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.

Some sage scholarly advice on how not to fail Paris.

**this is just so long and I didn’t feel like editing it so if you just want said sage advice, I’d scroll all the way down 😉 **

This being the first week of November, we have less than two months left of classes and that also means that we’ve had about two months of classes already. Usually at this time, I’ve fully memorized the schedules of all my friends, become tired of my own, completed dozens of assignments, and suffered through a handful of exams. By November, registration for the winter semester starts and you’ve already got one foot on the threshold.

That is just so not where I’m at right now. I mean, yes, I’ve memorized the schedules of most of the people in my program and I’ve even wraped my head around my host brothers high school schedule and the sporadic work days of my host father…but thats just a habit. What I haven’t done is do anything. This is a huge difference between the university classes in France and those in the US.

For the most part, French professors assign one project and one final exam. With APA, we are required to have at least two grades per class in order for the credit to transfer to our US universities. This means that for some of my classes, after I’ve sat for two-and-a-half hours trying to follow the professor as he chews his french over the din of chattering students, I have to go up to them and actually, voluntarily ask for more work.

This way of learning is so foreign. In the US- not to say university courses are a breeze, cause that is far from the truth – we are accustomed to having our hand held in so many little ways. Consider the, until recently banal, textbook. Everything you are supposed to have learned over the course of a semester, every source you are expected to have read is all right there. With a textbook you can carry all the course’s knowledge with you to wherever and keep up with your reading with ease. You know exactly what is expected of you and the hardest part is finding the motivation to actually sit down and flic through all the pages of semi-wittily written text boxes.

At least in all the classes I’ve heard about here, there is no such thing as said textbook. At first I was excited by the prospect – no begrudgingly written checks made out to Amazon and no stressful mad-dashes to trade text books on campus before the first exam – it was a dream come true, I could taste the academic freedom of it all. But when you arrive to your first day of classes in Paris and you are given a simple sheet of paper with a list that seems to be longer than the page itself of the course bibliography, your new reality starts to sink in.

Sometimes the professor says, ‘ah yes, here are the 40 books in the campus library that I deem appropriate for this class, bon courage’. Or sometimes the professor doesn’t even hand you this list but rather, at rapid-fire speed, references scholars, books, and papers pertinent to their lectures. By the sound of fervently scribbling students around me, I deduce that what the professor really means is we had better go on a scavenger-hunt after class for said references.

Additionally, there are so few assignments that it is difficult to gage your own level of comprehension. US universities love assignments where the grading systems seem to have been designed by NASA engineers and you never really know how much something is « worth ». The semester gets divided up into little boxes that keep us all on a certain track and hand us all the support we « need ». But often this just manifests in students cramming just before exams or half-heartedly completing assignments that, because they only had a few weeks to complete, are only semi-engaging at best…not speaking from experience, or anything. But granted, you are constantly applying what you are learning. And that is something I definitely miss.

In my classes in Paris, we may be asked to complete weekly readings, we may be encouraged to find certain books, or we may just be sent the powerpoint slides from last-week’s lecture. But I have yet to have an exam or serious assignment due. This is definitely not to say I don’t spend time studying. In fact, I probably spend the same amount of time engaging in my studies as I would at home but in a completely different way.

What takes the most of my time is both writing in french and understanding the nuances of the french pedagogy. That’s right, you thought you were a pro at essay-writing…think again because the french structure their papers in a whole new and exciting way. (But don’t worry, you’ll only have a few weeks of low self-esteem and deep loathing for France because luckily APA gives you the tools to bridge this gap and I’ve found french professors to be very understanding and even willing to spend hours helping you.)

