It may still be published next April, but in the meantime, I figure this is a good place to put it as a way to wrap up the year. Some of the ideas are rehashed from old blog entries, some not.
I wrote the majority of it on a 7-hour train ride from Biarritz to Arles. Enjoy:
I have been asked to write an article about the past year I have spent living and studying in
I will start by saying that this entire exhausting adventure has been the result of a junior study-abroad year. That year, I took piano lessons at L’Ecole Normale de Musique, a prestigious and somewhat dysfunctional conservatory founded by Alfred Cortot, a renowned French pianist and Nazi collaborator, although the school usually highlights the former achievement over the latter. At the end of that year, my teacher, surprised that I was returning so soon to the
Come graduation, I realized I had two options: move back to
May you live out your entire life, Dear Reader, without having to deal with the French embassy. They rejected my application so many times on technicalities (e.g., the photocopy of my diploma was “too large”), that I finally cracked and uttered an unprintable expletive. Just to amuse themselves, it seems, they sent my visa a day late, causing me to miss my original flight.
I arrived in
It would be too lengthy a narrative to recount my entire year, so I will do what many before me have done and make this a list of tips and advice for students wanting to survive France and the French. Having this list at the beginning of my stay may have saved me a few misunderstandings and humiliations.
- Rule Number One: You are always entitled to free bread at a meal. Never, ever forget to ask for your free bread. Like soft drinks in
, you can get free refills, although this privilege can be abused. America
- Rule Number One (part two): Do not place your bread on your plate. This may seem frivolous, but the bread always goes on the table, next to the plate.
- Rule Number One (part three): Do NOT place your bread on your plate. Trust me, you will look like a total chump.
- Come breakfast time at the bakery each morning, you will likely find yourself eyeing the pastries, trying to decide which one offers the best bang for your buck. It took months of experimentation, but the answer is the chausson aux pommes. This doughy pocket filled with stewed apples will fill you up much quicker than a croissant or pain au chocolat, for no extra charge.
- We can discuss education now. When studying in a French university, you may be surprised at the lack of classes, tests, quizzes, homework, or pretty much anything that would help you to learn or gauge your progress. In many universities, such as my music school, the entire year hinges on one 15-45 minute exam for each class.
Furthermore, at my school, there is only one class a week for each subject, and the classes serve little, if any, purpose.
My theory class consisted of an elderly man riffing on lofty metaphors for chords and keys for two and a half hours. I was often the last to arrive (half an hour late) and the first to leave (half an hour early). I passed the exam with flying colors.
My sightreading class was taught by a French woman with more than a hint of spirits on her breath, who would place random sheet music before us and whack our hands at each wrong note. She would also laugh hysterically every time I said the word “okay.” I am not sure why. I passed the exam with minimal class attendance.
This lack of meaningful classes gave me an unprecedented amount of free time. I frantically tried to fill this time for most of the year. I practiced several hours a day. I took on a bar job, from which I was promptly fired after breaking several pitchers and missing a shift. I attended screenings of “West Side Story” by myself.
By the end, something began to slow down inside of me, and I began spending hours a day drinking coffee and eating interminable lunches. In other words, in spite of my best efforts, I became French.
- It is impossible to have too many passport pictures in
. You will need one to accomplish almost any task, whether that be creating a student university card or taking a shower. N.B. Smiling is usually forbidden in passport photos, and even the slightest expression of joy or curling of the lips will invalidate them. France
- For piano students such as myself, keep in mind that finding an instrument to practice on in
is a Herculean task which will likely involve steep fees and humiliating compromises. I spent most of my working hours in a rented studio that the owner would physically lock me into for hours at a time. The necessity of this was not clear. I was forced to squeeze myself through the studio’s lone window on more than one occasion. Paris
- Despite constant claims to the contrary, Parisians are actually perfectly decent people. That is, if you are willing to concede that everything works better in
My former host-mom, a champion of homeopathy, quipped that
To be fair, there are many things that do work better in
- Be extremely careful when introducing French friends to American cuisine. I invited a friend out to an American-style diner in an effort to introduce him to my culture. He ate a stack of blueberry pancakes and promptly vomited.
I offered another one of my friends a bag of gas station-variety beef jerky from
This is not a weakness on their part, but simply an effort to adapt to ingredients that are not meant for human consumption.
- If you had a French waiter in a restaurant, would you mercilessly mock his accent and his culture? Probably not, but the French will do it to you. Just laugh along with them, and wait until you get home to burst into tears.
- There is a very pretty neighborhood in
called the Marais. Be aware that the bars in this area often cater to certain sexual orientations, as I have awkwardly learned more than once. Paris
- If you want to one-up the guy at the café counter drinking boring old coffee next to you, order “une noisette.” This will land you a nifty dash of cream in your coffee. The guy next to you will concede defeat.
- Romantic relationships are terrifying, but worth touching on. If you kiss a member of the opposite sex, you have likely made a terrible mistake. Try explaining to him/her the purely American idea that, even though you kissed, you would like to wait a week or two before purchasing an apartment and choosing a baby name (N.B. Jean-Luc is a very popular name, and Madeleine is considered old-fashioned). Attempting to slow things down a bit will get you an escargot fork in the eye.
- Parisian apartment parties have very specific rules. Everyone gathers around a table in a cramped room. The host will serve frozen pizza and quiche as the guests down cheap wine and begin to throw things. Be sure to throw something at somebody by the end of the night—preferably peanuts or something sticky. Otherwise people will start to wonder about you.
15. An important word to learn in French is “Courage!” You will hear this multiple times a day. This is roughly the equivalent of “Come on! Keep your chin up!” and is useful for encouraging people without actually taking any action to correct their problems. For example, a conversation with a landlord:
“Excuse me, I think a pipe burst. My bathroom is beginning to flood.”
“Could you call a plumber?”
- For an endless source of entertainment, ask French people to pronounce words such as “hearth,” “squirrel,” “law,” and “photosynthesis.” Laugh increasingly louder each time they try.
It is currently unclear if I will spend next year here or not. I have mixed feelings about my school, and more alarmingly, I am not convinced that staying here will earn me any kind of useful diploma.
However, whenever disturbing thoughts about my future and goals begin to intrude, I sit down in the nearest café, take a deep breath, and spend the next four hours eating mussels. I remember that I am missing the point of life in this country. Who needs productivity or so-called “diplomas?” Is that any substitute for unending vacations, coffee breaks, and long weekends?
I wash the mussels down with a glass of Chablis and feel my ambition succumb to the heat and alcohol. I chuckle loudly to myself, causing my fellow diners to turn their heads. Staring into my wine glass, I let one word escape my lips: