5 Random Things I’ve Learned in My First Days in France

Transplanting my life to Nancy, France has put a slight hiatus on my blogging streak from this summer, but alas here I am, albeit slightly jet lagged. Between leaving the US and arriving in France, I’ve experienced a whirlwind of emotions. I’ve been here for roughly 3 days and these are some of the things I’ve learned thus far.

1. The act of leaving gives me an abnormal amount of courage.

It’s not the first time that I’ve left the country for an extended period of time. What I’m starting to realize is that every time I prepare to leave the country I seem to pick up a Mario Kart mushroom burst of courage and I tend to do some very atypical–I mean for me, of course–things. Those who know me personally know that I’m a bit of a square. Some might even venture to say I lack spontaneity.

Yet the week before leaving Salt Lake City, I managed to try some new things that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I think it had something to do with the psychology of knowing that I literally got to run away from whatever happened, so I went about life with a much more “let it be” attitude.

Yes, I realize that is probably not the healthiest of mindsets, but I also think that kickstarting a wave of courage while I was getting ready to leave was actually helpful in some ways. It served as a reminder that soon everything that I experience will be new. Soon everything I try will probably seem a little scary. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of those things.

I might as well harness that bravery sooner rather than later.

2. French administrative tasks require a lot of identity photos.

This little tidbit is probably the most surprising thing that I’ve discovered since arriving in France. I find it interesting because prior to going to France, I think I’ve used maybe 4 passport photos in my life. I’ve been in France for roughly 72 hours and I’ve already used two identity photos and I’m sure I’ll be using more in the next few days. In case anyone wants to know how to make your own identity photos for really cheap before going to France, check out my DIY blog.

In France–and I think in many places in Europe–there are discount cards for “young people” and this is the primary reason why I’ve had to use so many identity photos thus far. One of the first things that I did when I got off the plane was to purchase a Carte Jeune for the French rail system (SNCF). The card cost 50 euro but it gave me about a 15 euro discount on my train ticket from Paris-Charles de Gaulle to Nancy. I will continue to get similar discounts for train tickets throughout the year with the card, so I do think it’s well worth it.

I bought my card in-person at a SNCF boutique at the airport. The only identification the salesperson needed was my passport, which was great because to buy the card online I believe you need an address. I was handed something that looked less like a card and more like a plane boarding pass and given a small square of translucent adhesive. I skeptically took the tiny square, found a seat in the waiting area of the station, and got to work.

Since I didn’t think to bring scissors with me to France, I used a combination of folding, tearing, and clipping with nailclippers to trim my photo to size. It was shoddy work, but it did the job. The end result worked well enough.

I got to Nancy on a Thursday night. Between fighting the overwhelming desire to sleep on Friday and the disorientation I felt in being in a new country, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get administrative tasks done.

Before I knew it, it was Saturday and I resigned myself to being a tourist for the weekend. I’ve only been in Nancy for 3 days, but I can already tell that I’m going to love it here. In terms of population it is a similar size to Salt Lake City (where I went to school), so I feel quite at home with the amount of people. Just large enough to meet new people, but just small enough to build connections. Geographically it is much more dense. Literally the entire city is 15 square kilometers. My college campus alone was literally 1/3 the size of this city. Needless to say, walking or biking around is not going to be a problem.

The city may seem small by the standards of someone from the American west, but Nancy is home to over 10 institutions of post-secondary education. As such, the cultural offerings here are pretty stellar. The city of Nancy offers a Carte Jeune Culture, which costs 5 euro for an entire year of free entry and/or discounts to museums, concerts, shows, libraries etc.

On Saturday, I bought mine at the Musée des Beaux-Arts. All I needed to do was to fill out a form with the address of my school. It costs 6 euro (4 euro for students) for a one-time visit to the museum. With the Carte Jeune Culture it is free, so the card has pretty much already paid for itself. I was given an actual card this time, but again I was asked to attach my photo with adhesive. I have to laugh at this, not because it’s funny, but because it’s just so different than what we do in the US.

And I know it’s not the end of photos because when talking to my AirBnb host’s son about it, he casually pulled out an envelope filled with identification photos from his desk thus confirming my suspicions.

