Alone in Paris: Maladjustment

This is the second part in a series about studying abroad in Paris in the fall of 2007. You can read the first part here

I’ve never settled in anywhere easily. When I was fourteen, I was new to my town’s public school, where I should have fit in without much fuss. I’d lived in the area for most of life and already knew many of my classmates. I was excited about everything the school had to offer. I joined a sport, was in the musical, actively participated in classes. But I didn’t feel like I had real friends until almost the end of the school year. I missed the comfort of my old school and my old friends. I felt the same kind of loneliness when I started college, where I didn’t feel I fit in with the other college freshmen who were psyched about freedom and drinking and, curiously, being in the Midwest.

I’m not surprised I had the same unease during my first weeks in Paris. I knew by then that change was hard for me. But that knowledge didn’t make adjusting any easier.

Note: I was actually a terrible photographer when I started out in Paris. I have very few photos from this time and most of them are bad. However, I promise they will maybe get better.

me, in front of the eiffel tower, my first week in paris

in front of the eiffel tower, my first week in paris

I don’t remember much about my first day of school orientation. I sat with my friends from college, Laura and Lindsay, who are twins. I think we were off-site somewhere, in some kind of auditorium. The head of the program spoke to us. She might have been a blonde who wore scarves and long skirts, but that might have been someone else. A round woman with mussed hair who reminded me of a peasant laundress took the stage and delivered in hilariously accented English – the last time she would speak English to us she warned – a lecture on the differences between France and America, what we should and shouldn’t do so that we wouldn’t offend the French, and the parameters of our homestays. She was our dean of students, I guess. Specifically, I remember her telling us three things: not to look anyone in the eye on the Metro, that she was Portuguese, and that students from Northwestern had to take a class at one of the local universities in order to get credit for our semester abroad.

I immediately started panicking about having to take a class with actual French students. And then I panicked because they administered a language test, which I had been nervous about.

The twins and I had lunch afterward with a few girls from the program whom we’d picked up somewhere. I don’t remember who was there, except for one girl, who made an impression on me with her confidence in speaking French and her interesting first name.

That first week we were all placed in our French classes and a sort of week of immersion. We spent hours in class each day, but there was also a lot of free time. I’d fallen in with one group of people who the twins had been hanging around with. They were all nice and fine, but I hadn’t quite hit it off with any of them. I remember eating lunch with them and going the Eiffel Tower, the Luxembourg Gardens and the Latin Quarter.

There was another group, which a girl from college named Margaret was a part of. I was just getting to know Margaret – I liked her a lot – and the other girls struck me as fun and more sophisticated than most people in the program but, I dunno, really needy of being a part of a group of girls, which is not a way that I have ever been.

I was at lunch with these girls one of the first days – I remember everybody breaking out their basic French I skills to order their salades – and everyone was talking about their respective homestays. Of course, I had the most interesting situation: host mom trapped in Lebanon because she misplaced her photo ID, two temporary host dads, and a zany apartment filled with cats. One girl was complaining about her host mom, an elderly woman who had a small apartment. The night before, her host mom had fed her a piece of “sketchy sausage” for dinner. She was requesting to move into the student apartments that day.

Sometimes, I felt just as alone when I was with groups of people as I did when I was by myself.

Let’s not forget that I was in the early stages of recovering from heartbreak. I thought about my ex-boyfriend, frankly, all of the time. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn’t dare call him. I hoped he would email me, but I knew that he wouldn’t. This was a pattern already well-established.

One afternoon, when I was wandering around my neighborhood, which I did a lot in the afternoons, I stopped in an internet cafe, which were literally everywhere. I had been having trouble stealing Internet from other people in the apartment building. I paid the Arab man at the counter for fifteen minutes of internet and sat down at a computer and immediately realized that I hadn’t used a French keyboard before. It took me a few minutes to log into my email because I had to look at the keyboard and type with one finger and by the time I was finished, I was so frustrated and depressed that I got up and walked out of the cafe.

