2015 Summer Caitlyn Heter France Paris Temple Summer

Culture shock is real… even in Paris

Alright, I admit it: culture shock was not as small a problem as I thought it would be.

If you’re planning on studying abroad, you’ve likely already heard about culture shock and how you need to anticipate all these stages and feelings…Yeah, let’s be honest: that stuff is boring when you’re counting down the days to your flight.

So please know I’m serious when I tell you that culture shock is real and there is no easy solution.

Having previously visited Paris, I thought I was ready. I already knew I loved the city! But as I realized I was walking the wrong direction to get to a meeting, I did not love the city. Not at all. I eventually got to my destination (very, very late), but my frustrations lingered. Why was one side of the street going up in number while the other side went down? Why do they put the street signs on the buildings? Those frustrations continued when I got on a bus going the wrong direction, and again as I tried to locate granola bars at Monoprix (it’s kind of like Target).

Days later in a grocery store, I opened a refrigerator to pick out a prepackaged salad. I held the door open for the person behind me, and he closed it. I don’t know why, but that just put me over the edge. I paid for my salad as quickly as I could and hurried outside where it was less crowded, where I could breathe. I had so many questions, and the lack of answers made me feel angry, sad, and lost.

All day long, for my entire first week, I was surprised constantly by all these little nuances of French behavior that I didn’t understand. It felt like even when I tried my very best to adjust to the new norms, people still spotted me and knew I was faking it. Faking it really, really hard. That kind of stress and effort is exhausting, and the stress finally built up to a point that I couldn’t contain it.

I was eating dinner with some other Temple students the night of the refrigerator incident when out of nowhere I just started to cry, in the middle of the gardens, while eating a bag of cheeseburger flavored potato chips and drinking from a massive bottle of water.

It was crazy: that morning I had visited Monet’s garden, one of my absolute must-do’s for the trip. But as the little frustrations had stacked up, my day had gone from euphoric happiness to uncontrollable sadness. I didn’t know what to do. Finally, I admitted to feeling culture shock, the phenomenon I had neglected to actually prepare for because it wasn’t the most fun or exciting.

Monet's impossibly beautiful gardens were a high point in my first week!
Monet’s impossibly beautiful gardens at Giverny are a must-see outside of the city.

Thank goodness I was surrounded by other students who felt the same way and were willing to talk about it. I’ve since realized that because Paris is so full of weary travelers and confused international explorers, I have no reason to be so obsessed with fitting in. Of course I haven’t mastered every little nuance of French behavior; even if I moved here permanently, I likely never would. But the more time I spend here, the more I will learn. Each time I go walking in the city, Paris unfolds like a map in my brain. That’s a really rewarding and incredible feeling.

The phrase is so common that people often leave it unfinished: “When in Rome…Do as the Romans do.” Well when in Paris, I’m learning, sometimes the best you can do is essayer: to try  (not to be confused with essuyer, to wipe).

Now that my class has started I’m forming a routine and starting to really settle in. I’m moving forward with positivity and curiosity, and I think that’s all anyone can ask of me. Other than, maybe, keeping the refrigerator closed.

Until next time!

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