Rules Don’t Exist and How to Cut a Grapefruit

October 8, 2018

by Aubrey Donisch

A little over a month here in Paris and the idea of “schedule” is still baffling to me. I like to think that I’m fairly organized, however, after almost missing a class, not thinking about what I’m going to eat for lunch on any given day of the week, not being able to cut my grapefruit correctly in the morning as my host family watches on, and continuously searching for a café that can serve as a solid study spot, I’m feeling like the scrambled part of scrambled eggs (I think I’ll continue to go for some obvious similes today).

SIDENOTE: You know the “right hand rule?” Where if you are walking down the street, you always move to your right when people are moving in the opposite direction (I suppose in the UK it would be the left-hand side…)? So, assuming that this “rule” is kind of universal in cities, I’ve been surprised to find that the French definitely don’t follow it. Let’s just say there are been some near-collisions and then some actual collisions on my part.  I asked my host mom about this and, I quote (in English, sorry): “Oh! We have those kinds of rules. We just don’t follow them here in Paris.” So there you go.

So, how am I going to get some solid ground under my feet and not crash into strangers?

Step 1: Realize that there are no rules. Sure, you can buy yourself a planner and that’s great! I like making lists, but there’s no guarantee that my to-dos will become I-dids. And even if there were rules, ultimately, it comes down to how you want to spend the time that you have in the place that you are. In other words, you can’t let your head get in the way. You know you have Paris Uni work to do, you know you have to be somewhere at a certain time in the morning, you know that you need to make a little money to help out with travel costs—you can do that! One of the greatest things about study abroad is your ability to explore independence—there are many ways to do this. Again, no rules.

Step 2: Talk to people. You’ve got support systems! Use them! It can be anyone or anything but, hey, if you need to talk stuff through over a 4 hour FaceTime call to you cousin’s dog, do it. This also goes for professors and other students. Coming from a teeny tiny college, the whole giant university thing was honestly so daunting. I hated college tours as a senior in high school and I still hate them now, so when the APA group toured Nanterre…let’s just say I was not in the mood. But this experience is only going to be what you make of it, so make sure you’re getting what you need, be it clarification on the lecture, directions to the CROUS, anything. Language barriers aside.

Step 3: Risk a little. This means coming out of your room to sit with your host family as the rapid-fire converse. Chances are, you’ll understand a little bit, and they definitely want you to be there. And talking is a risk itself! I’m definitely not a fantastic French speaker (I spent 5 minutes trying to order a muffin in the Nanterre café but I could not for the life of me figure out how to pronounce it with a French accent, and then the guy in front of me turned around and said “muffin” in the correct way and the vendor got very excited and I got a chocolate chip pastry), but you’ve got to take the risk and try!!

Step 4: Jumping off of Step 3—recognizing your need/desire to belong. Your host family, your APA team, the other students in your program, they all want you to be here and they want to see you happy and thriving (buzzwords, anyone? But it’s true.) That’s some positive energy right there.

Step 5: Make some friends—French or otherwise. Easier said than done? Maybe. But meeting people is work, maintaining relationships is work. You are going to feel pretty disconnected at times, and when your world seems too far away, when you’re frustrated about things that are happening in your country, when you’re just generally feeling…not great, being real with new acquaintances and having bigger conversations than the weather is a good way to start.

Step 6: Walk. Move. Write. Cook. That’s it. I’m finding that the more I walk Paris, the easier it is for me to…understand. Besides getting physical and directional bearings, I’m moving my thoughts around, observing, and changing pace. I’m taking a dance class that allows me to stop thinking for a good two hours. I’m writing about everything that’s happened so far in this past month so I can recount it here to you. I made pancakes for my host family last weekend and was so anxious about it but they did eat them! It’s easy to get stuck in a single mindset when you feel alone and like you can’t control what you normally would be able to. But you can bring what you love to do with you.

Is this list a tip/trick? I don’t know. It’s kind of just some “steps” that I made up as much for me as for you (whoever you are), and being organized is HARD. Being away from familiarity is HARD. Having to balance the new and the very new is HARD. Basically, it’s going to be hard. There is no fix-all solution, but there are some things you can do to soften the freefall feeling. And struggling together is better than struggling alone, right? And as I’m sitting here, drinking my tea, my host dad handed me a grapefruit knife he had purchased over the weekend. For me. Because “je sais que tu aimes manger du pamplemousse.”

À toute à l’heure!


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