The next morning, I went to the computer lab at school and snagged a computer with an American keyboard. I wrote the email, sent it and waited for a response.

I was lucky enough that my best friend from college, Stephanie, was also in Paris. She was in a different program, but her homestay was within walking distance of mine. There were plenty of afternoons or evenings when we would meet up and talk about how we felt about our homestays and classmates, the homesickness and, of course, everything we wanted to see and accomplish while we were there. I remember her telling me about how she was hungry every night, because she never ate a big lunch at school, but her family always ate a big lunch and had a light dinner, like a salad or a quiche or something. Also, of course, she missed her boyfriend.

Stephanie was naturally more optimistic and seemed to me to be much more in control of her feelings than I. In comparison, I felt unhinged, constantly blathering about how out of place I felt in the Fiat-filled streets. But, as she had done many times before and has done many times since, Stephanie helped me put everything in perspective. We would only be there for a few months. Feeling like this was natural. We would get used to it all, eventually.

One night, Stephanie, Laura, Lindsay and I went to a pizzeria in the 15th, close to where three of us lived. We drank rosé and ordered a few pies. When our pizzas came, each one had a fried egg in the middle. We hadn’t ordered fried eggs on our pizzas. After that, I made sure to ask for pizza without eggs any time I ordered it.

I was placed in a decent French class; it was challenging and not too full of idiots, except for this one girl who came to class every day wearing a sweatshirt and flip flops – it was not warm out – and seemed to be unable to speak, read or write in French. Her presence was confounding to everyone, most of all our teacher, Sabrina, who was an adorable, magical, young Parisian with curly hair, twinkly eyes and a tendency to grade kind of harshly, in my honest opinion.

I felt like most of my classmates wanted to impress Sabrina. Two of them were particularly aggressive. This one girl, who had a variety of really terrible hats, like those knit ones that also happen to have a brim, and filmy scarves, talked constantly. I think she wanted to actually be French. She dated French guys, including a firefighter she referred to as “my pompier”. The other was this guy who wore stripes all the time, I assume because he thought that was French, and he made a big show of reading French newspapers in the morning and smoking in the courtyard with all of the other when-in-France smokers. He spoke French excitedly and with a lisp, and that is what I remember about him best.

walking around the luxembourg gardens alone was common those first few weeks

walking around the jardin du luxembourg alone was common those first few weeks

The school had set up a few mandatory activities around Paris in the first week or two and then a few more that we could choose between, outside of the city, that would come at points later in the semester. There was one, maybe during the second week, on a boat on the Seine. It must have been a dinner cruise, because I arrived in the early evening and I was wearing my wool coat, which I needed to wear at night when it got cold.

There were a few people waiting for the whole group to gather and I ended up talking to this girl from college, who had lived in my dorm freshman year and borrowed my Art History flashcards before tests our first quarter, but stopped acknowledging me after we joined different sororities. Since we weren’t at school, she was quite chummy with me, even almost remembering what town I was from. We were all looking for friends then, I guess.

On the boat cruise, one of the girls at the table I was sitting at – the girls from the lunch crowd who were already a group – told me she’d noticed I’d ditched them in the past few days. This was surprising to me. I’d assumed that they didn’t like me, because I’d assumed they’d noticed that I didn’t really fit in with them. So I had begun hanging out with other people. Looking back on it, I see that I should have thought about it as though I had noticed I didn’t fit in with them and had therefore decided to start hanging out with other people. Back then, I didn’t have the confidence to feel that I, and I alone, was in charge of myself and what happened to me.

Sometime during the second week, I got sick. Really sick. I still went to school every day though, because we only had to be there for a few hours and the program had some batshit insane absence policy. John told me that a lot of people got sick after a week or so because the germs were different, which I guess made sense enough to me.