Oh yea, en plus, you probably only have each class once a week here. Perhaps this is the same at your US university, but for me at least, that was a huge change. I was accustomed to having my four-five classes two-three time a week. Now I have five classes each, once a week. Here’s my schedule for an idea of what this looks like :

Monday :

– 11h30-12h and 13h30-14h30 are my private french classes at the APA bureau

– 15h20-17h30 is my economics class at Nanterre

Tuesday :

**no classes**

Wednesday :

**no classes**

Thursday :

– 8h30-10h30 is an environmental history class at the Sorbone

– 11h-12h30 is a literature tutoring class at Paris 8

– 13h30-15h30 is a class on the history of colonisation at Nanterre

-15h30-17h is the tutring class for said history course at Nanterre

Friday :

– 9h-12h is the litterature class at Paris 8

So there you go. Long contact-hour sessions interspersed with a lot of time to procrastinate. Also you’ll notice that my Thursday is l’enfer so lets empathize for a moment.

Though I can’t back this up with any numerical proof – though I’ll let you know how it goes by the end of this semester – I can say that in order to be successful, you need two things.

1. You have to really know how best you learn. This is a semester when you could so easily take a backseat and just glide through. Or you could get completely lost and have a hard time with final exams. For me, this means that I went to the campus library and found one or two books for each class that best followed the syllabus (that I only actually received in half my classes) and that I read…a lot. At first, this is the most painful activity because you are referring constantly to the dictionary to translate words at the same time as you’re trying to grasp new concepts. But the more you do it, the better and faster you get. I also take notes during lecture and while I’m reading. This helps me engage more actively with what I’m learning. And the last thing I do is try to participate in class. This is probably the hardest of the three…its scary, you’re going to conjugate that verb incorrectly, and sometimes your professor will say – in front of everyone – that they had no idea what you just said. But you keep trying. Even if what you contribute has as much to offer and as much depth as a kindergartner’s account of their weekend, you are paying attention and practicing and people will respect you for that.

2. You need to keep your experience in perspective. Every APA student comes with a different level of french so we each have different goals and abilities. For me, my written french is null, I know my weaknesses. I didn’t come to Paris is take classes in french in order to become fluent in the various aspects of colonisation and I didn’t come here to master the structure of the french dissertation. So instead of stressing about not fully understanding everything I read on the industrial revolution, I focus on the little wins like all the new vocabulary I’m learning and how much faster and better I can read and how much easier it is to participate in class discussions.

There is so much more I could say about the French academic system that I think is important for APA students to know about…but I suppose we’ll hold off on all my sage advise till I know I’m actually going to pass some of these classes.



Ode to Public Transportation

I love public transportation. It is one of the only instances where people from all walks of life are thrown suddenly into and must share the same space for an extended period of time only for that bond to be torn apart with the same inconsequential lightness that it was formed. I am romanticizing of course.

For the most part my experiences are colored only with the wafts of piss, the endless jostling of arms and backpacks, and the inexpressive gazes of the people facing you. And yet, I cannot let go of my enjoyment of the metro on a Saturday morning, crowded with excited children, well dressed men and deliciously perfumed women. I love my late night bus rides that take 80 minutes and lull me with the cyclical stop and start, ebb and flow of people heading back to the comfort of their private lives. I love the metro musicians who both take their talents on the trains and who lay claim to certain corridors, filling the underground cement tunnels with their songs. Suddenly the train is transformed into a campfire and the tunnels become a stage.

The very best thing that APA has provided us with – in my humble opinion- are our public transport passes that allow us to take a variety of public transportation in Paris an unlimited amount of times for a flat rate of 30 euro a month. This has been the key to experiencing the city because it makes it so easy to travel all over.

Though there a certainly trains I have yet to ride, I orient Paris according to the metro stops, to the bus routes, and to their directions and times. And the train or bus you use to get home becomes a kind of home and the metro stop you get off at becomes a kind of identity. You can see this is the fact one of the first things people talk about when they get together is what routes they took to arrive and which ones they’ll take to leave.

