break between posts, but now that I’m in a country with reliable internet access (and electricity), hopefully I can make my posts a little more regular.

I arrived in Paris Charles de Gaulle airport the morning of January 15th. Since then, I’ve had about a week to settle into my new room, get to know my host family a bit, start the orientation process, and make a few friends in my program. I’ve also learned to navigate the Paris metro system without making an utter ass out of myself, been complimented on my French three whole times, and have been in the Louvre twice and the Musée d’Orsay once. I am doing well.

Those of you who have been following this blog since September know that I spent my last semester in Senegal, and on the surface, I’m happy to report that my transition into French daily life is going much smoother than my transition into life in Senegal. Part of this is simply because France and the United States are more alike, both culturally and developmentally speaking, than Senegal is to either country – and while this revelation probably seems obvious to most of you, I actually found it somewhat startling. Somehow, I thought that Senegal and France would be more obviously connected, since they share the same official language and colonial history. But in reality, the biggest similarity I’ve seen so far between the two countries is that both their inhabitants buy bread at a “boulangerie.”

Funnily enough, when I first landed in Paris, the overwhelming difference between Senegal and France actually worked against me – in spite of France’s overall similarity to the US. This was because a part of my brain stepped off the plane and said, “Oh! We’re leaving Real Life and returning to Study Abroad Land,” and fully expected to be in Dakar. For the first few days, every time I encountered something foreign or alien in the way I’m expected to conduct my life in Paris, my brain tried to shunt it sideways into its folder on Senegal. Needless to say this was confusing and unhelpful, and actually made my first few days here more overwhelming and stressful than they would have been if this were my only study abroad destination.

The best illustration of this comes from my first few days with my French host family. I am an extremely family-oriented individual, and as such one of my top priorities during my year abroad is to foster friendly, meaningful, and lasting relationships with my host families. In Senegal, I achieved this goal easily. I put a lot of work into it, true, but the culture was also working with me: in Senegal, it’s perfectly normal for parents to adopt children into the family temporarily, be they nieces or nephews, distant cousins, neighbors, or friends of friends. So I got used to thinking it was normal to call my host parents “Mom” and “Dad,” to eat every meal of every day with my host family, and to get yelled at if I was late for dinner.

So when I got here, and learned that I’d be expected to call my host family by “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and their last name, I was horrified. When I realized that they provided for me exactly as specified in their contract with CUPA, with no wiggle room, I felt like a paid lodger who was merely tolerated at certain meal times.

Another big point of difference between my two study abroad programs that I saw immediately upon landing is language. Both programs are, of course, language learning programs. But language interfaces with the cultures and societies of the two countries in very different ways, which means that my language learning experiences are going to be – and already are – very different in the two countries. In Senegal, as long as you could get your point across and make coherent sense in French, you were golden. You got major bonus points if your grammar was correct. But there, virtually everyone learns French as a second language. Many people didn’t have the facility to correct my French when I made an error; others simply didn’t care enough about The French Language to mention when I was butchering it. In France, people care deeply about their language, and the way that French people speak French reveals a lot of really interesting insights into their culture. For example, French has two different ways of saying “you” : “tu” and “vous.” “Vous” is both plural and formal; “tu” is singular and informal. Before coming to France, I had thought that “tu” would be the standard for speaking to individuals, and you would only address an individual as “vous” is outstanding situations.

I was wrong. It’s the opposite. “Vous” is the standard and “tu” is the outlier. This fascinates me for a couple of reasons, one of which is it shows that a certain amount of formality is the norm in French interactions and even French relationships (cool, eh?). At first, this formality felt forced and alien, especially when compared to the over-the-top warmth and hospitality of Senegal – a country where, incidentally, everyone from the cleaning ladies at our school right on up to the Director of CIEE Senegal insisted that we refer to them as “tu.”

However, before I go any farther enumerating the many differences that struck me between Senegal and in France in my first few days, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: my initial reactions to France were wrong. As I’m sure many of you guys have already figured out, I was evaluating French situations based on my experiences in Senegal. In Senegal, your host parents telling you to address them by their last name would have been a sign that there was something very badly wrong. So when my French host parents told me to call them by their last name, I assumed it was because they hated me. They don’t hate me; I even think they even like me. When my host parents told me I was only entitled to five meals with them a week, I assumed it was because they wanted me out of their hair as much as possible. Also untrue; they’ve already invited me to a couple of meals in addition to the five they have to give me, and they even took me to see a movie last night. They were just trying to avoid confusion and misunderstanding by explaining what’s actually in the contract.

Perhaps paradoxically, I’m going to finish up by saying that I think my experience in Senegal prepared me well to adjust to France. It only took me three days to realize that I was judging French people outside of their proper cultural context. That was a realization it took me weeks to arrive at when I was in Senegal. Because I’ve already been through the “honeymoon phase” and culture shock once, I’m not as worried about obsessively analyzing what “stage of the process” I’m in – I understand that there will be good days and bad days. I have a better understanding of what my limits are and how far I can push my relationships each day, I have greater self-confidence in my ability to behave myself and make friends under pressure… the list goes on.

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