Last week, I wrote an article for my student paper about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris: “Charlie and Me: An American in France.” I was (and still am) confused and very emotional about the attacks and what they mean for the people of France, the status of free speech, and Muslims across the globe. Hence the title of my first post about France, which literally translates to “To jump from the cock to the donkey.” The idiom means to wander illogically in conversation, something that I think my Hebdo article did. I couldn’t help but jump from topic to topic; being abroad and learning so much makes my head spin.
My mind isn’t being blown on a daily basis because I’m learning new facts or having trouble adjusting to obvious cultural differences. Everyone who studies abroad goes through a little mental checklist before they leave in order to prepare for: fewer showers, more bread, and lots of smiling and nodding with potentially disastrous results. No, the hardest (and absolute best) parts of studying abroad are being surrounded by a different cultural point of view and being wildly uncomfortable all the time.
Let me unpack that for you. First, when I say cultural POV, I mean that there are a lot of things that I, as an American, take for granted. I consider them facts of life. For example: I am willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to college. I expect Starbucks (and wifi) to exist within a mile of my every location. I assume that there is a bathroom in all school buildings. I never, ever ask strangers for directions when alone at night. Not a one of these things is true for a native Toulousian. To me, these are not big cultural differences. They are simple shifts in attitudes, undetectable to a tourist or someone in America reading about France (both of which I have been).
With this shift in POV comes the uncomfortable feeling. It’s not unlike wearing an itchy wool sweater all the time. Sometimes you forget it’s there, when you’re laughing with your American friends and drinking red wine. But then you move, and you remember that you are out of your element. My rich vocabulary of anglicisms doesn’t work here. Neither do all my American values and attitudes. Which has led me down a very cool path of discovering who I am, separate from the place I come from and the values I have been taught are universal. France isn’t so very different from the United States. But my experiences here are less about the culture, the language and the place (Quelle Horreur!) and more about the simple fact that I am an Other in a place that is foreign to me.
So, in a moments of intense internal work, I find my mind and my language jump around quite a bit–which makes blogging very difficult. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in France so far, it’s that if there’s a will, there’s a way, even more so than in America. I don’t mean it in a “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps kind of way.” I mean it in a “Even if you can’t find a single street name and you’re half a bottle of wine deep, some drunk teenager will help you find your way home out of the kindness of his drunk, teenage heart” way. People have done harder things, I know, but asking for help is difficult for an independent yankee like me.
I have had many moments, even in my short few weeks, when I have needed a lot of help, and thankfully received it. My three favorite:
- When a woman starting cursing me on the metro (it was legitimately the beginning of “Beauty and the Beast,” I swear), and the French man next to me apologized to her on behalf of “tout le monde” for whatever she was upset about.
- When I fell down a mountainside in les Hautes-Pyrénées and lost my cellphone, and then had to climb back up the mountainside with my professor to search for it. She summited first, of course.
- When, post-lost cellphone, I had a very nice new friend call an airline to explain that while I never reached the confirmation page or received a ticket to Prague, my card was charged for a billion gazillion dollars. Because, while the internet doesn’t always work here (card readers too!), airlines will still find a way to rob me blind.
I won’t even get into my linguistic errors ( small confession: I accidentally called my professor “Mr. Cute” for two weeks because I was mispronouncing his name). My awkward moments will proliferate, I have no doubt. But, have no fear, I am learning from them, learning my limits and learning that I am more than just a product of place and circumstance. Which is quite a valuable lesson, I think.