No matter how rickety ligne 11 can be, as soon as I step onto the platform signified with a little brown circle, I feel this odd sense of commrodary with the other people standing and sitting around me. Like, we’re all neighbors or something. The truth is more like they are mostly just visiting my neighborhood to get some chinese food or visit the park Butte-Chaumant. But there are definitely people I see all the time who I recognise live in the same neighborhood.

In such a big city, I didn’t imagine identifying specifically with the neighborhood I was placed in, but it feels good to have a smaller community nestled within the large one that I can come to identify with.




Intro to host family life 101

Returning home from our weekend trip to Normandy, I stepped into the dark rain-streaked streets of Belleville. I had been feeling anxious to the thought of re-entering the bustling, cobbled maze of Paris after a refreshing few days taking in the blustery, autumnal countryside of northern France. But as soon as I started up the stairs of my apartment building, taking in the many smells of the different inhabitants’ dinners and feeling the now familiar curve of our door handle, the anxiety retreated. My host family greeted me with warm enthusiasm and we spent the next two hours bantering easily over the dinner table. I felt that comforting and relieving sense of Returning, coming back to a home of sorts.

This is just one example of the gift of living with a host family in Paris. Through APA, most of us chose to be placed with a family as opposed to moving into a foyer, or student apartment. Throughout the 20 different arrondissements and surrounding neighborhoods of the banlieue, we were placed all over the city in families of all shapes and sizes.

I live in the 19th arrondissement, right off the rue Belleville. Our apartment is on the 4th etage which, in US terms, is the fifth floor. After over a month, taking the stairs three at a time on the way up and barreling down them has become just another part of my commute and I’m sure that I’m building up my calf muscles so the trekk twice a day is worth it.

The apartment itself is tout petit with two floors. The first is comprised of a kitchen where we also wash our clothing and store our coats, and one other room divided by sliding glass doors that make up the living and dining rooms. The second floor has three small bedrooms, and washroom and bathroom with a shower, all of whose doors open to the same three-foot-by-three-foot landing. I have my own room with a window that overlooks the rooftops of my neighborhood.

Without going into detail about how APA picks the host families, I will say that I felt like my needs and wishes were incredibly accommodated. I was placed in a host family that is have Senegalese, half French. Having spent a year in Senegal, it has been an amazing opportunity to learn about and engage with Senegal in a completely different way. The host father is Senegalese, from Dakar, and we will often and casually through Wolof words into our conversations and spend at least half of a time together reminiscing about life in Senegal. The host father’s name is Ibrahima and he works for TV5, one of the furthest reaching french TV channels in the world. My host mother, Mireille, is a social worker and was born and raised in Paris. Though sharing a love for Senegal in her own way, she is my number-one guide to navigating the French family life and to interpreting all the strange and unfamiliar nuances of the Parisian culture. They have two sons, one of which studies in Berlin and the other, Jean-Seben, who is finishing up his last year of high school. He is my right-hand man when it comes to learning how to speak french more casually, such as slang and “sayings”, as well as staying up to date on the world of french rap.

I have now lived with a few host families in the past few years and can say with certainty that it is the very best way to be introduced to a different culture, especially if there is a difference in language. We speak french constantly at home and it is a great way to practice casual conversational french. In addition to linguistic advantages, it has been so helpful to have a few people to be able to ask questions and get advise from whenever I need it. Sometimes my questions lead to long discussion or challenging arguments and sometimes the advise given is unsolicited and meant to challenge my way of thinking or acting. These can be hard moments. But learning to navigate the home life makes me more prepared to navigate the bigger world beyond the walls of our cozy apartment.




Quest for the perfect study spot

Finding places to study, in this vast, beautiful place has proven to be far more challenging than anticipated. What with all the libraries, museums, cafes, parks, and campus wifi, I assumed I could drop in anywhere to get some work done. Instead, I have, through some not-as-of-yet thorough, trial-and-error, come up with some good tips.

