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5 Things I've Learned from One Month in Paris

Image by Daria Obymaha from Pixabay CC0


The city has more than a few surprises for a study abroad student. 

I’ve never seen such aggressively beautiful architecture anywhere in my life than I have in Paris—apartment buildings here have intricate iron balconies that seem fit for a postcard. There are tiny little corner parks scattered around the city more pristine and manicured than any park I’ve ever visited in the States.

This city is so pervasively lovely and the biggest struggle I’ve had so far has just been the difficult balance between experiencing everything it is has to offer and the realities of being a student (namely my workload and budget). But after a month here, I’ve found a groove that makes me happy, and also learned some things about this city and its people. Here are my biggest takeaways:

The French don't live up to their stereotype. 

I came to Paris warily, under the impression that the French are a generally haughty and occasionally rude people. They despise the tourist culture brought upon their city, and they hate Americans in particular. They will disdainfully speak English to you to avoid hearing your soiled French.

From my very first day, this was not the case. When I walked into the grocery store to pick up some yogurt, I was greeted with smiles by everyone working in the store. When I went to cafés or restaurants in the weeks following, I was always addressed with a bonjour madame, followed by polite French conversation during which the other person usually expressed delight to hear a foreigner who could speak any French at all.

You always say hello in France.

This might seem obvious, but in most other countries I’ve travelled to, it’s never been considered impolite to begin speaking to someone without addressing them properly first. In the States, you can approach a shopkeeper by simply saying "excuse me," or even by directly launching into your question without any precursor.

Not so in France. One always makes eye contact and says either bonjour or bonsoir, depending on the time of day. I can’t count the amount of times that I have tried to ask a server where the toilettes were located, only to receive a firm bonjour madame, and then silence as they waited for me to respond accordingly. Again, something that perhaps shouldn’t have been so revolutionary, but certainly something I’ll never forget.

Paris is both touristy and aggressively French.

Paris is one of the most visited cities in the world. And yet when you walk down the street, you hear French. When you stroll down Boulevard de Montparnasse with all its splendid cafés, you see French people sipping their half-forgotten espressos and smoking cigarettes with their friends. When you pass through busier rues, you hear softly uttered pardons as people gently push their way through the crowds. With the exception of a few spaces—such as the Louvre, where tourists are generally crowded at all hours of the day—I hear nothing but French, a fact that makes me smile.

It is one of the only globalized cities I’ve ever visited to stubbornly retain an identity of its own, and to remain obstinately undiluted by the swarms of tourists every single day. In Paris, you know you’re in a place where people live, and not simply somewhere people visit.

Bread is better.

I hate to be this snob, but bread in Paris is definitely better. I won’t even say in France, simply because I have been to a few other places in France that haven't produced such a quality of the baguettes traditionnelles. They’re just beautiful: soft on the inside and just the right amount of crunchy on the inside. Your mouth will water at the sound it makes when your knife cuts into it, or when you tear into it with your bare hands as you wait for you friends to pass the wheel of brie that you bought to go with it.

There are little boulangers and patissiers everywhere in the city, and by everywhere I mean that on any given street you could find two or three. And best of all, bread is insanely affordable here! A perfectly made baguette that will blow you away is usually about one euro—good for a girl on a budget, even if it’s killer for one on a diet.

You don’t have to do what everyone says you have to do.

My final and most important thing that I have learned during my time here is that you don’t have to do what everyone says you have to do. Your happiest experiences don’t have to happen at the must-see site that someone else recommended to you; find what you like to do and do it. This city has plenty to offer, but I truly believe that the worst thing you could do is try to do all of it.

My host mom always says to me, "fait ce que tu veux"—do what you want. If you don’t enjoy museums, there is no reason to pass an entire day in the Louvre, even if the whole world bemoans the artistic treasures you are missing. To me, this is the only way to do Paris right: To do what you like.

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Published in Study Abroad Blogs
Juliann Li

Juliann Li is a second year Dartmouth student studying International Relations and French. She is currently studying abroad and learning about French civilization, literature, and art history in Paris as a student on the Dartmouth French program.

Website: https://medium.com/@jujuly4368

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