Hello all, and welcome back to another installment of my “Things I Learned in College” series. 🙂
Not too long ago, I wrote a post about my experiences studying abroad in college (which you can read here), but I feel like I have left out some things that I had forgotten to say last time.
So today, I want to address one important aspect about studying abroad that I’ve learned while being overseas. And that, my friends, is cultural immersion.
What do I mean by this? The way I see it, it means going out of the house and exploring the city. For me, it was Paris.
But not just “exploring.” It’s immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of everything around you, the footsteps along the narrow, uneven sidewalks, and just the pure sheer brilliance of it all.
To put it into context:
Truth be told, I never went clubbing at all while I was in Paris. Ever. My classmates would go out almost every night, and I once almost went (but backed out last minute), but really, it wouldn’t have been my thing anyway. I get nervous in big, loud partying situations, and so I would have been really uncomfortable at a club, even with alcohol (which I love). 😛
But in any case, I realized that those classmates who went out, partied, and showed up to class the next day hungover were not taking advantage of the wonders of the city.
Okay, correction: they were taking advantage of the city, as in exploiting the bars and clubs, which are really just tourist traps in themselves. I actually went to one before, and it wasn’t pleasant: first of all, it’s cramped as hell. And second, the drinks were nothing to call home about; I could get that beer anywhere else.
I digress. Anyway, a lot of my classmates took advantage of the city, but not for the best reasons. A friend of mine who was in Paris at the same time as me spent, like, freakin’ 2400 euros on souvenirs in the month that she was there! Crazy, isn’t it? She spent the money on things like clothes, jewelry, heck, even Normandy butter (which had melted during the train ride back to Paris. A mess and a waste)! 😛
Don’t get me wrong: it was great that she was having a blast in Paris. But did she speak or try to speak a bit of French? No. When we were at the restaurant, she would blatantly start speaking English to the waitress, who knew English, but really…I mean, you’re in France, taking classes at the freakin’ Sorbonne, and still, you’re speaking English?!
I also saw this with a group of American students (not from the same program as me) who I met one night on the Metro and ended up hanging out with at the Eiffel Tower. Basically, they were just drinking and getting drunk in front of the monument. Like total Americans. I admit, I was ashamed that I had chosen to go with it. But again, it was problematic that they, like me, were studying in Paris, but they didn’t know a lick of French. The worse thing was, they didn’t give a shit, either. One student was bragging how, once she landed in France, she immediately went to find the nearest night bar. And I thought, “Wow.”
Because, really?! Finding a bar on your first night in France? You could do just the same at home, so why would you go spent money on overpriced drinks (which aren’t even that good; again, they’re tourist traps) there? It’s utterly ridiculous.
So many people treat the city like it’s a place to party, get drunk, and “live it up” every single night (even daytime, in some cases). I don’t see it that way. Yes, I do want to “live it up,” but in the sense of strolling the streets, going from one arondissement to the other and admire the beauty of everything. I’ve discovered and established niches in several specific areas in the city that aren’t crazy frequented by tourists (meaning, not the Eiffel Tower, the Champs-Élysées or the Marais, where a lot of my classmates actually hung out at). I’ve been through many of the city’s nooks and crannies, streets so small that cars can barely even park there! I’ve discovered and tried all sorts of foods at all sorts of restaurants, instead of just the generic sandwich-cafe combo that many students subsisted on (okay, I admit, I’ve had sandwiches several times. They were amazing, but it wasn’t like I ate them every day). My palate has become attuned to the tastes and textures of the delicious gastronomy that the hole-in-the-wall, low-key restaurants have to offer.
And despite my shyness and lack of confidence in the French language, I make the effort to speak French to locals, to my host mom, my professors, etc. I would always order in French every time I was at a restaurant, or ask for directions whenever I was lost. I got so much out of my brief, one-month stay in Paris, while others have barely any memories to hold on to (except for that one night when they got totally wasted and passed out on the street…).
I know that this post is rant-y and all, but I don’t want to end it negatively. Essentially, what I want to say is this: whenever you’re studying abroad, try to find a balance between immersion and tourism. Being a tourist from time to time is okay, but don’t let it prevent you from trying to become a part of the scene, a “local” who, by the end of the stay, will have a better understanding and better appreciation for the city that they were in.
From the wise words of a friend of mine: “Don’t treat the city as a house; treat the city as a home.”
-The Finicky Cynic