In seeking to be completely transparent with this blog, I would be kidding myself if I said that my first two and a half weeks of study abroad have been a breeze.
What I’m doing is hard. For many reasons. And I was probably a bit over-zealous in my anticipation for this independent experience. Not only is living in a foreign country intrinsically difficult, but I eagerly sought out a program that had a few culturally rewarding, albeit challenging, factors.
For example, I decided to live in a homestay. It’s very important to me that I improve my French language skills while abroad, so I wanted to maximize my interaction with native speakers. I approached the situation thinking “Okay, I know that my speaking is a little rough but my hearing comprehension is pretty decent and I can read and write at about a fourth grade level… I’ll be fine!”
However, I absolutely did not expect the language barrier between my host lady and I to be as challenging as it is. Our conversations involve a lot of nodding for this, gesturing for that, pointing over there, and such. Sometimes, like tonight, when I venture into the world of actual speaking, I try to tell a story about my day. Like how I kind of choked on my sandwich at lunch. Except halfway through telling the story I realized I didn’t know the word for choke. So instead my sentence (and story) just kind of awkwardly ended, and my host lady responded with an appropriately confused expression. I could honestly write a book entitled Failed Conversation Attempts, a Memoir.
I also wanted to do a non-TCU program. I was not interested in doing an exchange where I would be living, traveling, and taking classes with the same people I do that with in Texas. As any good idealistic young adult who’s living abroad would say, I want my study abroad to be a period of personal growth and self-actualization, only accomplishable by independence and separation from my home culture. However, I have quickly realized that it’s simply not fun to do everything by yourself. My program only has four others students, so there isn’t always someone available to do something with, much less someone you are super compatible with. Having a lot of free time in a brand new city is actually overwhelming. I feel a lot of pressure to experience all of it at once, but as I begin to understand the level of my extroverted-ness, I know that I would rather have a buddy to experience something with, even if I don’t know them very well, than do it by myself.
My last challenge is simply that the country I chose is France. French people are not exactly, well, praised for their warmth and welcoming nature. France, where people are fiercely proud of their language and heritage and where smiling at strangers is a faux pas, is simply a hard place to integrate into. In addition, living in a smaller city can exacerbate the difficulty of assimilation because, although Nice has a lot of tourists in the summer, Nice has a defined way of coastal living and is not as ethnically diverse or prone to English speakers as a large city.
Before leaving, I was excited by the prospect of these arrangements, ready to take them head on and thrive from the challenge. However, I think I would be selling my experience short if I didn’t admit that they have left me feeling isolated and bored at times. Fortunately, there are a few pieces of advice that I tell myself that motivate and remind me why I started this journey. And I hope that anyone else reading this who has lived abroad can relate to and find encouragement in my words.
One: This experience is not supposed to be comfortable. The point of a challenge is not to make you feel great the entire time, but ultimately to make you more resilient, openminded, and humbled because of what you’ve been through. So far, I have already navigated the French way of class registration (A quick recap of what I learned: Saturdays are not off-limits for classes and the final exam schedule won’t exist until “later”), and I already feel like I am better equipped to handle any scheduling mess in my future.
Two: Cultural differences are just that: differences. Not necessarily good or bad things. As difficult as some aspects of Niçoise culture are to adopt (namely, lack of friendliness from strangers), I am understanding that asking my cashier, “how are you?” is simply not the way things are done here. This doesn’t make French people cold or mean; it just makes them different. And France also has cultural norms unique to this region that I find absolutely fascinating and endearing—but that’s for future posts.
Three: Give it time! It takes time to learn a language, make friends, adjust to an unfamiliar city. In the short two and a half weeks I’ve been here, I’ve already made progress, which only excites me for what lies ahead. I am now better at understanding spoken French, so I don’t accidentally say “no” when my host lady asks if I liked her meal (*face palm). I found a friend who enjoys running (and is committed to not gaining the “French 15”) as much as I do. And, perhaps it was my new scarf (because I’m telling you, every Niçoise has one) or the naturally French aura I emit (I’m joking, people!), two, yes TWO, different people asked me for directions today in French.
Hopefully one day soon I’ll know the city and language well enough to answer them.