Going to Paris was one of my dreams as an artist/dancer/writer who just never seemed to be able to give up the addiction that is creativity, so, naturally, when I was introduced to the idea of studying art and dance during my last semester of college, I had to do it. So I did. That was four years ago and the semester abroad changed me in many ways by forcing me to adapt to a place that was far different from any place I’d ever lived before, with a new language, and a different culture.
I was traveling internationally for the first time. I was in new territory, having a lot of new experiences, and doing things I never really thought I’d do. More specifically, I didn’t talk to a lot of strangers while I was in Paris. There were many reasons for this and I will get right into them, because they are varied, complex, and important, and all of them helped shape my journey into who I’ve become today.
The most important reason: I was self-conscious about my French-speaking skills.
I read French a lot better than I can speak it and, if you’ve ever heard people whose first language is French speak…you already understand why I was hesitant to talk to people. To combat this, I pretended to be French while I was studying abroad during my art program. What I mean by this is… I hid the fact that I was an (African) American. My sister always gets a kick out of this story and the underlying reality that people cannot look at you and tell where you are from sometimes. This was something I hadn’t had to give too much thought to in relation to myself, as it was my first time traveling outside of the United States.
“How did she do this and manage to study abroad for four whole months?” You might be asking…but, maybe not.
I was taking dance classes, which don’t actually require a lot of talking as long as you don’t have any questions. So, I didn’t ask any questions. Ever. I will not pretend like this wasn’t a great challenge, but I speak enough French to get through a lot of different situations as long as they don’t involve any super small details with vocabulary I am not familiar with. In the dance world, a lot of the terminology is already in French and, having taken both French and ballet for several years, I could count pretty well, and knew the dance terminology, so that’s about all you really need to know to survive a dance class.
On the flip side… I also pretended like I couldn’t speak French when I went out to club and party in Paris. I speak French with a southern (American) accent. Even native French speakers think I sound differently from other Americans who don’t hail from the south. My response to those very awkward and off-putting comments was to just avoid talking. It may sound weird or difficult, but for someone who actually spends a lot of time by herself which books or a cat who never talks back, it was second nature for me. This is not to say I never spoke to people or practiced French while I was in Paris, I did, but mostly with people I had regular contact with… the people at the grocery stores, the cashier who worked at the burger place down the street from the school dormitory I was living in, people who spoke English and French with enough patience to give me the time to conjugate verbs from English to French at the speed of a snail.
By this point in the story, you might be asking what is the point of me telling you this.
Quite frankly, I’d like to tell you that there is no point, or that the shorter point has long ago been made, but, in the interest of dragging this out and giving you a pretty good idea of how it feels to live someplace for an extended period of time as someone who doesn’t speak the language well, I’ll continue.
There is really something comforting about being able to blend with the people already living someplace. I never really knew that not standing out could feel so good. There’s already the feeling of being out-of-place when you go to a new country and don’t speak the language. But, as this brief tale may have taught you, if you look just like anybody else in a place, as long as you don’t say much or act strangely, nobody will know.
Perhaps this is not a feeling that you wish to have while you are traveling, and that’s okay. One of the things about going to a new place is that the experience of being there can bring forth so many different feelings, thereby giving you a lot of different ways to stretch your mind, relate to other people, find some empathy for others who may have moved permenently to a new place whose language they too might not speak well… or even to not relate to other people, to find a new part of yourself, or be your old self, or be someone different.
Perhaps there is some higher purpose to me telling you about this.
Maybe you needed to know that it’s okay to go live some place where you don’t plan to make friends, where you have no family, and are going to get away from your past, from a life you may hate or have outgrown. It doesn’t matter your situation. What matters is, this sort of solitude of living someplace and being in your own bubble, is coveted by some people. And if that is you, I hope you find that strange, new place where you never know what the people are talking about, but you love the feel of the air when it brushes your cheeks and the coffee is always fresh and overflowing. Little things can build a home within you, even when you have run away from home.
Maybe it sounds awful and lonely, this tale from a girl who spoke French so awfully that she just nodded and shook her head to answer simple questions instead of opening her mouth and proclaiming with her bad accent that she was, in fact, an American, gliding and twirling among them. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel uncomfortable at times. Should one feel comfortable with not being able to communicate fully with the people around her? Probably not. But I grew into it, and maybe you can too.
Practicing being quiet so often might also push you to do more activities that don’t require talking or communicating with other people.
Now, this might sound like an extreme to go through just because you do not speak the language of the people where you’re visiting, but remember, just because I did silent activities on a regular basis during my travels in France, doesn’t mean you have to follow my example. Perhaps your French is better, or maybe you have a knack for picking out the English-speaking people in Paris (and there are a lot of them, which I hope gives you some comfort). Or maybe, like some of the friends in the study abroad program with me, you are bold and confident in your French-speaking abilities, I was not. I still am not. I would rather read.
But, I must say that the intense feeling of belonging I’d get by simply not standing out, made me believe that I could make Paris my permanent home and move out of the United States. Because I do actually speak French at a conversational level, moving around the city wasn’t all that difficult for me because I could read the signs, and follow maps fairly easily (after I remembered how to use a paper map. People don’t really do that anymore and you know what they say, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”). There is also a greater awareness of your surroundings when you can understand snippets of what is being said around you, you pick up on new words, learn to structure sentences without having to go to languages classes 5 times a week, pick up on slang, better commit verb conjugations to memory.
Being quiet is a passive, yet active thing.
You can learn so much by seemingly doing nothing, by just being. There’s something beautiful in the simplicity of that.
The best thing about really making an effort to live and do how Parisians do, is how familiar you become with the city when you are walking instead of taking taxis, or using an unlimited Metro pass, and really taking the time to explore. I mean just really soaking in the place, learning the different train stops, recognizing the streets and shops… whether that be by spending long days in the park or making an effort to visit a new cafe every week to just sit down and watch the people.
In this way, you become one of them. They change you, oftentimes without ever speaking to you. You absorb their energy and let go of some of the things that have made you so distinctly American. You may find yourself feeling a little different, a little out of your element, and getting excited about things that never excited you before. I learned to enjoy just being in a place, and somehow, that place, Paris, became part of me.
Be sure to read: Living Abroad: Why Long-Stay Trips Are Better for Travelers for even more insight, and a slightly different view on studying abroad in Paris.
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