The purpose of studying abroad is not just living in a foreign city and going to classes like you would in the United States, but rather diving into the local culture, cuisine and way of life. It is about seeing another city and country from an entirely different perspective than the romanticized, or conversely sometimes scorned, versions you see on television, in books and in the stereotypes in our American society. But Paris, being so full of things to do and places to see for an American, makes it hard at times to feel more like a Parisian rather than an American on an extended holiday.
Last semester, I stayed with a host family in Grenoble. Every day, I would get a little bit more of the French experience simply by talking to my host family about current events, my day or even just about my host dog, Bobby. This semester I am staying in a dorm, which offers me more freedom to come and go as I please and to have guests over, but I am missing the daily French interactions I had with my host family. When I am in my dorm, I am surrounded by other international students, which is an amazing experience in and of itself, but does not lend itself to the internalization of French culture. Apart from small chitchat in the communal kitchen, which can be in either English or French, the dorms give more of a college residence or even hotel feeling than a true Parisian residence would.
In comparison with Grenoble, international tourists and Americans are everywhere. Whether you are on the subway, in the street or sitting in a park, you are likely to hear tourists speaking in their native languages and taking a million selfies for social media. As an American, I fully sympathize with the touristy behavior and find myself joining in whenever I go to see things such as the Eiffel Tower or the Musée de l’Orangerie. When I am with other American students, walking around the city, I feel much more like a tourist than I do when I’m walking alone. We all take pictures of each other with pretty buildings, chatter away in English wherever we go and get overly excited about French pastries. We truly act like tourists even though we are living in the city. Over the next few weeks, I will be going to a few of the lesser-known museums for a few of my classes, so I hope that by entering some museums under an academic mindset, I will feel much more Parisian than tourist.
However, certain things during my stay here are starting to make me feel like a true Parisian. The first is the metro system here in Paris. My daily commute on the subway system has really made me accustomed to the Parisian quickness of life and lack of personal space. I hold my bags in certain ways like other French residents do to avoid pickpockets, while watching tourists ride the subway with bags unguarded and unwatched. The monotony of getting off at the same stations every day and walking the same passageways between trains every day starts to create a feeling of being built into the massive transit system of the city.
The second one is bread. Between my dorm and the subway stop is a bakery that I stop at almost every day to get a baguette for dinner, which creates a sense of routine, which is contrasted from the spontaneity of eating during foreign travel. After having been going for a few weeks now, I believe the baker has started recognizing my face just a little bit as seen through her smile, which is much less common among Parisians who are strangers.
Right now I am caught between being a Parisian and a tourist. Considering I have three months left, I am sure I will fall more and more into the role of a Paris resident rather than a tourist. I am certainly going to visit some of the major attractions lauded by Americans, but I am also going to attempt to explore the lesser-known parts of Paris. I am also excited for my internship to start, where I will be a part of the French workforce. I am sure that that experience will truly push me toward being a true Frenchman.