“How excited are you to go to France?”
That is the question nearly everyone asked when they found out I’d be studying abroad this fall. Unfortunately, there was only one acceptable answer, and it didn’t involve explaining the nervousness and anxiety I felt about being on another continent for four months.
I was afraid of flying alone — nervous about missing one of my two connecting flights during my 23-hour journey. I was concerned that my French wouldn’t be up to par, because I haven’t taken a French class that involved speaking or grammar practice since last fall. I worried that I wouldn’t make friends here. These are all things everyone thinks about before studying abroad but never really talks about.
Most people think studying abroad is just an extended vacation, but really, it is so much more than that. The program in which I am studying is called an “immersion” program because it involves just that: immersing yourself completely in the language and culture of another country. You aren’t supposed to speak English with your host families, and you take all of your classes in French. So far, it’s been terrifying, wonderful, frustrating and illuminating all at the same time.
In the beginning, while staying with the other American students in the program, I was around a lot of English, and it was easy to make plans to go out and see the city of Lyon. But once I moved in with my host family, life became somewhat more difficult. I felt far away from my new friends — then, our two-week intensive language courses began, severely limiting the time we had for exploring. But even though there have been struggles and challenges, I have been able to find my way.
My host grandmother only speaks French, but we have found a way to communicate, and we get along very well. Earlier this week, I finally had an encounter at a store where the clerk didn’t realize I was American. Granted, all I had to say was “bonjour” and “au revoir,” but it was still a moment I take pride in.
There are many cultural differences here that will take some time getting used to, such as the widespread acceptance of smoking cigarettes just about everywhere and the way men openly stare at women on the streets. At a program orientation meeting, the female students were warned of this and were told to be careful about how we dress in this country.
As a native Californian, it was also an interesting experience when a Starbucks employee became flustered upon discovering I came from the Golden State.
“Oh, cool, your name is Angel, like in Buffy the Vampire Slayer! And you’re from California, just like Buffy,” she said, blushing as she added that I probably thought it was stupid of her to say. But I understood exactly where she was coming from — I have definitely attempted to make a connection with people from other countries by referencing their culture and ended up feeling as if I embarrassed myself.
But aside from the communication barrier, the struggle to find Wi-Fi and a working phone, my inability to comprehend the French university system and other bizarre intricacies of the study-abroad experience, France has been everything I dreamed it would be and more. There are beautiful cobblestone streets, fashionable and tan people everywhere and a seemingly endless supply of amazing food. One of the oldest and largest cities in France has not failed in any capacity to impress me. I look forward to the next four months and hope that throughout all of these adventures and journeys, somewhere along the line I will not only learn French but also discover a little something about myself.