First of all, as you are sitting at your kitchen table, do some soul-searching to figure out what kind of environment is best suited to your kind of studying. If you are anything like me and have never lived in a big city before, you are going to likely realize quickly that there are so many distractions beyond the confines of said kitchen table that will ultimately inhibit any sort of productivity. Its a hard reality, but its good to know that about yourself, ya know? Don’t live in denial, that sounds like no fun.

Once you’ve determined that you need minimal distractions, good wifi connection, outlets for your computer, plenty of table space to accommodate all those oddly lined notes you take, and easy-access to some decent coffee and snacks, you are ready to make a well-informed decision. Upon my own self reflection and after wasting many afternoons jumping from one in-conducive place to the next, here is my list of top five places to study:

1. La Bibliothèque publique d’information (Bpi): This is the library at Beaubourg, or the musee Centre Pompidou. It opens usually around noon and is closed on Tuesdays. It comprises of three floors with long study tables, plenty of outlets for your technology needs, a cafe, big windows, and access to great, up-to-date collections to help you keep up with your course reading. It’s also right in the middle of le Mirais, so there are plenty of cafes and restaurants, parks and shops to provide you with your study break needs. But a word of warning, despite its size, it fills up rather quickly and if you want to avoid waiting in line for too long, I recommend getting there 20 minutes before it opens and then one you’re in. just pitch a tent and stake out for the day. Its worth it, I’m telling you. The intensity of peoples’ focus is intoxicating and you’ll find yourself studying for a solid few hours before you realize any time has passed…its a magical place.

2. Le Barbouquin : This is a cafe off of rue de Belleville on a street famous for its host of street art. In addition to it being in walking distance from my house, it is also part-book store. The service is super friendly and there is seating for all kinds of moods whether you want to sink into an armchair, share a bench with some other coffee-lovers, s’installer at one of the tables looking out into the streets, or set up camp at a table tucked away against the bookshelves, you are bound to find a nook that suits your needs. One note is that if you go on the weekend, plan not to use your computer because they, like many other cafes in Paris, reserve weekends for non-computer patrons. Though initially inconvenient when I found out, it actually creates a really nice, break-away-from-tech kind of community on those Sunday mornings when you are cramming to get your work done while still appreciating the chill energy of the cafe.

3. Lomi: This cafe has some of the best coffee I have ever tasted. The space is super chill and the wifi is speedy. Need I say more?

4. Café Craft and Anticafes: The “anti-cafe” has a cool concept where you pay based on how long you spend there. Each one is modeled differently and priced differently, but no matter what, it is a cool way to experience a public cafe-like ambiance while not feeling guilty about only buying an espresso for the whole of the four hours you spend at a cafe. Cafe Craft, nestled in a cool neighborhood in the 18th is designed so that you pay 4 euro per hour and can have anything from the menu that matches the monetary value of your designated time spent. That sounds confusing. Lets say you you arrive at 2pm. Between 2pm and 3pm you have can have anything from the menu that adds up to 4 euro or between 2pm and 4pm, for example, you could have anything that adds up to 8 euro. You can choose to get something every hour or you can wait until you are ready to leave and based on how much you pay in the time you spent, they let you take home anything from the menu that matches that value. Long story short, the longer you stay, the better the deal. In addition, the atmosphere is very studious and the food is good! Other anticafes work differently. For exemple you may pay 6 euro your first hour and 3-4 euro each consecutive hours and have access to any snacks or drinks on the menu while you’re there. There is usually plenty of space that is good for study groups and they are all in places right off the metro, so easy to get to!

5. Rue Palastine/ Parc de Buttes Chaumont: Otherwise known as home. Sometimes, its best just to stick it out at home to get that essay done. Traveling to these places can take time and will, in most cases, cost you money. Even though you have found yourself in Paris, it doesn’t mean that you always have to be out in the middle of it all. As a humble college student, I spend more time studying at home or a Beaubourg because they are free than at cafes, even if their ambiance is so inviting. The park, though lacking in outlets and attentive waitstaff, is a great place to spread out on the grass and get some reading done. I personally love when I can take advantage of some beautiful weather while getting some work done. Butte Chaumont, though just one of countless beautiful parks and gardens, has some great little hidden study spots with stunning views of the city.