After the first day of my illness, so congested that I could barely breathe or speak, I went to the pharmacy on my way home from school. When you go to a French pharmacy, you have to tell them your symptoms and they’ll give you something from behind the counter. The whole way there I practiced saying “j’ai une rhûme” in my head, which was a phrase I probably learned in ninth grade, but I wasn’t super confident speaking to actual French people and also, my voice sounded monstrous, like I was drowning in a vat of phlegm.

The pharmacist made me repeat myself a few times, but eventually he caught my drift and gave me some cold medicine. The medicine made school and any other necessary activities tolerable for the next few days. I spent most afternoons lethargic on the pleather couch in the living room playing The Sims 2 while watching the German version of Ugly Betty, which had been dubbed in French and was called Le destin de Lisa.

The real cure came when John made me chicken soup. It was delicious but like, half of it was black pepper. As I ate it, my sinuses cleared out. I sneezed for the rest of the evening and when I woke up the next morning, I was as good as new.

Every night, long after I had fallen asleep, my bedroom door would open, though I wouldn’t hear it. The intruder was silent. She would slink her way over to my bed, jump up on it and, without waking me, nestle herself in between my head and the wall. Eventually, I would wake up sweating and discover the little black cat on my pillow. Then I would shoo her out of the room, close the door and hope that she didn’t come back. I didn’t mind the cats, but I didn’t want to share my pillow with them either.

life with cats

life with cats

Nick and I got along really well for a lot of reasons. One reason was that we both loved Kate Bush. Another reason was that we both preferred speaking English to French.

Nick couldn’t believe that Liz didn’t have an internet. Neither could I. It was 2007! Everyone had internet. So, he emailed Liz, who was still stuck in Lebanon, asking if we could buy an internet connection for her apartment, and she agreed as long as I paid for it in the end. So, we set off to Darty, by the Montparnasse train station, which is kind of like Best Buy, but full of French people.

I let him negotiate with a saleswoman – he told me he had become mostly fluent in French after he started begrudgingly watching French news and other television programs in the evening when he had moved to Paris five years earlier – and we left Darty with internet! This changed my world, for I was then able to download new music, something I had missed terribly in the first ten days I’d been there. Also, I could now constantly check my email to see if anyone in America still cared about me.

Nick was also my savior when it came to my cellphone. The international phone my dad had gotten for me through work never had service and was just generally really shitty. So Nick took me to Orange, where I got a little white cellphone that looked like a toy, thanks to his dealing with the salesperson. I had to buy little cards with actual minutes every now and again, but other than that it was fine, and at least now I could keep in touch with the few friends I had.

About two weeks in, I started to make real friends at school. Jill and Molly were in my French class. Molly was from the Chicago suburbs, but went GW. She had a kind face and a surprisingly biting sense of humor. Most importantly, she had the same wary perception of our school and most our classmates that I did. Jill was a year older than us, a senior at Penn State. She struck me as confident, intelligent, and capable. During a break from class one day, she and I were both talking about how we didn’t yet have any weekend trips planned out. So, we bought Eurail passes later that day and, from there on out, were friends as well as future travel buddies.

Our burgeoning friendship as a group was hinged on our mutual discovery of our classmates, teachers and school staff as characters. Jill, Molly and Molly’s roommate Katie, who would later become a close friend, introduced me to “the Bulgarian”, a hearty, certainly Eastern European-looking girl, who wore a faux – I think – calf hair, leopard print coat to school every day. In my head, she had been “the Muppet”, because I thought her face looked like it was made out of felt. There was also “Horseface” – who I called “Skeletor” – a really skinny, blond airhead type who turned out to possibly have a serious eating disorder and also, to be kind of crazy.

There were tons of other people who had nicknames. There were tons of people who didn’t and were just as good at being characters. Like this one girl who was from Louisiana, had worked on a plantation over the summer giving tours to people in French, talked about her “Daddy” literally all of the time, and was fucking constantly getting followed out of the subway by men because she couldn’t figure out how to not make eye contact with or smile at anyone who looked her way on the Métro. And then there was the cheerleader, whose boyfriend proposed to her when he visited later in the semester, who had all of her cash and credit cards stolen twice within two weeks by Gypsies on the Métro who slit her Coach purses open along the bottom.

