What I learned on my semester abroad
By LAURA KELLY
In my four months here, my French while still not fluent has gotten significantly better. Most of what I learned was either to fit in (cool slang to throw around), to better express myself (learning how to firmly refuse advances from men who call me a "nice little American") or to save myself from sheer panic (when the sink explodes, you quickly learn the vocabulary for "pipes," "leak" and "landlady, fix this now!").
But this city taught me a few other things as well.
Great, you're thinking. Another sappy tale of "my semester abroad was the greatest and I'm so cosmopolitan and therefore inherently cooler than you." Not exactly.
Sure, my time here was amazing and I hope I understand this culture better than when I first arrived. But if anything, I have been humbled by my own stupidity more times than I could ever claim to be cool. When you go into a drugstore and forget the word for "toothpaste," and have to spend five minutes describing the "minty substance you place on the brush in order to clean your teeth daily" in order to get what you need, you do not feel cool. You just want to get back to the Huddle Mart where you do not have to explain your toiletry needs to anyone.
But, I did learn a thing or two from Paris that might stick with me after I've forgotten everything else.
First of all, you don't always have to make sense. Prime example: the Eiffel Tower. No real purpose, just a cool-looking structure for a World's Fair. Everybody thought Mr. Eiffel was crazy and they even wanted to tear the tower down. But now who could imagine Paris without it despite its lack of purpose?
Second, don't take yourself too seriously. If you're in such a rush to get to work or school in the morning that you scowl at the accordionist on the Metro, you really need to chill out.
If you want to get something done, either pout or throw a fit. This philosophy is not just for 8-year olds; in fact, it seems to be the French way of societal change. Company not living up to its promises? Head to the streets and get rowdy banners, chants, the works. Somebody's always striking for something here and though it seems out-dated to our American ways of negotiation, those protesters get results. Proof that the temper tantrum has always been a brilliant bargaining tool.
Take time to smell the roses. Or if you're in a capital with an all-too-famous aroma of urine, slow down with a café or a glass of wine. There's no need to rush that's why they make sure the service is slow.
Don't let your job consume your life. If you have difficulty managing your workaholism on your own, then get the government to do it for you. No one should work more than 38 hours a week not when there's this much fine wine and cheese to taste.
Remember that Sunday is a day of rest. And if you forget, you will quickly be reminded as you find that every shop or business you try is closed. You may be disgruntled, but that's the point. Go home and sleep.
Good things are always right around the corner. If not a lottery jackpot or a lucky day, then at least another crepe stand or a bakery. There may be a law in this country mandating a sweets shop at least every 100 yards. And you wonder why everyone here is so content they never worry about where their next sugar high is coming from.
Don't be afraid to show people how much you care about them. French girls walk arm in arm with their mothers and hold hands with their friends. French men have no homophobic fear about greeting their friends with kisses on the cheek. And public displays of affection? They're practically obligatory. No matter what their age, couples make out in the movies, on the Metro and all over the parks. Not to say this isn't often overboard and nauseating, but at least it's sweet in a way. You can't say that romance is dead.
Life's too short to count calories. So get the three-course menu. They're called "set menus" because they're standard, OK?
And finally, if this grand city of lights, high fashion and glamour taught me anything, it's this: shit happens deal with it. Here it happens a lot, because for every adorable little French dog that trots down the street, there is an owner behind him who could care less about cleaning up the sidewalk. Thus every time you step outside, you have to keep your eyes open or you'll get crap all over your trendy European loafers. Truly a life lesson.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Laura Kelly is a junior French and English major who has exactly one month left in France. If she doesn't show up for registration in January, you'll know where to find her. She can be reached at email@example.com.
All Scene Stories for Monday, December 10, 2001