May 2, 2009

Bonjour from Paris

Are you ready for this?

No, really ready?

I'm in France. And the best part? It's not even a dream. That's what I kept wondering as I sat at the Salt Lake City airport, passport in hand, waiting at the gate departing to Charles de Gaulle on Monday afternoon. I looked around at my fellow passengers and wondered what their reasons for going to Paris could be. I wondered if they wondered about my reason for going to Paris. No reason seemed quite as cool as "I'm studying French language, culture, and civilization in the heart of Paris." Maybe they thought I was one of those twenty somethings headed off to Europe to "find myself."Even though that's not explicitly why I'm here, I can't help but wonder if it will happen.

The flight was long. Extremely long. Two sub-par meals, three episodes of crying baby, three or four restless hours of sleep, one finger burn from the reading lamp, two hours of iPod, three movies, and five thousand miles later... we finally arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport. There were four of us from the BYU program who had arrived on the same flight, so we made our way through customs and tried to figure out how we were going to call our private shuttle to get to the hotel. Everyone was speaking in French (except for the American tourists, who stuck out like sore thumbs) and I realized just how limited my capabilities are. What we read in our preparation class is absolutely true: The French don't like to give more information than is necessary. If we asked someone "Do you know the number for the BluVan shuttle?", they would simply say "No" and move on with their lives. No "Oh, but I could find you a phone book" or "Maybe you should try asking that lady over there..." None of that. Nothing. It's not rude, it's just the French way.

We finally got a hold of the shuttle. We were told that the driver would probably be Pakistani and able to speak English. The driver was actually French and, we soon learned, unable to communicate very well in English. It ended up being to our advantage to try our skills on someone who was so kind and patient. He told us that, even if you don't speak French well, just making the effort is good enough to open a lot of doors. The French are actually very patient and hospitable when foreigners try to show respect.

Our first day in Paris was spent doing somewhat cliche things like visiting the Eiffel Tower. Mostly, we were trying to stay awake and get over our jet-lag. Professor Hurlbut took us out to dinner (aka our program fees covered a dinner) at a nice little place. Wish I could say what or where it was, but I was so disoriented and just ready to dig into some delicious French cuisine. I ended up ordering French soup, a steak, and some chocolate mousse. Much to my surprise, the steak came with French fries (who knew?) and the meat was pretty much raw. "Just don't think about it," my professor kept saying. "Just don't think about it."

My first night was spent at the Etap Hotel, which was very small. Our room looked like it had jumped right out of the 80's with teal and magenta colored geometric shapes all over everything. I bought a phone card at a little Tabac (they are little French stores that pretty much function like the stores at American gas stations). I was having some difficulty getting the card to work on the pay phone at the hotel, so I asked one of the concierges for some help. Even though I asked my question in French, he answered in English. That's happened to me several times throughout the trip. I've learned that it's not an insult to your ability to speak French, but most American tourists only know about two or three phrases (if that) in French, so the people around here have grown accustomed to switching over to English pretty fast.

Our first morning here, we had a petit dejeuner a la francais at the hotel: bread, chocolate, fruit, jam, hot drinks, and cereal. We went to our first day of class, which was pretty informal and mostly a quick crash course in how to survive around here. Mostly, I was excited to meet my host family. My rooommate, Amy, and I took a taxi to the La Brosse's apartment. Immediately, I could tell that the family is warm and accommodating. The only ones living here are Madame et Monsieur, although they have three children who are grown up and living away from home. They are also hosting another American student named Cami. She's only fifteen and she's from Maryland. Madame de La Brosse told us "On ne parle que le francais ici," meaning that we would only speak French in the apartment. Amy and I are allowed to speak English in our shared bedroom, but we made a pact to stick to French as much as possible. The La Brosse's are very patient with us, and they think our French is magnificent (or at least they act like it). I can tell I will learn a lot from them.

I get the feeling that this city will change me. There is something so magical about exchanging "bonjour"s with the locals and listening to a random guy playing guitar in the Metro and walking down a narrow alley surrounded by apartments and shops and realizing that this city is both extremely historic and extremely vibrant and living. It's a city of motion. And in spite of my aching limbs and my broken French, I want to be part of the motion.

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