Curtain Call

Every week, APA takes us to see a “spectacle.” The spectacles are one of my favorite things about being in Paris with APA — if it weren’t all organized for me, I doubt I would take the time (or money) to go to a show every week. Paris has one of the greatest arts and culture scenes in the world and I love being forced (inspired!) to experience that. They spectacles can be anything from a cabaret to the philharmonic. We’ve seen indecipherable classic plays in a beaux-arts theatre, a Grammy-winning singer who performed with Mick Jagger, and a lights show based around juggling. But one thing they all have in common? The clapping. I’m here to give you my insider scoop on the best thing about french culture.

After an excellent show in the US, the audience usually cheers and gives a standing ovation. I never gave it much thought, but expected this to be the case everywhere. But in France, they do something so much better. After our first spectacle, I was surprised that no one in the audience was standing up to applaud while the performers took their bows. A few people yelled “Bravo!” but it was limited. But as the performers left the stage, I noticed something strange. All of the audience members began to clap in unison.


And the performers returned and bowed again, even more enthusiastically! I would attach a video of the applause, but I’ve already been yelled at once by an usher for taking photos at a spectacle. I’m not sure who starts the synchronized slow clap, or how people know when to join in and when to stop, but it’s so strange to me and so wonderful. At the philharmonic, the audience continued to clap in unison for so long that the pianist played an encore. After his encore, the synchronized clapping went on for so long that he played a second. After this second encore, as if by an invisible cue, the audience members knew to clap normally while he took his final bows. At a ballet we saw, the audience members liked it so much that they started stamping their feet, making a rumbling in addition to the synchronized claps. If any choreographers are interested, my proposal for the next big spectacle is modern dance set to the beat of recorded French applause.

Yours in applause,


Czech-ing out the rest of Europe

One of my favourite things about my semester in Paris so far has been the time I’ve spent away from the city. One of my biggest reasons for choosing to study abroad in Europe was for the opportunity to travel. Since European countries tend to be fairly small (and because of the Eurozone), travel through Europe is incredibly easy and relatively cheap. In the past three weeks, I’ve been in five countries. Last Friday, my friends back in New Haven were excited because they were going to the movies. I was going to Sweden.

Since study abroad is just an excuse to humble brag about your fabulous cosmopolitan life, I’m going to brag about what I’ve been doing lately.

Trip 1: Prague, Czech Republic

Some APA friends and I started flipping through our Google Calendars and came to a horrifying realisation: we’d been in Paris for over a month and hadn’t voyaged anywhere. Panicked about the passage of time, we immediately scoured the internet for the cheapest plane tickets that weekend. For just over 150 euros, we could get to Prague. Three days later, we touched down in the Czech Republic.


The view of Prague Castle over the river looks like the title sequence of a Disney movie.

For practical purposes, I would not recommend buying plane tickets three days ahead of time. They’re almost always cheaper if you buy them in advance, and the lack of foresight makes it much harder to plan your trips. But for the purposes of this weekend, we had a great time.

IMG_0643.jpg      IMG_0652.jpg

Trdelniks from Good Food Bakery. They were ~trdel-icious.~

Trip 2: Stockholm, Sweden

The next weekend, I went to Stockholm with one of my roommates from Yale who’s studying abroad in Amsterdam this semester. As you might expect from Sweden in the middle of the winter, it was extremely cold. But fresh cinnamon buns every morning made braving the snow worth it. And at the photography museum, the girl at the desk who looked at my student ID got excited and told me she was also named Clara. I too became excited, and said I never met other Claras. And then she revealed that the other girl at the desk was also named Clara! A very exciting series of events.


Trying to stay warm in front of the bank where Stockholm Syndrome originated.


One of the coolest hidden gems of Stockholm are the Tunnelbana (subway) stops. Each one was designed by a different artist to bring some art to people’s commutes.

Trip 2.5: Warsaw, Poland

On my way back from Stockholm, I had an eight-hour layover in Warsaw. I decided to leave the airport and go into the city for lunch. Warsaw was even colder than Stockholm, so I ducked into a cathedral to warm up and realized they were having mass since it was Sunday. I was still very cold so I sat in on the mass and ended up having a lovely morning there.


After mass I decided to sample some Pierogis, which I’d only ever tried from food trucks in Chicago. My pierogis were delicious, but definitely not photogenic. I also ordered a drink called “warming elixir,” which I think was slices of orange and lemon, ginger, and cloves in hot water. I felt warmed. Finally, I stopped for a mug of hot chocolate on my way back to the airport bus. I am not exaggerating at all when I say it was probably the best hot chocolate of my entire life. If you’re ever in Warsaw, I cannot recommend highly enough the bittersweet hot chocolate at Cafe E. Wedel.


Trip 3: Birmingham, England

Most of my extended family lives in Europe or Mexico, which is sad most of the time since we don’t get to see them very often. But it’s great for me this semester, because most of my family members are only a short plane ride away! This weekend I went to visit my aunt and cousins in Birmingham, England, a city a few hours north of London. When I left on Thursday, there was a massive snowstorm covering Great Britain and my flight was over two hours delayed, meaning that I had a lot of quality time in the Charles de Gaulle departures terminal. When we finally got airborne, we circled above Birmingham for half an hour before they made the announcement that if we couldn’t land within the next fifteen minutes, we would have to reroute and make an emergency landing in Manchester. Luckily that didn’t happen, and I spent a lovely weekend enjoying the Birmingham snow with my two little cousins.


Cooking a breakfast feast with Helena and Paola. Perks of hanging out with 7th graders:  matching dinosaur pajamas!

We went sledding and built snowmen in the morning, and baked cookies and worked on my British accent in the afternoon. Overall, a jolly good time.

Coming to you cozy back in Paris,



Managing Expectations

One of the biggest tropes of preparing to study abroad is having incredibly lofty expectations about your time in another country. I had romantic visions of myself riding a bike with a baguette in the basket and picnicking in a different country every weekend.


Me as I imagined myself, very French.

When I got here, I remembered that first of all, Paris is incredibly dangerous for bikers. And while they may look have a nice aesthetic for photos, berets are generally a very unflattering hat. So this expectation was never going to come true. Here’s a list of some other expectations and reality checks I’ve had since coming here!

Expectation: I was going to live in a foyer with the other French students and make a ton of French friends.

Reality: After a month in my foyer, I decided it just wasn’t for me. It was hard to cook since the only kitchen in the building was down five flights of stairs, with no elevator. I didn’t have a mini-fridge so I was keeping my milk and cheese on the windowsill, and they blew off during a storm one night. And most French students weren’t that interested in befriending an American student who was only going to be there for a few months. The only friends I made in the foyer were exchange students from Minnesota (A true expectation: Minnesotan friendliness!). I had decided not to live with a host family since my aunt and my cousin lived in Paris, and it seemed weird to live with another family while my family was already there. Lucky for me, my family was very generous and let me come live with them! Living with my family has been excellent. Perks of living with them: a small dog named Garbi, a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower, and a cousin who will let me pose her for pictures with the Galentines Day cake I baked.


Expectation: I was going to speak French all the time with my awesome French friends.

Reality: This one goes hand-in-hand with my first expectation. I spend most of my time out and about with American friends from APA, and when we’re together we speak English. At home with my family, we speak English and Spanish, so going to Paris for the semester is improving my Spanish a lot too. At first I felt like maybe I was cheating myself out of the true abroad experience — you hear stories of overachievers who didn’t speak English for the entire time they were abroad, and who came back totally immersed in a new culture. But I also realized that speaking English makes sense. It’s how we’re used to communicating with each other, and after a long day of French classes, it’s nice not to have to be “on.”


Me with APA friends walking across the Seine after a trip to the Assemblée Nationale.

Expectation: I would travel to a new country every weekend and see all of Europe!

Reality: Travel is expensive! Some people make entire careers of blogging about how they travelled to 15 countries for $100, but I’m not one of those people. I’m unwilling to give up my daily croissant, even if that means not being able to afford that 10-hour bus ticket to Vienna. Maybe it’s hypocritical to write this from my first weekend away in Prague (Czech me out!), but Paris is excellent. And it’d be hard to get the full study abroad experience of the city if I was constantly leaving to go somewhere else.


Who would want to leave a city that looks so pretty sous la neige?

Off to czech out some Czech cuisine! (And how many times I can repeat the same pun before Caroline leaves me here).


Une manque de comprehension, or how I ended up with a very short haircut

One of the things that made me the most nervous about study abroad was finding trusted professionals like my favourite doctor, dental hygienist, and hair dresser. After one fateful haircut that my mom and I like to call the “Christmas Tree,” I have reason to be suspicious. Away at school, I prefer to go months without a haircut than trust my hair in the hands of someone other than Alice or Rochelle. I’m perfectly willing to go after my friends’ hair in a dorm shower stall, but the idea of stepping into an unknown salon is terrifying to me. I considered never cutting my hair while I was in Paris, but I already had split ends. I considered cutting my own hair, but I remembered I’d promised Alice that I wouldn’t because I can’t see the back of my own head. Finally, I was forced to consider where to get my hair cut in Paris.

Christmas 2004-2 016                  Me and my cousins circa 2004 rocking very special hairstyles.

After getting a recommendation from a friend who had studied in Paris previously (thanks, Frani!), scouring the Yelp reviews for red flags (the lowest review was from a man who claimed they did a sub-par job massaging his girlfriend’s hands), and memorising French haircut vocab, I felt prepared to walk into Serge Estel and ask for a shampoo and a trim. So confident was I that when they asked if I preferred to sit and wait for the English-speaking stylist, I said I was fine with French. I sat in the chair and requested what I thought was a small trim.

I first noticed that something might be wrong when Claudia started rasping off the top layer with a razor. I’ve never had my hair cut with a razor but I thought maybe that was just the French way. Who was I to judge her craft? Big chunks of hair were floating to the floor but I decided to focus on the positives — the cup of tea the receptionist gave me was extremely delicious. She finished the trim and asked if I wanted it blow dried. It seemed short to me but I thought maybe blow drying it would make it look longer.

Obviously blow drying only made the hair seem shorter. Now my hair falls just above my collarbones, with shorter layers all throughout. A wash at home revealed that it’s also quite curly, the most confusing part of the experience. I’m not sure how, but I think she cut my hair curly.

I was extremely jarred at first, but honestly I think Claudia knew what she was doing. My hair is no longer frizzy from the Paris humidity and it fits much better under my giant scarves. Overall I would rate this experience 8/10. My hair is much shorter, but if that’s the worst thing that happened I don’t have anything else to be afraid of.


Saint Malo and Mont Saint-Michel

This weekend we went on our first APA weekend trip and visited the walled city of Saint Malo and the old abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. It was rainy and gray for most of the trip, but that didn’t stop us from having a blast! (A blast of wind, get it?)

IMG_9903Students accidentally reenacting a scene from Titanic.

A few years ago, I read a book called All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The story is set during World War II, and follows the life of a blind girl called Marie-Laure who moves from Paris to Saint Malo to stay safe during the war. Ever since, the city has held a strange allure to me. In elementary school, I read Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters, a book about a girl who lived in Morocco and desperately wanted to travel there to drink mint tea. A few years later, I read The Thief Lord, and felt that I desperately needed to visit the canals of Venice and feed the pigeons in Saint Mark’s plaza.  I had the same feeling about walking along the ramparts of Saint Malo and looking out at the sea. We explored the city on foot and went to a crèperie for dinner. I ate a delicious beignet filled with Nutella and on our walk back home, got splashed by the ocean, which can rise over 13 meters at high tide.