3. I have no idea how to eat like a French person.

I love food. The French love food (as I was so kindly reminded by my supervisor who greeted me at the train station). What could possibly be the problem?

The problem is that while humans all physically consume food, the social practice and behaviors of eating are not the same across cultures.

Perhaps I took for granted that growing up I used chopsticks, bowls, and ate family style around a lazy Susan at home and then used forks, knives, plates, and ate individual servings when at a white friend’s house. I just got used to doing both.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t occur to me that such differences exist between French and American meal times. The fruits, vegetables, and meat that you find at an American grocery store might be similar to the ones you find in France, but the actual practice of eating it is different.

Bread culture. I’m still slightly lost by it. From what I’ve seen it’s eaten at breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. For someone who maybe eats bread once a day, this is really intense.

It’s not just the amount that is interesting to me. It is also the physicality of ripping a loaf of bread with your hands. It’s not something that I have practice in. I know my American is showing when I say I usually eat my bread sliced.

Cheese and yogurt culture. Equally as new and interesting to me is the consumption of cheese and yogurt as a post-entree, pre-dessert course. I literally thought this was just a thing that was done at fancy restaurants, but it turns out it’s an actual thing done by everyday French people (at least from what I can tell by my AirBnb host).

There are also a ton of little things like drinking room temperature water from small cups, learning about a million jams and spreads (none of which are peanut butter), using cloth napkins all the time, and feeling like my 24 oz water bottle that I use for walking around town is obnoxiously large that remind me that I am indeed in France.

That being said every time I notice something different, I revel in the fact that humans can be so different, yet still need the same essential things (i.e. food).

A funny bonus anecdote: My AirBnb host’s son saw me eating my lunch today (a hunk of bread, soft cheese, and salami) and said I eat lunch like the English. I can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of his observation.

4. I do have the ability to shamelessly ask for help.

For a myriad of reasons, I have turned out to be a fairly independent person who’s not always the best at asking for help. The experience of being dropped into a country where I can pretty much only read the language and barely speak it is turning out to be great lesson in patience for me.

I’ve already mentioned my AirBnb host several times, but I cannot express how grateful I am to have lucked out with this host. I know a lot of people who use AirBnb pick a place that is completely vacant, but I decided to take a chance and pick a place that has a family. When looking at places, my initial thoughts were that it would be nice just to have contact with human beings while settling into a completely new place where I literally know no one.

There have been times when I feel like I am an awkward roommate, but overall I am really glad I picked the place I did. My host is eternally patient with me when I try to speak French and speaks French slowly when I am around. She and her family also entertain my questions of “how do you say?” and “how do you spell?” They are also happy to tell me about local things.

I remember my first day, landing in Paris after a 10 hour flight, and being embarrassed in not knowing how to buy a bottle of water or knowing how to pay to use the restroom (yeah that’s a thing in Europe).

Forcing myself to not be shy. At this point, that’s the only way to get things done.

5. To be happy with the little successes.

It’s funny how being in a state of constant confusion for a couple of days can really change your perspective on what you call success. The things that I took for granted in everyday life in the United States are really coming back to me as eyeopeners.

To be honest, walking into my first bakery and ordering a meal in French. I call that a success.

Finding the University of Lorraine’s language school and trying my very best to hold a conversation with the director about enrolling. I call that a success.

Using my limited French to buy a cellphone and not feeling bad when the salesperson smiled pitifully at my speaking ability. I call that a success.

And perhaps my favorite success of all.

Playing flute duets with my AirBnb host’s son–a complete stranger–neither of us having a firm grasp of each others’ languages, but somehow still managing to have fun and knowing that there was mutual respect there. It’s been my favorite experience in France thus far.

So yes, while I still have a lot of figure out, I can say that my first few days leave me hopeful. The next big administrative tasks include opening a bank account and figuring out transportation, so I’m glad that I gave myself plenty of time to work things out.

Although I’m making somewhat of a big deal about this now, I’m sure in a couple of months I’ll look back at this period of time and laugh it off. Cheers to what I’m sure will be more lessons learned in the upcoming weeks!

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