À bientôt, Paris. I know that my farewell to Paris is not a farewell, but simply a “see you later”. Inevitably, I will end up here on stopovers to Marseille or to my Swedish “hometown” of Gothenburg. I’ll end up here for grad school, no doubt—Parisian universities are some of the only ones in the world with translation programs between 3 languages. And quite frankly, who knows, I could even end up here longer than that.
As much as I love to hate Paris, I think eventually it will grow on me as a place to live and study and not as a place to study abroad. The whole “NYU bubble” really put a damper on my semester in that I felt like I was only halfway a part of Paris. Besides, I think maybe my problem lies in the fact that I keep trying to compare Paris to New York instead of trying to love Paris on its own.
My semester has been as enlightening as it has been lazy. On one hand, I’ve learned a ridiculous amount of French and I’ve gotten comfortable enough in it that after another semester, I would maybe even consider myself fluent (eep!(I hate that word…”fluent” is so subjective…)). My classes have been off-the-charts amazing—I feel like I’ve had the best of the best of professors in all of my classes, they’re truly the experts in their field and their classes weren’t necessarily classes that I just needed to complete the work and get through, I actually loved going to class every day and doing all of my readings and assignments.
Finally, after two years of taking classes that kind of have to do with my Gallatin concentration, I was able to take two that were completely spot-on. Not only did my professors push me with my French and the content of the courses, but they also encouraged me to get to know them outside of class and continue our discussions on Senegal, Algeria, or whatever, as friends and not as student and professor.
On the other hand, my four months in Paris have been extremely lazy. Everyone always says that studying abroad is just a long vacation, but mine wasn’t a vacation in the sense that I was always hopping and bopping around town doing touristy things and instagramming everything remotely pretty. I mostly spent my semester sleeping in, drinking tea on my couch, watching French reality TV, and wasting time trying to get my work done at home even though I know that it is impossible for me to focus at home.
What I miss is the constant need to do something like I feel in New York. In New York, when I have a half hour of free time, I’ll work on an application to something, read a book, clean my apartment, etc. In Paris, I’ll make a cup of tea and Google random things or online window-shop at stores that don’t even ship to France.
I’m ready to go back. I need New York again. I need to be able to buy eye drops without having to talk to a pharmacist for 10 minutes about how itchy, on a scale of 1-10, are my eyes morning, noon, and night. I need to be able to go to a gym right around the corner and not 30 minutes away. I need to be able to eat a bagel when I want and get to-go coffee for $3 and eat burritos for less than $15. I need to be able to pop into my advisor’s office whenever I need to. I need to be able to go to a library that is open on the weekends.
De toute façon, I’ve mostly accomplished the goals that I set for myself that the beginning of the semester:
-become fluent (meh…) (or fluentish(CHECK)) in French
-be able to understand French movies 100% without subtitles (CHECK)
-make French friends (CHECK)
-not gain weight on cheese and bread (UMMM, CHECK?)
-not have to use Google Maps to navigate this labyrinth of a city (CHECK-ISH. I can navigate the neighborhoods that I know…
-use my Arabic and possibly even improve in Arabic in some way or another (CHECK?? I only ever used it while talking to the sandwich guys at my favorite Lebanese restaurant or at the hummus stand at the market)
À plus tard, Paname.
NYU Paris is, as expected, a little NYU enclave in the midst of a giant French metropolitan city. At NYU Paris, everyone speaks English and talks about where they can get delivery pizza and sushi. They share stories of meeting other Americans in the city and of at which restaurants, banks, and stores the employees speak good English. If this is what you want out of your study abroad experience, cool. Go for it, there’s not much explaining to do. Here are my tips for trying to get the most French out of your French abroad experience—this is especially aimed towards students in Program II at NYUP, the program for students taking only classes in French.
1) Get to know your professors—they actually want so badly to get to know their students. All of my professors have been extremely willing to meet with me wherever and whenever to develop an outside-of-class relationship. My language professor is practically my best friend—we go out to dinner and spend hours talking and it’s the best because we only speak French and he helps me out a lot!
2) Take a class at a local university. The process of finding the course listings and figuring out how to register for one is impossibly complicated and NYUP is extremely unsupportive and unwilling to help, but the students who do take classes elsewhere really do feel more of a connection with the local culture. Do it.
3) Don’t be scared to use your French. The first half of the semester, I constantly avoided unnecessary human contact so I wouldn’t accidentally lead myself into a linguistic dead end but I eventually got over it and now I’m the annoying girl who asks way too many questions at stores and restaurants just because I want to talk. On several occasions, people have told my good friend and I that they thought we were French until they heard us speaking English amongst ourselves. Cha-ching.