And so on. Is this the nicest way to bond with people? By taking the little that you know about others and using it to turn them into characters for your personal amusement? No, probably not. But it’s one of the only ways I know how.

One of the best parts about living in Liz’s apartment – I wasn’t living quite with her yet – was the unlimited international calling plan from her landline. This meant I could talk to my mom every day. It might not have been the best way to get over my homesickness, but it was a comfort I wasn’t going to turn away from.

I was scared to let my mom know just how sad and lonely I was. My mom, like many parents, wants everything to be the absolute best for her children and for nothing bad to ever happen and for us to be happy all the time. I knew she would be anxious if I told her how depressed I was still, after a few weeks in Paris. I’ve never been one to hide my feelings, even if I try, and mentions of my own social anxiety and sadness snuck into our conversations. Occasionally, I would start to cry as we said goodbye.

There was one day when I was in a particularly bad mood and I started to tell her about it. How I felt strange and friendless and alone all the time. She fought back. “How many people get to spend a semester in Paris? Do you know how lucky you are?” she asked me. I said I did.

But. But! Didn’t she know how terrible it was to be in a place where everything was unfamiliar? A place where, if you ever went outside, you’d struggle to express the tiniest thought or question? A place where you barely knew anyone? And I missed everyone, I told her. I just wanted to be home.

“Don’t waste your time over there pining,” she said. She was referring to the ex-boyfriend situation. I could tell by the tone of her voice. So many of our conversations that summer had been about him, though neither of us would mention him directly.

“I’m not pining,” I said. I told her that it was culture shock. They’d showed us a timeline at school. I swore that my feeling were normal.

After we hung up, I was sad and angry. Alone in the apartment, I walked around, sniffling at first, ending up in my bedroom where I started bawling face down on my bed of two mattresses. My mom wasn’t wrong about anything she said. But sometimes, you don’t want advice or reminders or solutions. You just want someone to tell you that it’s okay to be sad.

One night, I met my childhood friend Peter at the apartment where he was staying, in Paris’s Chinatown in the 13th arrondisement. I saw Stephanie often enough and Laura and Lindsay were at school every day, but I was desperate to see another familiar face. I got off the Métro close to Peter’s apartment, near a McDonald’s that had Chinese characters all over it.

His program had set him and a college classmate of his up in an NYU professor couple’s apartment for the semester. The only thing I remember about it was a sort of cubist nude painting of the wife – it could have been someone else, but I think it was the wife –  in the living room. After a bit, we went  downstairs to a Chinese restaurant for dinner with his roommate. I forget what I ordered. We had shitty wine. I talked about how homesick I was. Neither of them seemed to feel the same way I did. After dinner, I went home and worried that they thought I was crazy.

After two or almost three weeks, Liz returned from Lebanon. When I met her, in the living room of her apartment, I was nervous. I had been living there, like an impostor, I felt, for weeks now.

I don’t remember if I met her by myself or with John and Nick there. Getting to know her was one of the best parts of my entire experience in Paris. I couldn’t make her up if I tried. She was tall and thin, though fit, with steel grey hair that was darker in some places and lighter in others. She had perfect posture and spoke English with an accent that was sometimes British and sometimes Scottish – her mother had been part Scottish, though her father was Lebanese and she and her two sisters had been raised in Beirut – though she threw French words in as fillers very often. (She loved a good, transitional “bon…”.) She rolled cigarettes with a little metal cigarette roller and drank a beer every afternoon when she came home from work for lunch. She loved whiskey as much as she loved her cats. So, a lot. She was fun and funny and carefree and sometimes a little terrifying in her brazenness. I liked her.

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