Letter from Abroad: Paris

Eleanor Whitchurch speaks of Parisian courtesy in an unsettled atmosphere


After months of finalising my ever-elusive year abroad plans, I have found myself interning at a legal translation firm in Paris for ten months.

Perhaps it’s not been as glamorous or lucrative as working as a British Council teaching assistant, as many of my friends have done. The experience, for sure, hasn’t always been easy. But it’s definitely been rewarding. During my time spent in Paris I think I will particularly remember the effect that various recent terrorist attacks have had on the city. The mentality of the general population has been unnerved, and continues to be so, more than one might expect.

When I arrived, what struck me first was the sheer amount of soldiers that marked many of the streets. It’s the kind of thing you get used to, but from time-to-time can’t help but feel slightly disturbed and question ‘Should this feel so normal?’

At the office we have, on several occasions, pondered over where the next attack might take place. It is this disconcerting atmosphere which has resulted in the tourism industry suffering quite a severe blow; apparently, there are significantly fewer non-European visitors than in recent years. No doubt this is true, yet it is hard to believe this whilst queuing for the Musée d’Orsay on a Sunday morning.

I have been pleasantly surprised as to how friendly Parisians generally are. Despite their reputation for being rude and cold, in particular to foreigners, I have found that if you try (your best) to engage with someone in French, they are often incredibly helpful. Saying that, Parisians do have that awkward tendency to immediately address you in English.

However, it’s safe to say, the English do still have a bad reputation in France. I can’t fully understand why, but whenever I mention that I’m from the United Kingdom, the typical response I receive is “oh dear”. Then again, that response is always followed by a laugh. I smile bemusedly back.

People often talk about the fear of missing out during their year abroad. For me this has manifested itself more as a sense of not really belonging. You see university life continue without you, while you yourself are still trying to settle down and express yourself coherently amidst swathes of colloquial and rapidly spoken French. To this day, I am still not sure whether it is acceptable to start addressing new acquaintances as ‘tu’.

Nevertheless, the year abroad has been refreshing. Just spending time surrounding yourself with a different culture is an incredible eye-opener.

Sometimes, it’s the small things that serve to best reflect surprising differing interests and tendencies. For example, in comparison to Blackwell’s in Oxford, the local French bookshop has significantly more police thrillers, and I am still yet to find a single English book. I have also found discussions of Brexit and colonialism with French people particularly interesting, especially since their consequences are still very much present.

The year abroad is an incredible opportunity, but also a challenge. Ultimately, all you can do is embrace and enjoy it as much as you can, before coming back home and knuckling down for finals.


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