Author: Ella Speckhard
Location: Paris, France
Before arriving in France, I had created this image in my head of how things were going to go the first few days. I was going to arrive early in the morning, take a taxi past the Eiffel Tower and watch the sun rise before meeting my host, who would click with me immediately. Reality was a lot less glamorous. My flight arrived at Charles de Gaulle around 6:45am and as I lugged my carry-on and my backpack through the airport to the baggage claim, I was in a terrible mood. I couldn’t sleep on my flight, my knee was killing me, I was sweating, and then to make matters worse my suitcase was broken, and the wheels were barely working. Then, I got into a taxi hoping to relax a little bit and enjoy my first ever sights of Paris. That idea proved a bit difficult for two reasons; one, it was still pitch black outside so all I could really see were advertisements along the highway, and two, I was a bit busy clutching the door as my taxi driver weaved in and out of traffic with no apparent regard for lane lines or traffic signals. Once I arrived at my host’s apartment building, I tried using the door code she gave me only to find myself locked out. Eventually, I gave up and called her (using expensive cellphone minutes since I didn’t have an international SIM card yet) and she let me in. I crammed myself and my bags into the tiniest little elevator I’ve ever seen and then arrived at my new residence. Life lesson learned? Lower your expectations. Things have a tendency to go wrong when you most desperately want them to go right.
Another life lesson I learned early-on in this endeavor is that there are few things in the world as awkward as showing up at a complete stranger’s house and moving in for four months. Christine, my host, is absolutely wonderful and she was so warm and welcoming, but I was exhausted beyond belief, I could barely understand her French because my brain was fried, and I had so many questions swirling around in my head that I couldn’t even ask a single one. She quickly caught on that I just needed to sleep for a couple hours, so that’s what I did. Now, three days in, we have somewhat adjusted to each other’s habits. There are still plenty of things I feel uncomfortable about (Which dishes am I allowed to use? Should I be regularly checking in with her when I’m not home? Should I tell her if I spill in the kitchen or just clean it up myself?) but we seem to have developed a rhythm and I bet it will only improve from here on out. Life lesson learned? Homestays are an amazing opportunity to fully immerse yourself in another culture, but it will be awkward, and you will forget all of the questions you want to ask as soon as they say, “Do you have any questions for me?”
So far most of this has seemed negative, but things really have improved since that first day. I know myself, and for me the first day doing something brand new is always terrifying and full of anxiety. I was a mess as I was unpacking, crying because of my homesickness and wanting to go home all the while knowing that this was the thing I had been looking forward to for months. A few good nights’ sleep and some amazing French food from my host Christine have helped improve my mindsight so much. I also know some of the other people in the program now and have started to develop some friendships, which is so essential in helping combat the homesickness. As much as I love my alone time, being around others who are in the same situation as I am is a huge comfort. Life lesson learned? Your physical well-being has an enormous impact on your feelings and mental health. When I was jetlagged and nauseous, my first reaction to everything was tears and my anxiety was through the roof. Once I slept and got some food in me, my outlook became much more optimistic.
Finally, I want to say that the current transportation strike in Paris has affected the day-to-day life of the city tremendously. Without the metro lines running consistently, traffic is a nightmare, buses and trains are packed to the gills, and walking often becomes the main mode of transportation. This can make for some extremely long walks through the city, but what better way to get acquainted with the lesser-known parts of Paris? It’s been irritating not being able to fall into a regular routine with the metro since there are different lines and stations open every day, but it has been interesting getting to see all of the little side streets and shops that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen. The culture of public protest and striking is much different in France than it is in the USA. I’ve discussed this idea in my classes before, but it’s fascinating to see up close and personal how people react to these kinds of situations between the government and the people. If you can, read up on “la grève” (the strike) in France right now—it’s a fascinating look at how French and American people view work differently. Life lesson learned? When in doubt, walk it out. 2 hours is long, but it’s better than getting lost in a metro system you don’t know very well and missing mandatory orientation sessions.