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French connection: My first two months in Paris

Lily Kershaw reflects on her year abroad so far and the culture shock she has experienced.

Culture shock is real. 

I honestly couldn’t imagine it being a thing before I came here, let alone imagine being shocked on any level by Paris. Surely, one shouldn’t be blamed for imagining Paris to be just like London but with French people? They have Pret and tea and baked beans and all the creature comforts of Oxford living and, being a firm believer that people are the same no matter where you go, the stereotypes of cold Parisians seemed unrealistic and outdated (I would actually argue that London is worse for rudeness). 

Nevertheless, I have experienced culture shock… though perhaps that is the wrong word; I have been shocked by how different I feel to those around me due to aspects of my appearance that I would have previously considered relatively “normal”. Wearing skirts above the knee in 30° weather, wearing bright colours, even just being a mixed-race woman in a major city are just some examples of qualities that have been highlighted as sticking out here by friends and strangers alike. 

I laugh in an English way, I write like an English person, I dress like an English person. None of this is positive or negative, it’s just different, yet these are all things which I assumed to be somewhat universal, or at least European. You can’t send emails here during weekends without attracting the ire of some administrator, some of the metro doors require manual opening, you need to say bonjour whenever you enter a shop, and bonne journée whenever you leave. The term “culture shock” implies some sort of extreme reaction, but I wasn’t taken aback by these mundane aspects of Paris living, I was just surprised to find that things I’d considered universal just weren’t. It’s not the differences which you expect that shock you, it’s the little things which you assume to be the same until shown otherwise. 

But beyond all that, the biggest difference has nothing to do with Paris, it’s not even about France, it’s about me. I have never had this level of independence before, and it is both exhilarating and terrifying. I feel like an adult in ways that I wasn’t quite prepared for: signing contracts in a language I barely understand, trying to explain my needs in French in an unnecessarily complex bureaucracy, discussing rent with my landlord… a lot of it has been a little overwhelming. But I enjoy the freedom more than I’d initially expected. Exploring Paris on my own is exciting, it’s fun to feel totally in control of my own time, to wake up at 6am some days to study and go to galleries and go to sleep at 7am other days after partying all night. I feel like I’m responsible for only me, and I love it. This is likely going to be the last point in my life where I am this free and I want to make the most of it, use it to discover what I truly want and who I truly want to be. 

I catch myself trying to acclimate in as many ways as possible. Parisians are more conservative? I put away my crop tops and trade them for shirts. I trade hugging for kissing people on the cheek as greeting. I often question whether my actions will appear “too English”. I carry a lighter around in my bag since, while I don’t, everyone here smokes, and I hate to say non when asked t’as un briquet? But if I’m so prepared to give up so many little cultural habits and swap them for new ones, were they really my habits at all? How much of our own personal expression is just culture? How much is truly us?

I feel so foreign here, partly because no one prepared me for the racism or the sexism. I spent most of my life in London and I thought things would be the same here, but they’re just not. I didn’t expect strangers to stop me on the street so often, just to say “you’re mixed race, right? Where are you from?”, or even the egregious “Calypso, Calypso” because “you’re from the Caribbean right?”. I didn’t expect to be followed so often when walking at night, or have men block my exits when alone on the metro when it’s dark. For the most part this is all fine and I go home, safe, and laugh it off. I laugh when my friends are concerned about me walking back home alone, catching the metro in the early hours, or taking an Uber. I’m independent, aren’t I? These are basic things that I’ve done a million times before, but the danger is there. And when I’m made to constantly feel so different when living here, the acclimation almost feels like a necessity. I can’t change my identity (not that I would want to) but I can change my outfits and my habits. When I don’t look so English and more French, the racism isn’t so bad, and the street harassment isn’t nearly on the same level. When you’re seen as foreign, these behaviours are considered more acceptable, but when you’re seen as French, less so.

Coming to another country, however, really strips you down. Without English and without the ability to properly express who I believe myself to be, who am I? Struggling to convey the complexities of my identity and understand the subtleties of those around me, I find myself repeating the same script in an attempt to have some kind of universal appeal, covering the same inoffensive topics of languages, school, and the differences between England and France. I adopt an overly friendly air, avoid jokes (in a world where timing is everything, stilted French is unhelpful), smile a lot and act enthusiastically at the least provocation. I sometimes feel myself to be a caricature of who I truly am yet, in many ways, I feel I have no other option. 

In many ways, it’s like being a fresher again. I feel unknown for the first time in a while, and it’s given me time to re-evaluate who I really am – without all the people I know, without having my support network in immediate reach, without any words, who am I? One of my closest friends told me to stop aiming to be my English self when I’m speaking French, that it puts too much pressure on me and I should just relax into whoever I become in this new language, and she was right. I am a different person in French. The only way to possibly reconcile this dual existence, my French and English selves existing simultaneously, is to admit that there is no singular self – everything on the surface, my hair, my clothes, even my actions, they’re all fickle and subject to a great degree of change very quickly. Everything deep down, who I truly I am (whatever that means), can never fully be expressed to anyone, let alone in French. I am a different person to everyone I meet but having another language just exaggerates those pre-existing differences. 

I really can’t overemphasise how much I love it here though. Paris, despite all the ups and downs, really feels like somewhere I can see myself living in the future. The people I’ve met here are lovely and the experiences I’ve had in the past two months have been incredible and are so special to me. I feel a genuine sense of pride in how my language ability has improved and have grown to appreciate the smaller triumphs, like no longer feeling like I’m going to have a heart attack before I speak to a French person, along with the larger ones. I feel like I know myself better, I’ve grown more confident and comfortable with who I am. To be honest, I can’t wait to see whatever the future here brings.

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