4) Baguette sandwiches are awesome, but diversify. The Paris restaurant scene is extremely disappointing and way overpriced for the quality of the food, but that shouldn’t stop you! Especially for lunch, each restaurant has super cheap fixed price menus that you can get to stay or to go. For a while, I’d just pick up a baguette sandwich on my way to class because it was cheap-ish and easy, but after I got tired of bread, I’ve had some really amazing noodles, curries, burritos, pho, sushi, and more. And Lebanese sandwiches! Get them! They’re probably the only thing I’ll miss about Paris! Also, non-French food is absolutely always cheaper than the boring French food you can get at every café and bistro.
5) Explore your own city! It’s super easy to be bored with Paris after a few weeks and then book a bunch of trips elsewhere just because you can, but why are you even here then? Yes, Paris is boring when you stay in your neighborhood all the time, but try to go exploring other neighborhoods in the city! Paris’s neighborhoods are so crazily distinct that your bourgeois, Haussmann, residential neighborhood will seem like a completely different galaxy when you start to explore La Goutte d’Or, La Chapelle, or Belleville.
6) That being said, stay in France for your weekends away. I’ve spent a total of 4 weekends outside of France, and while it was fun, it was really not worth it. It’s exhausting to try to pack a trip to Portugal into one tiny weekend and each time I came back from a trip, I was behind on my schoolwork and I felt like I had taken 3 steps back in French since I was speaking English all weekend. Travelling within France is unfortunately not much cheaper than leaving France (my Ryan Air flight to Portugal cost the same as my train ticket to Strasbourg), but France is a huge country that has tons of different things to see. Go to Strasbourg to see German influences, go to Toulouse to see Occitan and Basque influences, go to the south for some sun and seafood. You’re here to learn French, aren’t you? The French accent is also surprisingly VERY different in different regions in France, which you don’t realize when you spend all of your time speaking, hearing, and learning the Parisian dialect.
7) Take advantage of Paris’s cultural scene. Books in France are super cheap and I’ve definitely bought over 30 books while I’ve been here (how am I going to get them home?). French magazines are also awesome. They do have tabloids and news magazines like we do in the US, but I’ve found that the French magazine scene is much more centered on our age group. There are tons of magazines about young culture, music, fashion, etc. that we don’t really have in the US. Think Nylon but cooler, more relevant, and that comes in lots of different focuses. My favorite French magazine is Neon. There are also tons of small concerts and plays and live music all over the city that you shouldn’t miss.
8) GO TO ALL OF THE MUSEUMS. I hate museums and I think they’re so boring and I’ve never been to a museum that I actually liked until I came to Paris. Paris has something like over 40 museums, and I haven’t been to one that wasn’t amazing. They are so perfectly curated and always have super awesome temporary exhibitions. Most of them are also free for students. My favorites are: Musée de la chasse et de la nature (this is a real MUST SEE. Think ‘Wes Anderson’s hunting lodge’), Musée de l’Armée, Musée du Quai Branly, Muséum nationale d’histoire naturelle, Musée Rodin, Musée de l’Orangérie, Musée Carnavalet, and l’Institut du monde arabe.
9) Stop going to the boulangerie and only buying baguettes, croissants, and pain au chocolat. EVERYTHING IS AMAZING. Try different kinds of brioche, chouquettes, éclairs, torsades, lunettes, etc. Your mouth will thank you.
Voilà my French to-do list. I’ll admit it, there are lots of amazing things to see in Paris. But you really have to hunt hard for them, and it will always ALWAYS involve at least 30 minutes on the metro.
As I’ve expressed in previous posts, I have a really strange aversion towards Paris and I’ve never really been able to put my finger on why. After my proposal to study abroad in Cairo at a non-NYU site was rejected by NYU, I decided to come to Paris with an open mind and just try to figure things out. The idea of living in Paris has always haunted me because, with what I’m studying, Paris is one of the only places where I could live, study, and work and be perfectly immersed in everything that I’m passionate about—Arab and African immigrants, the consequences of French colonialism, post-colonial literature, and the French and Arabic languages. It’s always been at the back of my head that I’ll ultimately end up living in Paris for any combination of work, study, and pleasure, so I figured I’d take this opportunity to take Paris for a test-drive. My semester has been an epiphany-filled roller coaster of a ride to say the least, and coming out of this semester, I’m more than certain that I hate Paris, but I’ve also figured out a lot of things about myself along the way.
