1/18/13: Le voyage en groupe et tout seul

Making friends quickly is generally one of the first goals of study abroad. It’s a relief from the culture shock (which, to be honest, I have yet to feel significantly; cheap bread and abundant Nutella have made me feel quite at home) to have people who are just as lost and confused about city geography as you with whom to wander, to visit the tourist staples, to go out to French bars and clubs.

Other than Henry and Charlotte, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting a handful of other exchange students, mostly through Sciences Po’s week of evening activities and bar excursions. I absolutely love bantering about with the Brits, Aussies, Russians, Canadians, Swedes — the list goes on. Last night I had the odd but quite refreshing experience of being the only American in a room of nearly a dozen others; I actually started developing a bit of an Australian accent as the night wore on (was it the wine?).

We laugh in good humor at each other’s pronunciations and unfamiliar turns of phrase, while also adopting some new cultural customs as our own — I’m starting to say “keen” fairly often, and I’m sure to become a voracious maker and consumer of “fairy bread” (thank you, Alberta). It’s easy for us to bond in the face of common experience. It’s our lack of knowledge of French higher education, where to go for a cheap dinner, how to rent a bike on the citywide “Velib” system (in retrospect, it was probably an easy task that we royally screwed up. Worth the effort though; see below).

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I’ll admit I have already become part of the overwhelming tendency for international students in France to cluster together. Once classes start Monday things might be different, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t change a lot — I’ve been told French students don’t always “get” us, and frankly we don’t really understand them either. Furthermore, the convention is that most French college students go to university to study, not necessarily to make friends and do a dozen extracurriculars (a far cry from the U.S., where I’d guess it’s about half and half for most students).

I am serious about trying to move away from this trend later on; I really want to practice French on a consistent basis with native speakers — something I hope to be able to do through joining Sciences Po’s choir, doing horseback riding as my sports elective and writing a bit for La Jeune Politique, an online publication that covers French politics and major French news (interviewing en français, bien sûr) for an English-speaking audience.

My most significant uses of French thus far have been while wandering on my own, which for me paints Paris in a fresh light. I think differently (sometimes even in French) and I see the sights differently.

Certain moments tend to strike me, often out of the blue. Notably among them would be the incredible churches with soaring towers and centuries-old architecture that suddenly appear around street corners. Seriously, it happens all the time — for example, with Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois.

Once this church began to emerge out of the corner of my eye, I had to take the detour on my way home. It’s got a stunning exterior, and the sunlight caught its features in a spectacular way that left me gazing awestruck for a good 15 minutes. Upon walking closer, I encountered a small grass enclosure with five sets of flowers planted around it (partially visible in the bottom left corner).

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The sign informed me that the garden was a memorial to five French children who were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz during World War II, “les enfants qui sont morts parce qu’ils sont nés juifs.” I closed my eyes, moved by the power of the message, and said a silent prayer before I went on my way.

Sometimes, you’ve got to be en groupe. Running with Henry means I run probably 20 seconds per mile faster and a mile or two further than I’d clock on my own. Going out is always a group activity. And I love going to cafes and to dinner with others, where we can joke about our student budgets as we look for bargains, if any, on the menu.

At other times during the day (not night!), you can’t forget about le voyage tout seul — it might be sitting on a garden bench with a book and a pastry, or strolling half an hour out of your way in the 5th arrondissement for no particular reason whatsoever. Its value can’t be underestimated.

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