The next morning, we set off for Mont Saint-Michel, an old stone abbey on the top of a mountain in the sea. We were lucky to visit on a Sunday because we caught a bit of a mass being conducted in the church there. We rented audioguides and got to explore the entire island at our own pace, before meeting up at the bottom of the path for a delicious lunch. Even though we visited on a very gray day, I think the mist just made it more mysterious and otherworldly (mist-erious, I’m full of hilarious jokes today). I would love to be a monk here and sing Gregorian chants from my garden overlooking the water.

IMG-9920.JPGMont Saint-Michel looming in the distance.

Stalling inside to avoid the rain a little longer,



Dear reader,

My name is Clara and I’m a junior at Yale majoring in American Studies. I decided to spend this semester in Paris because study abroad has always seemed like such an incredible opportunity to me—the ability to spin a globe and put your finger down anywhere and say, I want to go there.  Paris seemed like the ideal city. It’s centrally located in Europe, meaning that other countries are just an EasyJet away; every corner of the city is beautiful; and the pastries are to die for. I’ve been taking French since seventh grade, but it wasn’t until I spent a summer in Senegal two years ago that I finally felt like I could speak the language.

Tomorrow will mark two weeks in Paris, and I’m finally starting to settle into a routine. The first week and a half was wild—APA took us on walking tours to get to know the city almost every day, and we had hours-long information sessions and field trips to learn how to set up a French phone number, enroll in our classes, use our metro cards, etc. I think we’re lucky to have a pretty big group—18 new students this semester—so there are always new people to explore the city with and talk to.

IMG_9533From a walking tour of Le Marais.

It’s also been a little over a week since I moved into my foyer (a residence for students and young professionals from 18-25 years old) and I still haven’t woken up in time for breakfast, which closes at 8:30am. A fellow resident tells me it’s pretty good, so wish me luck with my alarms tomorrow morning.  For some reason everything in my bedroom is decorated in lime green—I have lime green cabinets, a lime green headboard, a lime green desk chair, a lime green blanket, a lime green closet, and a lime green sink and bathroom floor. I think I can tone it down with a more neutral blanket and some posters over the cabinet doors. I also need to buy a mini-fridge from someone who’s moving out since right now I’m storing my yogurts on the windowsill to keep them cold.

IMG_1530A view of the 20th arrondissement from my window yesterday morning.

I leave you with a quantitative account of my time thus far in Paris.

Croissant count: 9

Times lost on Metro: 2

Store clerks who squinted at me and said, “English? English?” when I tried to speak to them: 3

Pairs of pants forgotten at home: 2

Pairs of pants borrowed from my cousin Maria: 2

Un bisou,


To french or not to french…

Just as a warning, I’ve spent the last week furiously studying for the 5 billion exams I have next week, so I apologize if this blog post has turned into a heady, intellectually abstract monster…I feel the same way right about now 😉

When I was living in Houston, TX, I was enrolled in a “magnet school” focused on foreign languages. I don’t really know what that means other than the fact that all through elementary we studies little bits of Japanese, Spanish, and Italian. I don’t remember any of it…just like I don’t remember any of the five years of German I studies at the Waldorf school I was enrolled in afterwards. And even though I was exposed all my life to languages other than English, I grew up associating language learning with other classroom activities like math and science. It was simply a tool used to pass grammar tests and for the rare chance you are traveling and need to order something at a restaurant.

I started studying french when I was 14, in high school. My only motivation for choosing French was that I had an aversion to Spanish ever since the magnet school at which I was always being singled out for being the worst in the class – that’ll traumatize any shy six year old kid…

As it happens, I was also one of the worst students in my high school french classes; the subject of harsh grading; of statistically significantly being called on more often than other kids; and of being kicked out of the French Honors Society…twice, actually. But god forbid I was going to let my high school french teachers be the reason I quit something…so I enrolled in honors and AP language classes, passed that damned exam with the highest score possible, and made up my mind to turn my back on the language, never looking back.

But a few months later I found myself in Senegal, West Africa, where the only words I had in common with my host family were French. And so, I promptly began avidly studying Wolof, my host family’s mother language. It was such a fascinating journey to study a language through immersion, constantly applying what I learned from books. I began to see how speaking someone else’s first language made them more warm and welcoming. So language wasn’t just about cold verb conjugations and linear word translation; I had discovered that there was a whole world behind a word, a heart behind a phrase, and a history behind a rule.

