From Edmonds to Paris: Making the adjustment to French culture, food, nightlife

Publisher’s note: Amanda Waldron, a 2010 graduate of Edmonds-Woodway High School and a junior at Santa Clara University, is studying in Paris this fall and has agreed to write about her experiences for My Edmonds News.

By Amanda Waldron

It is any girl’s dream come true when she learns she has the opportunity to pack up and live in Paris for three months. The lights, the art, the chocolate, the cafes, the fashion and the sights: I expected all of these to be fabulous, and of course, they are. But the initial adjustment to “la vie Francaise” has been not only exhilarating and delicious, but also culturally shocking, overwhelming and rather confusing.

Thanks to a couple of on-flight Al Pacino movies, I survived 10 hours in the air from Sea-Tac to Charles de Gaulle, in the end having skipped practically an entire night’s sleep. A short taxi ride later, I arrived in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, a beautiful “banlieue” just northwest of the center of Paris. If Paris were Manhattan, this neighborhood could be the upper-east side. There are spacious homes for families, clean streets, adorable parks and cafes, kids wearing Ralph Lauren, and plenty of young mothers running off to tennis lessons. My homestay (the residence of an actual French family whose children are grown) is bizarre for an American to understand: the gated entrance and subsequent lawn is private, and the entry to the home is on the first floor as if walking into a house, but in reality the home is a corner chunk of a larger condo building. Upon entering, I found the salon, a dining room, a kitchen, several bedrooms and bathrooms, and finally my very own spacious bedroom with a patio, television and sofa.

The first few days were very emotionally and physically tasking. Despite the intense jet lag, I woke up at 7 a.m. to scarf down “un petit morceau du pain,” locate and navigate “le metro” (the incredibly efficient subway system of Paris),  travel 35 minutes to Montparnasse, and begin my school’s orientation at 9 a.m. sharp. My fellow students and I, probably 70 of us in all, sat in a classroom for almost eight hours where we were overloaded with information by the administrative staff of IES Abroad, a study-abroad organization that works with other American universities (usually smaller, private ones who don’t have branches of their own universities abroad) to provide higher education credits and amazing international experiences for American students. The staff were incredibly friendly and professional, speaking strictly French for the entire orientation.

And oh how I regretted taking a leisurely three-month summer vacation from any interaction with the language I had been studying since middle school. I began studying French in 8th grade at College Place Middle with Mr. Teyssedre, who also taught me at Edmonds-Woodway High, after which I finished my studies by taking the IB exam my senior year. At Santa Clara University, I chose — albeit reluctantly — to continue my studies of the French language. Immediately my passion for the language was revived, and then amplified. The courses in college proved to be entirely more interesting and interactive, in which only French was spoken and we studied the works of famous French authors like Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre. I chose to officially adopt French as my second major along with political science, and since the fall of 2011, my sophomore year, I have been preparing little by little for this incredible adventure to Paris.

Throughout my first few days in Paris, the IES staff tried their best to orient the students as best they could to the intense cultural shock that we would undergo. We learned how to avoid pickpockets, how to interact with our host families, how to work public transportation, how to succeed in Parisian universities, where the best stores and bars and cafes were located, which subjects were taboo, and much more. Of course the information was helpful, but I quickly realized that most of the terrifying, embarrassing and awkward kinks of this transition I would have to work out purely on my own.

I had fully anticipated the changes in time, location, weather and language to shock me senseless during my first week abroad. I felt tired no matter how much sleep I got, I had no sense of direction anywhere I went, everyone spoke so fast it hardly sounded like French, and — believe it or not — considering Edmonds hadn’t seen rain for the whole month of August and all my college friends were in California, I was really annoyed that it was raining! However, the big difficulties I had expected were no match for the smaller but much more frequent, everyday kind of cultural differences.

For example, showering is incredibly awkward: There are no shower curtains and a hose simply hangs from the bath faucet. Then, the toilet isn’t even in the bathroom! It’s in a separate room — more like closet — all by itself.

There is also the way that people present themselves in Paris: Everyone looks totally put together, from head to foot and at all times: scarves, necklaces, ballet flats, blouses, blazers, ties, hats. (I haven’t been brave enough to wear my yoga pants or a cotton T-shirt around the house, let alone out the door.) Both the women and men are astonishingly chic (not to mention thin) and I know my jeans and simple outfits really stick out like a sore American thumb!

A vegetarian staple in Paris: cheese pizza

And then there is the food… Breakfast is so absurdly small, if it exists at all. The French eat a slice of bread with jam and a small cup of plain coffee or espresso (no Venti Caramel Macchiatos, no eggs or potatoes or sausage or pancakes.) My American metabolism starts crying about 20 minutes after this “petit dejeuner” has been consumed. The other meals are just as troublesome. As a vegetarian since birth, I pride myself on my resourcefulness in finding a vegetarian meal anywhere I go. But in France, meat is tradition, and tradition is everything. So far, even the steakhouses of America have been no match for French restaurants, which often have meat in almost every single plate. I stick to cheese sandwiches (mind you, these are fresh baguettes with amazing sharp cheeses), Margherita pizza, and green salads. If they weren’t already in America, bread and carbs have become my ultimate staple. (Thank goodness I have to walk everywhere.)