So there you go. I may try to get into the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève at some point just to give it a try, but be warned. You don’t just walk in to most libraries in Paris. You have to inscribe beforehand which sometimes requires sending in passport and student information in advance and filling out documents…currently too much effort for me. But I suppose that’s how they stave off the crowds, it works. Another thing to know about in your quest for the perfect study spots is the app Affluence. It provides you with up-to-date information about crowd-flow and time/dates for when museums and libraries are open. This way, you can plan when and where you go based on how long the waits are or how full the places are.



Good running vibes

Without getting too spiritual about it, running is a way for me to keep balance in my life. It gives me a chunk of time in the middle of the day to focus on myself, in silence, and outdoors and it helps me exert stress, stay physically fit, and sleep better.

When I decided to spend a year studying abroad in Paris, the first thing I researched was their running culture. Everywhere I have lived has been either surrounded by forested hills or vast expanses of corn fields, so the idea of living in a cobbled city had me stressed.

But once I arrived, I immediately started to sense a good runners vibe. First of all, there are parks everywhere. Now, most of which, if you were to run in them, you’d have to loop the park 29 times before clocking a mile, but some are true running gems. As it turns out, I was placed with a host family that lives next to one of them. Le parc Buttes Chaumont is nestled amongst towering apartment buildings and is home to seemingly out-of-place waterfalls, man-made caves, and this touring cement mountain structure that overlooks all of Paris. Another favorite place to run is in the Bois (forest) de Vincennes. Only a 30 min metro ride from home and I find myself running through miles and miles of forested trails.

Running groups are a trend in the city and I’ve been trying really, really hard join one of them. Try is the key word here because for two reasons it hasn’t been as easy as expected.

Firstly, you have to speak French. It can be intimidating to intentionally put yourself into environments where you are completely isolated from the anglophone world and in which you are totally reliant on your French skills and the friendly, empathetic help of the person running next to you. Said friendly, empathetic neighbor turned out to be a lifesaver when I took a (few) wrong turn(s) along the way. She would come running after me to guide me back onto the right route and eventually decided just to stick by my directionless self for the duration of our workout!

Running through the steep, cobbled streets of Montmartre for the first time – in the dark – is highly inadvisable…unless you make a friend, in which case, I couldn’t encourage you enough to give it a go 🙂

And secondly, you have to speak French. I have yet to figure out how these people organize but it must be telepathically, and to be completely honest, my french telepathy skills are in rough shape. Either that, or they decide at the end of a workout. In either case, the likelihood of me misinterpreting the times or addresses is just so high. This has happened so many times to me that I can say that I’ve missed the team more times than I’ve actually run with them. The upside is that I’ve discovered some really sweet routes and have had some quality personal time…though making French running friends would definitely be cool. Cooler. In fact, that is the whole point really. What with all this stress, it would be so much easier to just get lost running through these damned cobbled streets alone. But we’re trying to be positive here…

Long story short, I’ve “found” the running culture of Paris and there is a lot to be said about getting involved in activities that are familiar to you despite the foreign backdrop. Perhaps at some point I’ll share more about running in Paris for those of you interested. But for now, reflecting on the importance of seeking out what you need to be happy and healthy in unfamiliar places is at the forefront of my mind as I begin to fall into some semblance of a routine here in Paris. It is both a way of getting out of your comfort zone and a way of encouraging yourself to be challenged by getting involved in ways that are familiar. Whether you do theatre or play a sport or like dancing to obscure underground music, you are bound to find people with similar interests wherever you go. And even if you don’t share the same mother language, you can at least bond over the same passion, and that’s a guaranteed way to start making friends…so long as you can find them 🙂




SOS which lines do I use in my notebook?