I decided during my second semester of college that I wanted to return to studying french but I was only going to do it on my own terms. I talked my way out of french grammar classes and started taking literature and history classes taught in french. I learned all sorts of new vocabulary, improved my writing skills a bit, and removed the Wolof vocabulary that had slipped in (though I refused to give up the West African accent).

When it came time to study abroad in Paris, I envisioned taking local university classes with native speakers, reading my texts in french, conversing with people only in french, and generally “finally becoming fluent”…those were the goals. APA was the gateway. Through APA and my classes, I’ve seen my french go from spending days trying to get through reading one scholarly paper to spending the same amount of time reading a dozen of them and writing one of my own.

The more time I spend studying french, the less I relate to those foundational associations with language I had built so many years ago. In fact, everything I thought I knew about studying language and specifically studying french, was naive and half formed. Basic examples of how language is more complex than we learn in school include having to translate words that don’t have direct cognates. This means that a word in french may not have a direct equivalent in English, a sentiment may be felt or a thought may be articulated differently.

But even more profound is the history and the politics behind language, behind the french language. As native English speakers, we take for granted the accessibility of the world through our language. But I think we also take for granted the reasons people are learning English. The French in contrast have payed very close attention to how their language is used worldwide. Ever since the 17th century, the French have studied and controlled the use of the French language through Académie français. 

And today, there is a lively debate about how the french language is used outside of France. This world has been called Francophone. The main question concerns the way in which Parisian French has been considered the apex of francophone culture, diminishing the value of how the french language is used in other parts of the world. So, the french language is more than words with an irrational amount of silent letters or brain numbing verb conjugations. French tells the story of discrimination, of colonialism, of creation and affirmation and crisis of identity.

I am currently taking a francophone literature class with whom I was able to attend a conference on the current research and debates going on in the field. All in french mind you, studying the current liveliness beneath the surface of the french language is so enriching. And it has brought me to think more about what speaking a language means. I ultimately chose to speak french. But what does it mean for someone who went to a french-speaking school, belonged to a berber speaking family and lived in an Arabic speaking country to write professionally in french? Are they contributing to french literature or are the contributing to Algerian literature or are they contributing to the literature of the world, in french?

Beyond the realm of literature, this debate about language raises the very question of identity in this increasingly globalized world. The former “cultural” hierarchies between occident, orient, and “the south” have crumbled and what remains, such as the idea that Parisian-french literature is superior to that which comes out of Senegal because Senegalese authors are using a “borrowed” language, are bringing into question the very pedagogy we use to define and categorize and create identity.

I think this is only another layer just a few below that of syntax and vocabulary quizzes. But how amazing it is to stick with studying something until it is no longer recognizable from where you started and is instead something much more complexe and enriching than you could have imagined. The french language from my perspective is still vastly frustrating. And yet, I now find myself, in french, discussing the politics of identity with professors over coffee or attending conferences on the future of francophone literature. And the language has taken on a dimension that highlights the fact that it isn’t something you study for a few years and then claim fluency in. Language is politics, language is identity. Language is something that you don’t just memorize the mechanics of, but you dive into it and roll around in its messy ill-defined forms.

This realization has messed me up. I’m overwhelmed by the idea that I may never gain the kind of fluency I have with English. But it has opened my eyes to a layer of my own language that I wouldn’t have known existed otherwise. What I do in the future with french is hugely unknown but when I speak french or read its words, it has new weight, new mystery. I won’t be pressuring myself with trying to become fluent anymore. But being so unsteady has allowed me to be more open to questioning and learning anew…

Well, as stimulating as this distraction has been from studying, I’m going to free my audience and retreat back into my layer of dissertations and commentaires.





