As I wait for my bus to arrive, I survey my surroundings. The schedule for the 29 – “my” bus, as I’ve come to know it over the past week – hasn’t yet been updated, and I periodically observe exasperated Bordelaise check a nearby timetable to no avail. To get out of their way, and to avoid blowing cigarette smoke in their faces (which, admittedly, few French seem to mind), I lean on a street sign and twiddle my thumbs, no working iPhone to nurse. Then the wind picks up at the moment I inhale, and I smell the air – warm, thick and decorated with the faint smell of exhaust fumes of those whose buses already escorting their passengers home. It’s not an unpleasant scent, but I realize something startling — it’s different. In Poughkeepsie, where I’ve spent the last 19 years of my life, a gust of wind in late August would be light and crisp. It would, for one, carry the faint promise of a break in the oppressive humidity that characterizes summer in downstate New York. It would also remind me simultaneously of my first autumn at Vassar, high school tennis preseason, and the first time I skinned my knees riding a bike. But here, the unfamiliar confronts my senses without apology.
Some background: I arrived in France on August 22, and it’s here I’ll stay until late December. My pretext for coming is my participation in the Vassar-Wesleyan Paris Program (VWPP), which offers its students – this year about 40 of us – the opportunity to take immersive classes at Parisian universities and/or Reid Hall, a complex of academic facilities in the Montparnasse district. I’m studying at either Paris 4, known for its excellence in social sciences, or Le College International de Philosophie (CIPh), an alternative university established by Jacques Derrida, among others. Before diving into Paris, though, VWPP offers its fall semester students an orientation in Bordeaux.
This isn’t been my first time in France this summer. Immediately after packing up my beloved Cushing dingle (that’s a double-single) and turning in my last paper more or less on time, I jetted off to Strasbourg to do a six-week internship at a French social work agency. I stayed there with a host family, and after work each day, took the time to walk their scrappy puppy around the nearby Parc de l’Orangerie, consume obscene amounts of baguettes and get my bearings.
Because I had just done the “abroad thing” (as I’ve eloquently begun to call it), I expected my acclimation to life in Bordeaux to be a breeze. The day before I left, rather than preparing for my journey, I ran around Poughkeepsie hugging friends, talking leisurely on Skype and paying the Acropolis Diner a visit. I reminded myself that I already had practice living and bonding with a French family, navigating a strange city and making friends out of strangers.
Thus, I’ve been a little surprised about the growing pains I’ve experienced over the past week and a half. My first night before class in Bordeaux, I got two hours of sleep due to the décollage horaire (jet lag), and have been craving a platter of greasy garlic knots from Pizzeria Bacio more than anything. Every time I get a snapchat from friends reuniting at Vassar, too, I momentarily wish I were doing the same.
But, I reason, things will get easier. I love practicing my French with my new famille d’accueil (host family), as well as aimlessly strolling along Bordeaux’s Garonne River without a map to remind me I’m hopelessly lost. I’m also proud of myself for continuing the passionate, if sometimes-torrid love affair with the French language that I began eight years ago, even through sweaty AP practice sessions and long nights memorizing verb conjugations.
Even though I’m not the expert I thought I was, I do still have a few initial insights to offer to those going abroad or considering it. Below is a list of tips and tricks that some might consider helpful.
Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself – especially if you’re studying abroad in a country where the official language is not your own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spewed out something in French confidently, if boastfully, only to be met with stares that suggested I had a limb protruding from my right temple. On a somewhat related note, I’m also painfully aware of how many French innuendos I don’t yet know (Je suis excitee does NOT mean “I’m excited.” At least not in the way you think). Having a sense of humor about your mistakes and miscommunications will serve as an antiseptic for your wounded pride.
Make an effort, as small gestures go a long way. In Strasbourg, I agreed to accompany my host mom to her gym, where I patiently listened to her instructions on how to best use a pool noodle to work my biceps. It was uncomfortable not only for my upper arms but my sense of dignity. I’m convinced, though, that it served as the foundation for the close relationship we subsequently formed.
But know when you need a break. No matter how many times your distant relatives remind you that going abroad will prove the “time of your life,” it’s okay to seek respite from the experience. Sometimes, for example, you’ll lock yourself in your room for a day and binge on Gossip Girl reruns (I speak hypothetically, of course). You’ll emerge from your cave better prepared to face the challenges ahead of you.
Take pictures. Don’t Instagram them all, though. Your friends will get annoyed.
Drink lots of water. It’s good for you, and I needed a fifth tip.
That’s all for now – when I next write I’ll be doing so from Paris, where I presume new adventures await. A la prochaine.
The view from my bedroom.
New York -> Bordeaux.
Musée des Beaux Arts.
Squinty smiles at the Dunes du Pyla.