By Lynn Nguyen
Clambering out of the tiny elevator with my bulky luggage, I stumbled onto a “Bienvenue” straw mat—the only one on the fifth floor of this narrow apartment building which rose above an arts and crafts store—as my host mom opened the door, smiling.
“Lynn?” she asked, elongating the vowel with an ee, the French way.
“Oui, c’est moi, bonjour. Merci!”
The apartment, despite its tight hallways, was comfortable, with a sense of inviting warmth. Lining the walls were shelves packed with literature, philosophy, and art history books. As I rolled my suitcases to my room, the door adjacent to mine opened, and a teenage girl wearing large round glasses poked her head out. She introduced herself as my host sister, then proceeded to talk enthusiastically in rapid French. Merely catching several isolated words, I could only utter a feeble bonjour in response, all the while racking my brains—to no avail—for any memory of those early days of high school French that had taught me how to say “pleased to meet you.” She looked expectantly at me, as I struggled to start a phrase that I didn’t even know. Why hadn’t I researched useful quotidian French on the 7-hour plane ride here? It was comically absurd: I had been learning French for four years and yet did not know that the word I wanted was enchanté. I knew how to discuss Albert Camus’ L’Étranger and the Deuxième Guerre Mondiale in France and the history of the Vichy Regime. But casual conversation? Ça m’a dépassé. A smile and a merci would have to suffice for now.
After I finished unpacking my things, my host mom invited me to déjeuner. The French have this whole verb, déjeuner, for expressing “to have lunch,” symbolic of how important food and mealtimes are to them. She had set the table quite formally, with mosaic-patterned porcelain plates atop bright blue table mats, the forks and knives in the right places, and a slender carafe of water next to the large bowl of salad. But what appeared formal to me was routine protocol for them. Dining is an artistic matter, however casual the occasion.
Along with deliberate cuisine presentation, the act of eating properly is expected as well. I soon became painfully conscious that I had never learned how to eat with a fork and knife. Which hand was supposed to hold what? With what grip? Why would one need a knife to eat salad? I was used to eating with chopsticks, and with salads, I generally stabbed the pieces of lettuce using only a fork. On top of that, I vaguely recalled that American and European dining politesse were slightly different, too. Oh là là.
I saw my host mom and sister eating with the fork in the left hand: were they both left-handed? Or was I supposed to do that? I tried, my hand wobbling awkwardly, and once again I reproached myself for not researching something so simple beforehand.
The French take at least hour-long lunch breaks each day, another instance of how essential meals are to the culture. They take their time, savoring the cuisine and the conversation. There are no “working lunches” spent at the office tapping away at a computer. Rather, lunch is an opportunity to strengthen family bonds and friendships, or in my case right now, to make new ones.
My host family was curious about my experiences: what was it like to grow up in California? What is an American university like? What is my spécialisation at Yale? How long have I been studying French? On top of my trouble with refined eating, I continued my struggle to understand what they were even saying and formulate replies with the right tenses and genders and conjugations. The passé composé never seemed as difficult as it did now. The future tense was straight up impossible. Finding myself using basic verbs like devoir (“to have to”) and pouvoir (“to be able to”) over and over again, I seemed to simply forget, under the slightly intimidating gaze of these Parisians, all of the impressive vocabulary I had learned in my classes.
That was only the beginning of my gradual realization of how unprepared I was for this immersion experience. I was actually rather proud of how far my oral and listening French skills had come since the beginning of my time at Yale—progressing from a first-year too timid (and actually unable) to speak in my French 130 section to a study abroad student. But talking to actual French people was completely different from talking to professors who, as I now saw, had tremendously slowed down their speech and articulated each word. Disconcerted, I began to question whether I was actually any good at French—real French, unedited for foreign ears.
Citing le décalage—jet lag—as the source of my fatigue, I excused myself after lunch and retreated to my room, relieved to finally rest from all this French swirling around my mind. It was only a short repose; my host mom offered to bring me on a little tour of the quartier. As we walked through the neighborhood, I couldn’t stop smiling. The curly, intricate designs of the Haussmann-style apartment balconies, some with flowers wrapping around the swirls; the old-fashioned cobblestone streets, forming patterns of swirls; the locals popping in and out of boulangeries, holding a baguette under an arm—all of it was imbued with a charming spirit.
“Je ne peut pas croire…” I started. She knew immediately, smiling as she finished my phrase, “que tu es à Paris?” I nodded. In the midst of the city’s liveliness, I forgot (albeit temporarily) the rough start earlier, the language troubles, the self-doubt.
Parisians young and old alike lounged outside cafés and brasseries, which lined almost all the streets, for a drink and a smoke. I tried to comprehend what they were saying as they delivered rapid-fire monologues to each other. A group of little kids looked enthusiastically through the ice cream shop window, pointing at different scrumptious flavors and chattering away in high-pitched but sweet voices. We turned a corner and strolled down the path to the Square des Batignolles. Families reposed on picnic blankets in the grass, taking afternoon naps in the warm sun. Young couples promenaded arm-in-arm down the dirt paths, slowly circling the pond. Parisians take their time to savor the joys of life. This is their rhythme de vie.
Rather than the shiny, glamorous Paris, it was the discovery of the city’s lifestyle, culture, and quirks that ultimately captivated me. Throughout my stay, I observed their everyday language habits and incorporated them into mine: how they omitted the pas in their negations, or said bah oui and en fait constantly, or used ça va not just as a casual greeting, but also to indicate yes or no. I bought a Livre de Poche copy of Madame Bovary to read in the metro, to blend in with the bibliophilic locals. I spent afternoons picnicking with classmates by the Seine or at parks, nibbling on biscuits and people watching.
Immersion through studying and simply being abroad allows one to truly appreciate another culture’s way of life, and that means enduring awkward encounters and frustrating language-barrier situations. At several points during my time abroad, a specific lecture from the anthropology course I had taken last semester floated to the forefront of my mind. Professor Harms had discussed a survey in which a majority of study abroad students, when asked about what they took away from their experience, replied with what they learned about themselves and their capability for succeeding, rather than what they had observed and analyzed about the foreign society. But study abroad is about learning how others live, and adapting to that lifestyle; it’s about embracing the uncomfortable moments to learn what you don’t know and to experience an unfamiliar culture, and to bring that knowledge with you back home.
You may see all the dreamy Instagram posts of the bustling Champs-Élysées, Snapchat videos of the sparkling Tour Eiffel at night, pictures in front of the Louvre pyramid. And that’s fine: they’re emblems of Paris, must-see destinations, and since they’re so iconic, we feel the need to showcase them on our social media platforms. But for me, the most valuable part of the experience is underneath all that. I left France with a greater appreciation of art, architecture, literature, and most of all, a greater understanding of how important it is to slow down and take it all in, that productivity doesn’t necessarily amount to being constantly busy. Learning from the awkwardness of cultural difference, struggling through the mind-aching immersion, and simply observing the details of daily life truly enrich your worldview and make language study abroad vaut la peine.
Lynn Nguyen is a sophomore in Berkeley College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.