The invisible guide to understanding french body language ch.1

I slid onto the metro 13 at Université Saint-Denis. As always, it quickly became packed with people and as the train signaled its warning with a buzz, a handful more arrived,  frantically pushing their way into the crowded car. Leaning against the back window, I instinctively jerked my head back as a tall man with a backpack pushed his way in front of me. A few women around me glare at him as his bag had nearly collided with them as well. And then we all looked at each other and I smiled and we all started shaking out heads and knowingly smiling at each other…When riding the metro in Paris, there are certain invisible, all-important rules that almost everyone follows.

Some depend on age: when you see an elderly person get on and you have a seat, you offer it to them. This is an important social rule and requires turning down the volume of your music and being awareness of your surroundings.  But sometimes you’ll catch yourself spending too much time looking at everyone’s faces to determine how old they are and then realize that staring at a person to figure out whether they are old is kind of strange and then you get confused because – what is age – which results in you giving your seat up to the next person who makes eye-contact with you.

Some are sound sensitive: if you are talking, you speak quietly; if you are on the phone…well some people would say that you get off the phone; but if you find yourself sitting next to a mec with a guitar and he’s singing, I highly recommend joining in!

But most of the rules have to do with use of space. On metros people are particularly careful not to “intrude” on each other’s personal space which means never sitting directly across from someone if there are available seats adjacent. This rule is so practiced that people will get up during the ride if a different seat becomes available so as not to be across from someone. And if the metro is packed with people and you have a backpack (**cough cough**), you take it off and rest it at your feet.

There are more…but you get the idea. These aren’t rules that I read somewhere or was informed of by a specialist. It takes paying attention to the body language of people and to events happening around you to pick up on socially accepted behavior. This is true of every social setting and in every case it takes time to become perceptive. This is why we either feel so lost or we make a lot of mistakes when moving to a new place.

I’m sure I haven’t become fluent in reading french body language (the use of all those unnecessary vowels manifests itself in their passion for conforming to their beloved hierarchies!) but I’m conversational. Its called code switching when you can switch behaviors in order to conform to different social environments. Though I don’t personally have a problem sitting next to someone on the metro or when someone eats their sandwich while waiting for the station, I know that other people do and so I have to shift my behavior accordingly.

And this can be uncomfortable. But ultimately, being able to read the situation in metro 13 and to thus share in a moment of connection and communication with those women standing around me would not have been possible had I not been aware of the underlying social rules that run like undercurrents connecting all of us.





In the spirit of thanksgiving…

Up until a few weeks ago, I was in complete control. I went where I want, I spoke with whom I wanted, and I did it all whenever I wanted to. Pretty much my whole experience of Paris was on my own terms which is to say that I was able to live in almost complete independence, with very few barriers to navigate aside from the cultural differences and linguistic challenges.

My host family is supportive but we mostly went about our daily tasks separately save for meal times when we would all come together, divide up tasks of preparing the meal, setting the table, and cleaning up. The APA staff existed in my universe primarily to help me with classes – registering, planning schedules, and providing additional pedagogical resources –  and were, of course, moral support. I have a public transportation pass that lets me get anywhere in the city at any time of day and with the app city mapper I could navigate this city with such ease.

But then a series of minor misadventures left me phone-less, bankcard-less, without lodging for the second semester, and  in need of a doctor. Fortunately it didn’t all come down on me at once and I was never in any danger, but by the end, I found myself faced with some pretty inconvenient barriers.

The first challenge was realizing that I couldn’t solve these problems on my own. It can be scary to acknowledge the truth that you have to rely on other people and that you can’t do everything by yourself. But both reaching out to your support network and accepting the help of others is really important. When I realized that I needed to find my own lodging for the next semester because I couldn’t afford the lodging that was already set up, I reached out to my host mother who asked around her network. In the end, with the help of my host mother and a few of her friends, I found a truly affordable room with another family that sounds like its going to be a good setup. And of course, the APA staff are so incredibly supportive. I think Sophie and I spent around two hours figuring out how to cancel my cell service from my stolen phone, set up a temporary “dumb phone” and communicate with the cell service Free to determine what to do about my lost phone and cell number. And after a few days of fruitless efforts to navigate the healthcare system here on my own, I found myself sitting in the APA office with all three Sophie, Claire, and Blandine on the phone trying to help me schedule a doctors appointment.