During our orientation week we had a session about the ways in which the French and US education systems differ. We learned all about the different paths students take to get into their chosen universities and how the academic programs are divided. It was eluded to us how different the structure of the classes and the expectations for the students would be. And we even got a taste of what campus life would be like during a tour of the University of Nanterre. But none of that could have prepared us for what the next few weeks would bring.
For the first two weeks we underwent a selection process during which we attended as many classes as we could fit into a day in order to get a feel for what courses we would want to follow. The APA staff worked tirelessly to help us locate classrooms, pinpoint start times, and navigate the academic hierarchy. And yet, the real challenges rested in the slowly dawning realisation of the true differences between the university systems we are so accustomed to and those of which we had just been thrown into.
Going to college here costs next to nothing. For a few hundrerd euro a year, you have rooms with chairs, whiteboards, sometimes even projectors; you get access to dining services and well-stocked libraries; you may even choose to join the campus gym or a student club. And for a few hundrerd euros, your class may have so many students, you have to sit on the floor; there may be “pro-revolution” grafiti on the classroom walls; the class may start 45 mins late each day; or the professor may decide not to show up at all. It really makes you realize that what we US college students pay for is assurance: assurance that we will have a certain number of contact hours with our professors; assurance that we will be able to take our desired classes; assurance that we will become part of a broader campus/ alumni community; and assurance that even if we go into a ton of debt by the time we graduate, we will have had the “college” experience our older siblings or parents nostalgically wax on about.
As APA students, one of the greatests benefits is that we have the opportunity to take classes at more than one university in Paris. Not only does this open the range of possible courses we could take, but it also allows us to get a taste for the ways inwhich these campus cultures differ. For example, the University of Nanterre (Paris 10) resembles a liberal arts campus in the US: open green spaces surrounded by a cluster of small buildings, secluded from the outside world. While the University of Saint-Denis (Paris 8) is more like the vibe of an abandoned airport: one huge cement structure with hallways decorated with big arows to direct student traffic. And again, the Sorbonne (Paris 4) has campuses all over the city ranging from academic buildings on the outskirts of the city to the iconic stone-engraved buildings guarded by police and surrounded by chique cafes and libraries.
The commute is sometimes exhausting and keeping track of when and where all my classes are has been a real test. But now that the firsts are over, no longer do I have to arrive 45 mins before classes was intended to start in order to track down the elusive correct building/ room combination, and now I am begining to get a feel for what this semester will truly have to offer.
The final important aspect to note as I reflect on the beginnings of my semester studying in Paris is the language. After having taken french language classes for so many years, you have a certain association between learning french and sitting at a desk. But when you find yourself entering a massive lecture hall full of the hum of students speaking to each other in french or you are sitting amongst a small circle of students discusses french literature…in french…it begins to dawn on you that your relationship with the french language has moved beyond the bounds of studying grammar and editing essays. You have to focus, sometimes for an obsene number of hours, not on the individual words (because there is never going to be time to check wordreference for all the vocab about french colonization being thown at you) but rather on the big ideas. You realise that you have to take your notes in french cause sometimes the powerpoint has words you cant transalte into English… translating into English would just take too much time anyway. You realise that when you go to the library to get a book on the topic you’re studying, you have to read it in french. And you realise that if you want to add something to a class discussion, you have to be ready to formulate your thoughts in another language you speak so limitedly while maintaining the depth reflective of a college-level student.
Sometimes, at the end of a day of classes, my brain is numb and my motivation is drained. Not because of some feeling of failure, on the contrary; I feel numb because I am working, in a way, harder than I have ever done while sitting at a desk. And the thought that I can follow a class in another language, albeit difficultly, and tackle assignments like analyzing a research paper in french or doing a short presentation on the portrayal of nature in french art in front of a class of native french speakers makes me feel like a superhero(ine).





P.S. here is a pic (I took from the internet) of the “french rule” paper…when you figure out which lines to use, let me know 🙂

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