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The Year Abroad: Don’t judge Paris by its cover

Photograph: Babbel Magazine Illustrated by Jocelyn Kao
Photograph: Babbel Magazine Illustrated by Jocelyn Kao
Photograph: Babbel Magazine, Illustrated by Jocelyn Kao

Most language students eagerly await the mythical Year Abroad, it’s the hot topic around the language department. It’s a year that allows us to be a bit snobby towards the pure linguists and gives us the recognition we feel we deserve. We await the experiences, the language practice and the new-found knowledge of the world, as well as the embarrassment of not understanding a word of the languages that our parents think we’re fluent in.

I started my Year Abroad in a modest flat in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, ideally located above a Carrefour mini-market and next to metro line 14, famously the home of the Michael Jackson busker (exactly what you need on the commute to work…). Paris gives you a welcome similar to a freezing bath, if you timidly dip your foot in, it’ll make you shiver but if you jump in, you’ll soon find that it becomes warmer and warmer as you adapt to the cool exterior.

Contrary to popular opinion, the French are nice. Deep down at least. I can confirm that they don’t give you the best of welcomes, as I found out on my first day at work when my boss showed me an introductory document made by my predecessor, then asked if I had any questions and brusquely sat me down at my desk with no instructions and no introductions apart from pointing at a few people and giving names that I just as quickly forgot. My relationships with workmates continued in a similarly brusque manner, which involved shouting out greetings to nameless colleagues every morning as they entered the building. I learnt within the first week that it is obligatory to switch between ‘Bonjour’, ‘Salut’ and ‘Bon matin’, to keep it genuine. The only work relationship that kept me sane from 9am to 6:30pm was my friendship with Thibaut, the semi-permanent intern who was the life of the office and luckily for me, sat right next to me. Thibaut was the only one who gave me a chance to speak French and thus, my favourite French person. Camp, fashionable and oozing sex-appeal, he was the epitome of ‘extra’, in the most French way; and he lived up to the French stereotype by having an affair with a colleague, the other camp and fashionable intern who was ‘in a serious relationship’. Thanks to Thibaut, I was greeted at 9am with a beautiful rendition of ‘Good morning’, previously made famous by Audrey Hepburn, and some juicy gossip to giggle about. I was grateful for him every day.

Despite the cool exterior of the French, I soon found out that it was with good reason. You see, the French are cold on the outside because they don’t know you. Fair enough really. Why would they pretend to be your best friend when you could be a b*tch? Excuse my French. They keep their cards close to their chest until they’re sure that you’re someone worth sharing themselves with, and then they share everything. Americans, and the English to some extent, are the opposite. They share maybe too much and then retract it, out of slight embarrassment. These are generalisations for sure, but with truth behind them.

Although I spent the majority of my day at work, my memories of Paris largely consist of after-work shenanigans (thank god!). Along with the dancehall classes, after-work drinks, going out and trying to look Parisian took up a lot of my time. I was lucky to be adopted by some Bath University students early on and we made up a nice little crew. I wish I could say I made some French friends who spoke no English, but that would be a lie. I’m afraid most Erasmus students end up spending time with people from their own country. That’s not to say we don’t practice our target language, but we also need comfort and friends who understand our sense of humour and laugh at our jokes. That is essential to survival.

I learnt a number of things from my after-work activities. 1. French bouncers have a more violent approach than in the UK. In this respect, men have it worse off with bouncers sometimes pushing them to the ground to reduce queue size. 2. You can always flirt to get a freebie. 3. French parenting has a slightly more brutal approach than the pampered treatment us Brits are largely used to. It is fairly normal that when you have kids in the UK, they dominate your life for several years. The kids come first in many a scenario. In France, the kids are expected to fit into the life of the parents. I learnt this first from a Ted Talk which I watched at work when I was entering a particularly epic stage of boredom. An American expat who became a parent in France explained the shock she had undergone that French kids were not spoilt. I witnessed this at my dancehall classes to which a mother brought her 5-year-old daughter every week. She dodged legs, hips and booties for an hour and a half without once complaining about the boredom, the risk of ending up in A&E, or the club-loud basement music. That probably seems like something of a miracle to British mothers.

I learnt a lot from Paris, and I did eventually achieve looking like a Parisian. I didn’t know it until I arrived back in London, and caught a glimpse of myself in a shop window walking down the street with more drive, purpose and self-importance than I knew I possessed. And where did I place my bag? Hooked on the crease between my arm and forearm. Une vraie Parisienne!