Secondly, reaching out to my host family for moral support was just as important. Upon recounting how my phone had gotten stolen, my host brother actually laughed. And though that may sound like some misplaced humor out of context, it was exactly what I needed to not take the situation to seriously and to open up about how truly frustrating it was at the same time. By sharing my struggles, my host family gave me endless advise and assurance that it was all going to work out. Whether it was offering to lend me a phone until I got a new one or checking in with me every day about how I was doing and making sure they stayed up to date with how I was, their support made me feel less weak and alone.

Thirdly, I proved to myself that even strangers are good sources of support. In the last few weeks, in order to get anywhere, I would look up on google maps before leaving and write down metro directions and then draw a small map of the roads upon exiting the metro to my destination. I suppose I could have bought a little street map…but this was more interesting! Now I have dozens of sketches of little corners of the city. But for sure, the system wasn’t efficient. In fact, I got lost every time. And without a phone and thus without all my contacts, sometimes I would find myself late, lost, and without a way to call anyone who could help me. This is obviously the fault of me just being thoughtless and lazy but regardless… I had the option of asking directions or to borrow someone’s phone and every time, people were so kind. And the time I showed up at the doctors’ office without realizing my bankcard had been canceled left me almost in tears for the fear of not being admitted, but the doctor decided to see me for free (as it happens, most visits cost 25 EUR anyway) and the promise to figure out my bankcard situation as soon as I left his office.

The final lesson learned was that when faced with these kinds of barriers, you have to do something about them! Maybe this is the immature part of me that is still in shock, but having to decide whether a smartphone is worth the expense; having to communicate with my bank and navigate their procedures; and having to take my own health and well being so fully into my own hands – scheduling appointments, filling out paper work and figuring out the french system were all such new things to me. They showed me that my actions lend concrete results and that if I have a problem, I have to take the initiative to figure it out.

I guess the reason I am sharing this is that as a college student, before you study abroad, you probably aren’t thinking about the nitty-gritty details of what would happen if your phone got stolen or how to find a place to live if you decide to switch out of the lodging your study abroad program set up for you. You also are alone in a foreign system and its important to think about how you would navigate these barriers. But most importantly, I want to point out how much I had taken for granted before a few weeks ago. Taking for granted how technology makes being independence so convenient that you forget how to lean on other people.

Even though this is your experience, you aren’t isolated from the people around you, in fact, they make up part of your experience. And in the spirit of American thanksgiving, I’m grateful for that.




Nudists, friendship formulas, and depression.

Whether I’m at home in the 19eme, going from one place to the next, or enjoying a cup (France don’t kid yourself, its a flask) of coffee, I am never alone. This has been one of the main differences that I’ve had to adjust to, living in Paris. Compared to my life in rural Southern Rhode Island or to that of my small liberal arts campus, I have to actively seek out places without people. The one place I’ve found is called the Bois de Vincennes which is a smallish forest/ arboretum in the southeastern periphery of the city, known for its hundreds of dirt trails through beautiful young stands of trees. But, as I discover on one of my many runs through the woods, it turns out this place is also known for being home to a nudist colony. I’m not sure if the nudists also live in the interspersed tents set up in the western half of the forest or if this is a different sort of colony altogether. Needless to say, my efforts to escape the anonymous gazes of my fellow city-dwellers has often been interrupted by the suprise encounter with said nudists…I can’t say we’re friends yet, but I still have a few months left.

Despite evidently being surrounded by people all the time, I have found myself feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. If you’ve ever lived in a big city (or big campus, for that matter) you know this dualistic sens of always both being surrounded by people and feeling isolated from them. I think this is a commonly shared experience and generally normal.

But it has certainly made meeting people and making friends a challenge. One of my goals for this year in Paris was to find a group of french friends. For the first two months, I went to everything I was invited to. Whether it was going out dancing with our APA tandems or getting drinks with a few classmates, attending university parties halfway across the city, seeking out social groups for music and for running, and even attending slam poetry nights at this bar near my house.