The confusion continued when I decided to go the supermarket to buy supplies for some homemade meals. I found absolutely NO cheddar cheese, an American staple, and the only shredded cheese they had was for fondue. Refried beans? Absolutely not. Strawberries were almost 8 Euro for a pack of maybe 10 infinitesimal berries, whereas a bottle of wine cost me 2.5 Euro. My American peers have also noted that there is simply a nationwide lack of peanut butter, cheap vodka and chocolate chips–everyday necessities for college students in the U.S.

But it isn’t all bad. While my grocery store adventure was mostly a disaster, I did find one treasure that is sure to be the next Nutella: a graham cracker paste called “pate du speculos.” Oooo la la, I just might live off it. And I must admit I could really get used to the whole cheese for dessert thing! It all has such strong flavor and comes off in huge chunks, not to mention it goes great with fresh baguette. Oh how the French would abhor Kraft and Velveeta. And, although wine has nearly double the alcohol content here, it is perfectly acceptable if not culturally encouraged to drink it at 10 a.m. on a Sunday or 2 p.m. on a Tuesday. Happy hours are VERY popular here, and some simply last all day.

Bakery temptations are everywhere in Paris.

The smell of fresh bread and pastries DOES literally fill the streets, and not only in the morning. Sandwiches come in the form of crunchy baguettes with meats and cheeses. There are bakeries and chocolatiers and cheese shops at nearly every corner and it takes some serious willpower to walk past them — I have never seen more beautiful desserts. Croissants filled with chocolate and crepes filled with Nutella have been my guilty pleasures thus far. And Paris is, of course, an international city, so some streets are filled with food boutiques from all corners of the world.

Wall built by the Germans in Normandy.

Just as I thought I was about to reach my limit of cultural bewilderment and homesickness, the IES staff and students took a “petit sejour” to visit Normandy, which served as a nice transition into France as we learned, saw, and imagined the American invasion of those beautiful beaches. The beaches that meet the English Channel today of course are pristine, the small villages on the water are adorable and quaint, and it is simply too difficult to imagine American men, some younger than myself, storming the beaches into a foreign land, giving their lives to protect their faraway country. We visited the World War II Museum in Caen, the D-Day (Jour J en francais) museum, and the American memorial in Omaha beach. The history was powerful and seeing some ocean–albeit the Atlantic–gave me a little taste of home on the West Coast.

The River Seine in Paris.

My first weekend in France just happened to be the “Les Journees du Patrimoine,” or “Patrimony Weekend,” during which most all government buildings, museums, monuments and the like are open without cost to the public. We toured the Legion of Honor building, set up by Napoleon himself after the revolution with the purpose of recognizing and rewarding loyal citizens with certain statuses (knighthood, etc.). We then toured the Musee d’Orsay for nearly three hours (I was SO glad to have taken IB Art History with Mrs. RJ at Edmonds-Woodway) and saw famous works by Manet, Monet, Van Gogh (Starry Night!), Rodin, Degas, Ingres, Cezanne, and more. After buying a “sandwich au fromage,” we visited the museum of the army, passed by the National Assembly building, the royal palace, the opera house, several churches, and the Petit and Grand Palais–all with the Eiffel Tower looming in the sunny skies. My feet were killing me but I felt quite fulfilled having finally seen so much of the city in just two days, and for the mere cost of a 3 Euro sandwich.

After plenty of intellectual enrichment and hours of walking later, I was more than ready to finally get a taste of the Parisian night life and have some fun in the City of Lights. I took the metro and met some friends at Saint Michel (an area comparable to Capitol Hill in Seattle). Of course, not attempting to hide our nationalities in the slightest, we found an Irish pub on the corner of the Seine river and ordered beer for 7.5 Euro a piece or tequila and lime for 4 Euro. It was a very lively scene and a great place to mingle with the other Parisian young adults, who were quite friendly for the most part and willing to let us practice our French.

And I must say, after two or three drinks I was feeling courageous and confident to the point of pretending I spoke solely French (I doubt I fooled anyone). For what it’s worth, though, I got the impression that the French don’t detest Americans as much as we at home may think. Several Parisians raved on about how beautiful Seattle is or how they wanted badly to learn English and travel or even live in the U.S. Just like Americans have a weakness for French and British accents, the French adore American accents! Here I am a foreigner from a country with a LOT of influence in Europe, especially culturally, and although I find myself always trying to fit in, that does give me a certain uniqueness here. And of course, the French knew every single word to the American songs that blared nonstop in the clubs and bars — from Queen to Usher and the oldies that I thought only my parents knew.

Au Revoir from Paris!

If you like what you are reading, please consider a weekly, monthly or one-time voluntary donation of any amount to support our work. You can donate via the form to the right.

2 Comments

  1. What a wonderful description. I’ll probably never get to France so your writings will allow me to experience the country vicariously.

  2. Hello Amanda,
    I loved your telling of a temporary ex pats experience in Paris.
    It’s a city to which you have added your light, very illuminating !
    Please keep writing, I hang on every word,
    Thank you for the time and effort this takes from your otherwise day to day demanding
    life .
    Bon chance !
    Ingrid

Leave a Reply