Fluency. This confident but firm statement is written on postcard number 5 out of 9, sent from the tiny village in Ireland my Grandparents live in. Probably marking the most regular communication with these delightful grandparents in the past 20 years of my life. Something I have learned during the past 68 days since moving to Paris is that people’s reactions surprise you. Mine included.
I can’t say I was incredibly excited to move to Paris. Terrified is a better fit. I did think, naively, it would just be like London or any large English city, only with croissants and impossibly chic Parisians drinking coffee. The longer I spend here, the less I feel I know. One fact is sure; I would give anything for a roast dinner. Basically, my year abroad is different to what I imagined.
“It’s not that the process is complicated, you’re just really bad at French. I’m having to be extra slow”. That was the delightfully encouraging message I received during my bank appointment, in my second week here. Communicated in French of course, with a painfully fake smile and a thick accent to boot. After two hours of glacial progress, having probably signed my soul away in order to receive a French bank account, I gingerly made an attempt to lessen the awkwardness. Thank you so much for your help! I hope I haven’t kept you! Is the process always so lengthy for foreign applicants? Shot down. 6 weeks later, after having acquired a French number and deciding I couldn’t put off updating my details any longer, I returned. “Now you can truly experience Parisian life!” was the proud statement from my delightful adviser. Thanks mate, but you’ve blown your chances to be amis already.
“I’m never going to see these people again anyway”: A motto to chant internally when the various following things happen (and they did)
- Being laughed at for not understanding a bizarre buzzer system to enter HSBC. Other staff members genuinely popped their heads around the corner to watch me try and leave.
- Slipping in dog shit. There tends to be a lot in Paris, despite the chic Instagrams I post.
- Running of out words to say when attempting to make friendly conversation, so just ending the chat with a wide smile and a helpful shrug
- Being repeatedly accused of personally causing Brexit. Should have brought a ‘Remain’ badge with me.
- Often being stopped for directions even though I have no idea where I am myself
- Even in an English or American food establishment, they won’t understand my English pronunciation of any of the words on the menu. Best to point helpfully
- Being asked to leave a lecture by a grumpy Professor even though I was genuinely registered for the class and just wanted to learn
- The BBC need to pay a bonus to whoever is monitoring foreign access via VPNs to their iPlayer site. Channel 4, ITV, even dodgy Putlocker sites can be accessed. Not one wonky eclair on Great British Bake Off in sight.
The culture shock of attending French university has been somewhat overwhelming. In my first class of “Initiation à l’écriture universitaire”, a simple task was set. I opened my pink and sparkly A4 notebook and scrabbled for a biro. The rest of the class, all French students and bizarrely in unison, produced lined exercise books and fountain pens. Genuinely the first students I’ve ever seen using anything other than a half chewed biro stolen from a flatmate. In the fourth week of class, when I produced a similar exercise book, my French neighbour nodded approvingly. “Now you can start properly”, she helpfully added.
I have successfully completed the first half semester here. Probably the only time during my university career I have genuinely attended everything. Sadly, my understanding is painfully limited. I need a badge to proudly proclaim “I promise I’m not this stupid in English”, and probably a second to add “Please be my friend”. Smiling isn’t working.
9 weeks and counting
What have I learned so far? Take every opportunity to enjoy something (as cheesy as that sounds). Just minutes after Dad abandoned me to return home on the Eurostar, I stumbled across the annual Fête de Ganesh and had the most amazing time watching the parade. Similarly, for every rude and crushing interaction I have, there will be a delightfully helpful stranger around the corner. Being homesick can always be fixed with a Skype call, filled mainly with complaining to my Mum and trying to get the dog to look at the screen. Its very easy to make this look like the stereotype, a ‘yearlong holiday’, because no one wants to reveal on Facebook that they just sobbed in Pret (thanks Mum for calming me down over the phone). Finally, every Parisian thinks their English is better than my French, regardless of how far from true this is.
In all honesty, this blog could have been started 9 weeks ago when I first arrived. However, I’m not an organised person. It’s taken every effort of concentration so far to do basic things to ensure survival; pay rent, finally apply for a metro card, complete all my Erasmus paperwork for this semester. At least my family have every faith in my language skills. It’s easy to look fluent when ordering flan from the local Boulangerie.