But at the end of each night and upon exchanging numbers, I would look forward to an invite to spend time with the people I’d met a second or third time, and nothing would happen. Granted, since my phone got stolen this week and, of course I didn’t write down any numbers…not even my own…I now don’t even get to whistfully check my messages for a returned text. Maybe thats a good thing?

It may sound sad…but I honestly think it has somthing to do with this city dynamic. Perisians our age have most likely been living in Paris their whole lives. This is partly because universities prefer taking local students and because of the lack of student campus housing, it it cheaper and easier for students to live at home while going to school. This means that the friend they introduce you to at the bar has been in their life since they were kids. And the classmates around you who are sitting all alone, its not because they are subtily trying to invite people to approach them, its because they have this sence of security that comes with knowing they have their group of friends and the kindergarten class pictures to prove it.

The second barrier between you and a potential friend is this wierd (Parisian?) city thing where you don’t ever smile or make eye contact with people, and you definitely don’t do both at the same time. This social rule basically removes any possibility of connecting with that person sitting across from you on the metro or sharing the same park bench as you.

So, what do we poor, lonely Americans do? Well, what I’m about to offer may certainly not work for everyone…and to be honest, it hasn’t quite worked for me…but it has been the number one successful way for me to connect with strangers and at least get to the « name and number» stage. Anything beyond that may take a phsychologist’s profession diagnostic…

Two suggestions. One, don’t always be in a hurry to get to your destination, or better yet, don’t always have an end goal in mind. We can all sense when someone has somewhere to be or isn’t open to an exchange. If you let go of this expectation for what you are going to experience, you will be more open to improvisation and people can pick up on that. I have had more encounters with strangers than I have had at any bar, club, or party combined. For example, on my way home from classes, if the weather is nice, I’ll get off a few metro stops before my own and walk up Belleville or rue des Pyrénées. One day I was stopped by a beautiful coat in the window of an unremarkable shop facade. I walked in an was wondering through when I found the owner, an older man seated at a desk covered in sketches. I complemented him on all the many colors this one coat turned out to come in and joked about how impossible it was going to be to choose. After trying almost every single one on and taking into account his fashion advise, we got talking. The stories doesn’t really go on beyond there except that I hadn’t had a really conversation witha stranger in a while, and it felt good.

The second suggestion is: f*ck the social rules (sometimes). If you want to smile, just do it. If you want to look around you and happen to make eye contact and happen to smile, its so fine. In fact, if you want to approach people, be emboldended by the fact that most of us wouldn’t turn eachother down for doing it, in fact we all would tend to be receptive. I was having lunch at a park one day and found this group of ping pong players. As a complete stranger, I hesitated in my desire to join them. But I found the courage and came up to them, smiles and all. I ended up spending hours rotating games with them and even though I haven’t seen them since, I had a great time.

Ok yea, so I still have no close friends here and haven’t uncovered the magical formula for finding them, but just because you don’t have that group of friends, doesn’t mean you can’t find enjoyment in spending time with strangers. I think its really important to connect with people. Not just to practice french or in hopes of making a friend or learn something new, but because we are social creatures. We need to interact at some level to remain mentally and emotionally healthy. When you’re all alone in a country that doesn’t speak your langage, this isolation can feel hightened ten fold and if you don’t do anything about it, say hello to social anxiety and depression…speaking from experience, friends.

Of course, anxiety and depression are things we all deal with at some level, and whether you already take medication for it or you are experiencing culture shock for the first time, it isn’t always unmanageable or a sign of personal failure. But it can definitely get in the way of having healthy and positive experiences. I could write a book about dealing with anxiety and depression in a foreign country…but without any medical training to back me up, I’ll leave it off at the suggestion that breaking down those walls of isolation in little ways such as eye contact and smiles, saying hello to shopkeepers, asking waiters how their days are going, and being open to other people doing the same to you, will help you feel more connected, more engaged, and more positive.