Culture Shock: Paris
Dogs in Paris by noodlepie
Lisa Gerard sounds off some interesting advice for anyone planning a year abroad in Paris. Here are some of her views on experiencing culture shock in France, from an American exchange student's perspective...The way I see it, as an American student, ‘Paris’ and ‘culture shock’ are closely related — almost like competing step-siblings. I arrived in Paris just over one month ago, prepared for whatever it would throw my way be it foie gras, which is wickedly tempting for a vegetarian, or wise cracks about my native country, the United States, which never seems to be able to redeem itself in the eyes of the French.
For the first few weeks of my time abroad, the students on my program, MICEFA, participated in a linguistic and cultural immersion course taught by French instructors. In an effort to help us immerse ourselves in (and understand) the culture into which we ungracefully threw ourselves, my professor suggested that each student give a little presentation on ‘culture shock’.These are some topics that followed:
One girl in my class spoke about the irony of the scents of Paris — the good and the bad. When we think of Paris, we often consider perfumes, the warm, steaming baguettes floating out of the boulangère’s oven, the luscious pastries and extravagant dishes that overfill shop windows and brasserie menus. What we often overlook — or fail to be aware of — are the painful odors of urine, the abandoned dog droppings by careless owners, and the legendary stench of unwashed bodies (unique to every person) all of which can be easily experienced in the métro. Passing through the station at Place d’Italie, when transferring from Line 6 to Line 7, you will undoubtedly encounter a pungent aroma that consists of god-knows-what — the most horrid concoction of foul-smelling fragrances. No amount of ‘Frebreeze’, Lysol, or eau de parfum will eradicate this stench; it is a lost cause. So something to remember when passing through the streets, metro stations, and back ways of Paris: it is perfectly acceptable to hold your nose.
2. Customer Service
This title is a bit of a joke, mostly because this way of life does not exist in Paris. Occasionally, you will find yourself in the checkout line of someone who is surprisingly pleasant, and, as a result, you will immediately remark on it. Just the other day, my friend and I made a trip to Monoprix for some groceries and toiletries, and when we went to check out, the cashier actually asked us how we were doing — as if the world had capsized. As my friend and I were leaving the store, we turned to each other and simultaneously said, “That woman was in a good mood!” We have come to appreciate such rarities. This lack of ‘pleasantness’ (for lack of a better term) is not a surprise to most, nor was it to me at first. But then you come to accept that it is constantly like this, and then the ridiculousness of it all sets in. Why is everyone so unhappy? Perhaps it is the American — and Southerner — in me, but it cannot possibly be good for one’s health to be so unpleasant day in and day out? My immersion professor, a native Parisian, admitted to this mindset, and suggested that the best possible thing to do is be overwhelmingly pleasant, in such a way that it almost calls out the other’s disagreeing mood. Sometimes (with emphasis on the ‘some’), the person takes note of his or her grumpiness and may try to make an effort to redeem him or herself. En bref, don’t let Parisians get you down. It’s not you, it’s them!
Politeness and manners go hand-in-hand with the whole ‘customer service’ idea. It is of the utmost importance to always be polite. Always. Even when the other person does not merit your civility, or even if you are having the worst of days, respect and courteousness are crucial — and at least you can complain by saying that you were as nice as you could possibly be, that you tried your best, and they weren’t buying it! The irony of being polite is that while it is so important, it often yields little to no results. The seemingly permanent crabbiness of Parisians has almost made it as if “s’il vous plait,” “merci,” and “bonne soirée” are just white noise, as if they were not even mentioned. But, as one of my friends discovered, leave out the “bonjour, Madame” and you might as well pick yourself up and leave the store; the service that will follow should you forget your ‘p’s’ and ‘q’s’ won’t make for a good day.
Where to begin? Many of you know by now that French men are, well, verbally aggressive. They do not hesitate to tell you you’re beautiful, to try to get your number (and, now, your Facebook), and to try to get you to spend the night with them. Most of the time, it’s all words, and if you tell them to back off, they usually do, realizing they are getting nowhere with their vain attempts to lure you into their trap. Sometimes, however, things do not go as smoothly. During my second week in Paris, I was on the metro on my way back home from dinner with some friends. It was still early — around 20:30 or so — and the train was fully packed with passengers. I was holding onto the poll to keep my balance and refrain from stepping on those around me when a man put his hand over mine on the poll. Thinking it was an accident and that he didn’t see my hand, I picked mine up and moved it higher on the bar. He moved his back on top of mine. I moved my hand lower on the poll, and he was swift to follow yet again. At this point, I had had enough, and I yelled at him to stop…which he didn’t. Even more discouraging, none of the many passengers offered their assistance in preventing this unwanted attention (another thing to get used to). I got off the train, and he followed. And it wasn’t until I called the police that he finally took off. Clearly this is not the worst of possible encounters, but it is definitely an element of ‘culture shock’ — one that all girls and young women should anticipate.
5. Administrative matters
As many exchange students in Paris before me have said time and time again, administrative tasks in Paris are a horrendous undertaking. Fortunately, my experience thus far has been nothing of the sort, but my fellow students on my program can attest to its chaos. For starters, no one knows where anything is. Ask the Art History secretary where the Foreign Language department is located, and you are bound to receive an answer like “How should I know?” or “I have no idea.” How can you be a part of a university and know nothing about the other departments? It gets worse. “Bonjour Madame, I was told to visit your office to enroll here for Literature courses.” He or she will reply, “You cannot sign up for Literature courses here! Go to Office X”. The woman in Office X tells you to return to office Y, and you are then sent to office Z, before returning to office X, which now, all of a sudden, is the correct place to enroll for the Literature courses after all. The other day, I showed up for my discussion section for Architecture Contemporaine, which began at 8:30 A.M. After an hour, the professor still had not shown up, and the class then decided to pay a visit to the department office. It was there where we were told that our professor no longer wanted to teach the discussion section on that particular day and that we would have to enroll in the other available section. Obviously, had the other section worked, a good portion of us would probably have enrolled in it. Clearly, that was not the case. Our complaints actually yielded a successful response, and the department phoned the professor, who then agreed to go back to teaching our section on the proper day — a rare triumph.Don’t back down when it comes to administrative matters, however. It is a vital step in the enrollment process, and you cannot give in to the chaos, for that might risk your academic standing at your home university. A good rule to follow: always ask three times. On some occasions, you may get the answer you are looking for on your third try.