I spent my first two months exploring everything with an open mind and I decided to not travel outside of Paris just so I could kind of live and breathe here. I found a ton of tiny things that I actually do love about Paris—the banks of the Seine, diversity, Lebanese sandwiches, my professors—and I became really optimistic about Paris. At the end of month #2, a French friend asked me how I like Paris compared to New York, and I was surprised to find myself saying that I really love them both, but in different ways.
This question has been taunting me wherever I go—no matter where I am or what I’m doing, it seems like there’s always someone asking me what I think of Paris. I honestly should have kept a journal of what my response was each time, because it was always different and I surprised myself with what came out of my mouth without even thinking about how I would respond. In any case, it kind of kept me in check with my feelings and I learned a lot about my own views of Paris just by my spontaneous responses.
Anyway, by month 3, I fell back into my Parisian slump and I realized that Paris is just really not the place I want to be in in the future. No matter how hard I try to love it, its stink, inconvenience, unfriendly atmosphere, and cost of living will always outbalance its positive qualities.
I was sitting on a train a few weekends ago, returning to Paris after a weekend away, and I realized that while I has happy to get back to Paris so I that I could unpack and feel settled again, I really wasn’t happy to be going back to Paris in particular. No matter how comfortable I am in Paris, it’ll always just feel like a temporary stopover. I’ll never be happy enough here to call it my home. Unfortunately for me, I still know that I’ll ultimately end up here to do my Masters or get a job.
Apart from that, my other epiphanies have been smaller and more related to what I’m studying. My professors here have been extremely supportive of my work and they’ve all spent a lot of time with me outside of class just talking about subjects related to our class and about what I could study for my PhD or my Masters. For one, I’ve realized that I’m more interested in Sub-Saharan Africa than North Africa, contrary to what I previously believed. My professors have also inspired me to want to pursue a PhD. I’ve never ever even thought about a PhD before because I really hate writing, but my classes this semester have been particularly engaging and eye-opening and have inspired me to think about going more in depth with my studies.
All in all, my semester has been really rewarding even though I haven’t come to terms with Paris. I’m more than excited to return to New York and use what I learned about myself to finish up my degree and delve into other things.
Since my apartment in Paris is the first apartment I’ve ever lived in, I was a little apprehensive about the little facets of apartment building dynamics: can my neighbor downstairs hear my washing machine? Am I not supposed to use the stairs at night because of the noise? Should I put in the effort to get to know my neighbors and my super? During my first few weeks in Paris, I felt like such a foreigner in my apartment building but like such a normal Parisian denizen as soon as I left it. Little by little I became more comfortable in my own residence, but I never felt completely at ease until I briefly ran into my next-door neighbor in the hallway and we introduced ourselves. A few weeks later, after a strange episode, I had a weird feeling about how close we’d become…
Early in the semester, I was going on a day trip to another city in France with one of my friends. I was leaving my apartment fairly early so that I could meet him at the train station, but when I left my apartment, my door wouldn’t lock behind me. I spent fifteen minutes trying to get the lock to cooperate, but the deadbolt wouldn’t budge and I decided to just leave my door closed but unlocked since I had about fifteen minutes to make it to the train station. I didn’t think it would be big deal since my building is very secure and the only other residents on my floor are two old women.
That afternoon I received an email from my landlord making sure everything was alright because my super had found my door open with no one inside. She closed it–no big deal, problem solved. The next day, I was lazing around my apartment trying to get some schoolwork done when someone rang my doorbell. I became really nervous because no one had ever rung my doorbell before and besides, on a Sunday afternoon I didn’t particularly feel like speaking French with anyone. Waiting at my door was my neighbor Rosyln and her friend. When I opened the door, they both grabbed me and unexpectedly gave me the biggest hugs and kisses I have ever seen a French person give.
They both frantically started telling me about how happy they were that I was safe and that they prayed for me at church that morning. Roslyn said that when she saw that my door was open, she peeked inside to make sure that I was there. When I wasn’t there and she saw my bed unmade and my handbag laid out empty, she thought someone had kidnapped me! I assured them that it was my fault that I had some trouble with the lock and that everything is alright. After about 20 minutes of talking and hugging, I went back inside and plopped down on the couch with a big smile on my face. I was lucky to have neighbors who care about me!
Since then, Roslyn and I have been such good friends. Every time we see each other, we talk for over 20 minutes in the courtyard, in the foyer, or in each other’s doorways. She tells me all kinds of stories about her previous husbands and about when she lived in Syria and in the US. She preaches her conservative Catholic views to me and we talk about immigration and problems in the Middle East. She recommends creperies and tells me which subway stations are haunted. We discuss the quality of the nearby boulangeries and epiceries and we recommend movies to each other. She’s the best kind of neighbor I could ever wish for.
