Bonjour, mes amis!
Like many college students, I also studied abroad during my undergraduate years. Out of all of the places that I could’ve gone to– Florence, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro– I chose Paris, home to the famous (and questionably phallic-looking) Eiffel Tower, its romantic views of the Seine River, and of course, the fact that it’s the most-visited city not only in Europe, but also the world (it draws easily 32 million people to its capital each year).
Why Paris, you might ask? If all of those aspects I listed didn’t already seduce me to go, the next obvious answer was that I was a French minor at university, and wanted to take French classes outside of the traditional classroom walls. Speaking had always been my weakest point in the language: I could express myself fairly well in writing, but ask me a simple question about world politics and I’m tongue-tied (…well, maybe not that simple of a question. But you get the idea).
That said, going to Paris was an opportunity for me to (1) take classes for my minor, (2) improve my oral skills, and (3) experience that Parisian life that the movies make it out to be (I’m talking about you especially, Ratatouille!). It would be my first ever time in Paris and my first time alone in a foreign country- it was unsettling, but also exciting!
I studied abroad under my school’s French department, and it was très cher ($$$). Aside from paying your own airfare, the one-month summer program easily cost $6000! Luckily, I was able to fund half of it through a few scholarships (yay, free money!), and in no time, I was off to the City of Lights!
Besides offering classes, our program also set us up with host families. There were about sixty students total in the program, and we were paired off to live with a French family during our time abroad. I was not placed with a host family, but rather with a host mother. A slim, petite woman in her late fifties, my host mother lived outside of the center (last stop on the metro), and had a spacious, white-carpet, antique-filled apartment, which she shared with her adorable *but spoiled* cat. My host mother was an incredibly nice lady, super welcoming and did her best to make me feel comfortable in her home. I wasn’t feeling very good when I first arrived in Paris, after enduring a long, exhausting flight from across the Atlantic, and she was very kind to fix me a quick lunch, which greatly made me feel better.
At the same time, though, she could be very particular about certain things. For instance, I found myself having to be careful not to close the door too loudly (“doucement,” she would always say), as well as make sure that the stove was spotless after cooking (and I do mean spotless). Yes, I know it was a matter of respect as the guest, but even when I did my best, it wouldn’t be good enough for her. I could also tell that my roommate was not a huge fan of her…
Don’t get me wrong, I liked my host mother and really appreciate what she did for me and my roommate. Despite the particularities, I got along with her reasonably well, and overall left with a positive impression of Paris and host families.
As for studying abroad itself, classes were minimal (a joke, really): we had lessons three times a week for three hours each, and our homework assignments were usually small: some grammar exercises and free-writes about our observations of Paris while wandering through the streets. We had a few essays, a Powerpoint presentation, and a final exam. That was it.
Funny enough, I don’t think many of my program’s peers took the “study” part of the program seriously. Many of them were constantly out, exploring the different arrondissements by day and clubbing at night. Of course, I explored the city, too, but I never chose to go out clubbing. While that sounded exciting and offered plenty of interesting stories to tell people back home, it just wasn’t my thing. I consider myself a huge introvert, and would prefer spending time on my own. It’s not to say, though, that I didn’t make friends in the program. I did make some friends and acquaintances, but through other activities like getting dinner, watching the World Cup (huge that summer), and visiting Versailles.
Some of my favorite memories were of the long walks I had in the heart of the city. I remember once that I wandered down the entire Rue Saint-Honoré, starting from les Halles and ending at the Arc of Triumph; in the meantime, I passed by the Louvre museum, the Tuileries Gardens, and Place de la Concorde. In total, it was a 4.5-kilometer stretch, and although the summer heat was a killer, I loved exploring the area on foot. With the 19th-century trimmings on the buildings, the doors, even the streets, the city’s architecture was absolutely stunning. Seeing the elegance of it all made me fall in love with the art of flâner (a French term meaning “to wander with purpose”), and started my obsession for walking throughout Europe in later travels.
One month was a lot of time to explore Paris. At the same time, it wasn’t enough to really dig into the city; there were some places that I couldn’t get to during my summer abroad, e.g. le Père Lachaise, les Invalides, etc. It also wasn’t enough time to go out and see other places in France, let alone Europe. There were classmates who made weekend trips outside of Paris: in Lyon, Nice, even the Normandy region. Heck, my roommate even went out to London! I stayed in Paris the entire time that summer, which I suppose was good for immersing myself in the city, but still I wish that I could have seen more of France, since Paris is certainly not a representation of the entire country.
I admit that, while I was definitely smitten with the city’s charm, I became aware of the not-so-good parts of it, too. Like any other major touristy place, Paris has pickpockets: near the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées, on the metro, etc. They’re everywhere, and I heard horror stories about my classmates getting unexpectedly robbed; I also witnessed an Italian woman (a tourist, no doubt) wailing on the metro after realizing that she had her wallet stolen- it was both sad and uncomfortable to watch. Thankfully, I have never been pickpocketed (knock on wood), but there have been moments when thieves have tried stealing my personal items. Good thing that I was able to know who they really were and avoided disaster (nice try, punks). Rule of thumb: never interact with strangers and keep a tight grip on your belongings at all times.
Other little things include cleanliness: metro stations are dirty, and there’s dog poop everywhere on the streets (same goes for other parts of France). As for the Parisians themselves, it’s a hit-or-miss when it comes to interaction: some are nice while others treat you like merde, since in their eyes we’re nothing but loud, rude tourists (who’s the rude one here, anyway?). I can understand that Paris is a super-touristy city overrun with crazy visitors who make you want to pull your hair out, but treating them like garbage isn’t any better.
To make things clear, though, I absolutely enjoyed my first time in Paris as a study abroad student. Unfortunately, my perspective of the city went downhill during my second visit with my family the following year (a long story which I’ll save for another post). Like with many big cities, there’s pros and cons, and we can’t entirely judge them based on temporary visits; to be able to live in a place for an extended period of time (namely, more than a month) offers a more holistic view for the individual.
Overall, I enjoyed my study abroad experience; the moments spent wandering around the city, using the metro system for the first time (which for me, Los Angeles-born, had never experienced), and eating a bit too much pain au chocolat (my go-to French pastry- very cliché, but I’m willing to embrace that!) made my time and money spent abroad worthwhile. And although I do wish that I could’ve improved my French more than I had wanted, I am glad that I did learn at least some new words and expressions from my observations and interactions with the locals there- a little bit goes a long way!
Should you go to Paris? Yes and no. Indeed, go for its charming atmosphere, but also know that it is still a very touristy city: you won’t get that “authentic” French experience that you’d expected, and it won’t really help improve your French that much, especially when the majority of people there are either tourists or locals who speak English (and want to practice their English with you).
Then again, it’s up to you, whether you would like to go for study or travel purposes. As a former study abroad student, I would say maybe, depending on what your goals are for studying abroad: if it’s to improve your French, then probably not (unless you live there for a longer period of time). As a traveler, definitely. Despite that Paris is *just a tad* overrated (ahem), it nevertheless is a destination worth visiting at least once in your life: for the architecture, the food and wine (the latter is significantly cheaper than the U.S.’s), and the people you’ll meet and interact with- good and bad- who will form souvenirs and plenty of interesting stories to tell back home.
Hope that I offered some food for thought. Again, this is based from my own personal experiences; of course, not everyone has the same outlook. You may not witness, feel, or taste the things that I did, and that’s fine. Make your own memories, as that is more important than anything that’s ever taught in the classroom.
More photos from my time studying abroad:
…so what are you waiting for? Allez-y!