The Best Kind of Culture Shock: Paris Edition

Ashten Scheller is a student at Denver University and an ISA Featured Blogger. She is currently studying abroad with ISA in Paris, France.

Folks, this is it: blog numéro un. To be completely frank, my Type-A self is feeling a bit sheepish for having waited this long to actually write something down, but to be fair, I’m only about two weeks into classes (…but three weeks abroad. *gulp*).

Have I gotten over the fact that bouquinistes do, in fact, sell old books from tiny green shops just next to the Seine? No, no I have not.

But hey, I’m not leaving anytime soon, so here are some thoughts that may reiterate what other students abroad have already said, but may also have been specifically triggered by the three countries in which I have travelled thus far: Italy, France, and Belgium. Oh là là, where to start.

For this initial post, it seems as though initial thoughts make the most sense–and let me tell you, I have TONS of them, so I’ll do my best to be French and keep it minimal.

Yes, that this the Notre Dame in the background…conveniently located only a few blocks from the ISA office. What a bummer for all of us.

Which, of course, leads me to point #1: the French do practically everything in moderation. It’s incredible, actually, that within the 24 heures du jour so much is accomplished in such small bits and pieces–except for time spent eating, or wandering, of course. Sweets, wine, clothing purchases, makeup–everything is done in moderation not out of disinterest but in reverence; to savor it all, if you will, and because these “petits plaisirs” tend to be pretty darn expensive. This definitely extends to the environment as well: little is wasted here, and recycling is incredibly normalized. Just in the past few weeks, President Macron even initiated a new economic policy regarding the emission of CO2 from vehicles–and it wasn’t a shocking headline.

A more affordable option–in keeping with Parisian moderation–is to eat a baguette sandwich by the Seine. This actually happens, guys.

However, this does tend to include another side: showering and general water-use is done in moderation, as well as many forms of cleanliness that are considered typical in America. It’s completely understandable–there are TONS of Parisians, all using water, and therefore each monsieur or madame must take care to use only what his or her small water heater can produce. Dishes, laundry, and personal hygiene thereby take a bit of a backburner (something my immune system, regrettably, is taking its sweet time to become used to. We’ll get there. See future post about French pharmacies).

These “librairies” are everywhere–and sell books for only a euro or two a piece. Hence why everyone on the Metro is reading an actual book.

Pleasant cultural shock #2: coffee, books, and people-watching galore. Paris is undoubtedly a city of museums, gardens, beautiful streets, beautiful people, and cafes (from where it is completely normal and even encouraged to view said museums, gardens, streets, and people). As an introvert, I simply adore this; I can take my book, journal, or newspaper, sip on a cafe (or other beverage, mind you), and feel no obligation to hurry on my way. In a city as fast-paced as Paris, I was pleasantly surprised to find that time is taken to eat, sip, and enjoy simply taking in all that it has to offer–with or without company. This being said, I was surprised the learn that despite the emphasis on cafe culture, cafes are not places of business or study. As an American college student, I was expecting to find my Wifi hotspots and large servings of this liquid nectar, but in Paris, that’s not the case. To be completely honest, there are few locations like this, and McDonald’s or Starbucks (sadly) tend to house laptop-users due to their steady WiFi connection. However, student life has its bonuses: practically every museum is free, and many lunch menus have student discounts! As if more incentive was needed to live here.

Who needs interior paint when you can just cover the walls with legitimate paintings? I’m sure this is a frequently-asked question. The Louvre has it figured out. Totally casual.

Shock #3: the people. Famous for their gastronomy, style, and language, the French are proud of their history and heritage. That being said, perhaps particularly in Paris–a tourist-heavy, fast-paced metropolitan center–being warmly accepted upon arrival by the locals is not an easy feat. This isn’t to say that they’re rude and cold–they just take a while to regard you as someone who isn’t here just for a weekend, holiday, or visit. To meet the locals, you need to be a local. Once you’re “in,” though, you’re in. Tight-knit circles of friends and families can be seen at restaurants and cafes laughing, clinking their glasses, and talking about n’importe quoi just like any other friends and families. As I’m only here for a semester, I’m learning not to take it to heart (completely) when people aren’t “midwestern friendly” right off the bat–plus, studying in a language-intensive program allows me to meet other international students who are pursuing the language as well; I now have some absolutely lovely Belgian, Swiss, Iranian, Japanese, and Brazilian friends, to name a few!

I won’t lie, I’m incredibly proud of having mastered the Paris Metro (when in reality it’s the easiest form of public transit I’ve ever used. Mention an easier one, I dare you).

After only living in Paris for a few weeks now, I’ve had the unique experience of both becoming “Parisienne” and remaining anything but; however, we’ll see if the culture shock has worn off by the end of my stay. Now that I’ve thoroughly saturated you with a smorgasbord of Parisian tidbits, I’ll give your five senses a break. Finding a park bench and munching on a baguette is highly recommended. À plus tard, mes amis!

The only real answer to walking multiple miles a day is to sit on a park bench and gaze philosophically at the Parisian landscape. There really aren’t any other alternatives.

The world awaits…discover it.

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