From my experience as a psychology major, everything has an effect on our bodies and minds. Studying abroad is a great example of this. Suddenly moving from a familiar place to a place that is completely new stirs up a lot of stress in the brain because you have to adjust to a new way of living. For me, just looking around at Paris and everyone in it during my taxi ride was enough to fire up my brain cells. I started to observe common themes of what some French supermarkets, stores, and buildings tend to look like and have. Observation and experimentation were the keys to learning how to adapt to living in Paris because all of the answers to the many questions spiraling around in my mind could be answered by simply looking around me and opening my mind to trying new things. Sure, observing and experimenting with what’s around me can be stressful but that stress only signifies that I’m learning something new and creating more connections between the neurons in my brain.
For example, after visiting the supermarkets here several times, I began noticing how different the containers for milk look in France. The picture above on the right shows the common oval-shaped container that can be found at French supermarkets. However, they are also commonly found in rectangular containers similar to the image on the left. When I first searched for milk in Paris, I instantly walked towards the refrigerated section in search of the typical gallon container of milk that I’d see in the U.S. After circling through the supermarket several times, I finally noticed a woman grab an oval-shaped bottle of “lait” from a shelf before walking down the cereal aisle. That’s when I realized that not only was the container for milk different, but that milk in France wasn’t in the refrigerated section because their milk is ultra-pasteurized (UHT), so it doesn’t need to be cold. Now, whenever I visit a French supermarket, I don’t make this mistake because my brain remembers where the milk is and that it’s not the same as milk in the U.S.
Another thing I’ve observed from my experience in Paris is that air conditioning is scarce. It was quite a shock to me when I arrived at my apartment during a heat wave, only to find a fan sitting in each bedroom. Moreover, many restaurants and places that I visited with my program didn’t have air conditioning. But, when I noticed many people walking around with reusable water bottles and refilling them at statue-like water fountains, I realized that not having air conditioning wasn’t that bad. In fact, I bought my own reusable bottle and often refill it at one of the many water fountains scattered throughout the city. What’s even better is that some of these water fountains spill out sparkling water! In the U.S., I’d normally buy bottled water at the store, but refilling reusable bottles is much more convenient and economical for the amount of water I need to drink to stay hydrated in the heat every day. Moreover, my body has become more tolerant of the climate due to my brain changing how it will regulate my body.
A third thing I’ve observed and adjusted to is that saying “bonjour” during the day or “bonsoir” during the evening is expected and common in my experience. I was shocked when greeted this way during my first week here because it’s not common in the U.S. unless the person is someone familiar. But now, it’s almost a natural reflex and I don’t hesitate to greet them back. Throughout my time here, I’ve noticed these greetings at stores, restaurants, and other places. If I’m leaving or entering my apartment building and passing by someone, saying one of those greetings is a common courtesy. My brain recognizes this and creates a new connection that reminds me to greet people under those circumstances.
From these experiences, it’s clear that the brain is quite adaptive to new environments. Whenever I’m confronted with something that’s unfamiliar to me in Paris, my brain eagerly changes and works to make life easier. Some might say that cell phones can do that too, but the advantage to having a brain is that it has a never-ending battery and it’s very difficult to lose.