Another day, we ran into each other outside our building and she was in a rush so all she said to me was “I’m going to stop by tomorrow night, I have something to ask you!”. So the next night, I refrained from putting my pjs on early, keeping in mind that she might drop by. She came over just after dinner and asked me if I could help her write a letter to her daughter in the US who doesn’t speak French anymore. I accepted and she pulled out a letter that she had written in French and suggested that we work on it together. First she showed me pictures of her daughter and her grandchildren and told me the whole story of their estrangement and their awkward reunion a few years back when she went to North Carolina to visit her after so many years. We ended up sitting and talking for hours without touching the letter, so the next day I translated the letter into English and slipped it under her door.
We still stop and talk whenever we run into each other and at the end of the conversation, she asks me when I’ll be leaving Paris and just responds with a “well you’ll be coming back for sure” and we kiss each other on the cheek and part ways. The thing that I hate the most about living in cities is just how isolating it can be when you’re surrounded by cold and independent people. Through I do have my new friends at NYU and a few French friends, nothing makes me feel more sane in this ridiculous city than Roslyn does
Paris is wonderful because there is pretty stuff everywhere. But all of the pretty things in Paris aren’t really part of real Paris, they’re part of tourist Paris. I try to stay far, far away from the Eiffel Tower area, or that of the Champs Elysées or Notre Dame, just like a New Yorker would avoid Times Square at all costs. Real Paris is found in the tiny winding roads with historical names and surprising character that create Paris’s labyrinth.
Look at a map of Paris and, if you’re anyone like me, someone who’s obsessed with maps, you’ll immediately be enthralled. The streets of Paris sprawl out in every which direction like spiders’ legs with large avenues sometimes meeting in a big roundabout like at Place de la République, Place de la Bastille, and the ever-famous Place de l’Étoile. Between those big avenues are tiny little webs of things that seem like a bunch of back alleys when really, they’re the real streets of Paris.
Step off of a busy boulevard full of tourists, chain restaurants, and hotels, and after walking 100 feet you’ll think you’re in a completely different city. You’ll feel the solitary, deserted emptiness of the city as the sounds of voices, motors, and sirens become a dull buzz in the background. The street, sometimes in asphalt and sometimes in stone, is wide enough for a single tiny car, and perhaps a biker to pass through, and the stone sidewalks are so narrow that even a skinny person can feel uncomfortably stuck between the neighboring buildings and the metal posts that serve as a type of fence or guardrail.
Since these streets are so narrow and so zig-zagged, cars usually don’t use them very often as they’re awfully inconvenient for a pressed cabbie, so only a few pedestrians may be seen walking in the middle of the road, and an occasional biker will come zipping through. The pedestrians are usually meandering home with their grocery trolley trailing behind, or they’re on their way to the corner boulangerie or bodega to pick up day’s bread and veggies.
The streets themselves are completely spotless as cleaning crews scrub the streets of Paris thoroughly and very often, which means that sometimes a sharp current of water will be flowing along the embankment where the sidewalk hits the road. Sometimes you’ll pass homeless people in their small fortresses of mattresses, cardboard, and blankets built into an unused doorway
If you look up, the beige and off-white buildings will look back down at you. Usually only 6 stories high, they still seem to tower over you, with the definitive boundaries of their roofs outlining a mini-skyline and the start of the sky. Though each building looks strikingly similar at first, each one has a small quirk to its character that sets it apart. Their flat façades and quintessentially French windowsills and terraces put flowerpots and handing laundry on display. The street is so bare and so quiet, though, that it seems impossible that someone lives inside these perfectly imperfect buildings.
You may hear the sounds of pots and pans, faint voices, or if you’re lucky, someone practicing piano. By way of smell, these narrow streets tend to trap smells, so on a good day, you’ll enjoy the scent of newly baked bread. Otherwise, the street will probably, almost always, smell like stale pee.
Amongst the scattered boulangeries and bodega-type épiceries, every once in a while you’ll find the most unexpected of shops and restaurants scattered about these streets—tiny specialized bookshops, halal butchers, and toyshops that have left no traces on the internet, but that you would only know exist if you went wondering around yourself. These roads often end quickly, wind into a road of a different name, or drop you unexpectedly back off onto a main road. Though they may seem inconvenient and indirect, I highly recommend taking a 20-minute journey through the tiny streets than a 10-minute walk along a boring avenue. They’re peaceful, they’re unexpected, and no one or no thing could possibly bother you. They’re the real Paris, because this is where people actually live and hang out, and they perfectly embody everything that is subtle and amazing and unexpected about France.