Like a Local Memories & Reflections

An Education: Why A Year in Paris Was the Best Part of College

I just finished filling out the paperwork for Skyler’s college savings account. Who knows if this kid will go to college or what the college world will even look like in 15 years, but knowing there’s money being put away for his future education puts me at ease. My parents did something similar for me, but my dad also made me a deal when I was in middle school that changed how I approached my college plans: if I earned enough scholarships so that I didn’t have to take out loans and they didn’t have to pay for much beyond room/board, then he’d fund a year in Paris.

This deal was offered to me at the very beginning of my love affair with the French language. I was just starting to fall in love with the sounds of the language, finally competent at the throaty R and able to rattle off a few impressive phrases. The idea of studying in the City of Lights for a whole school year motivated me through the rest of middle school enough to apply to the illustrious IB program. Not only were most of my friends heading to the IB program, but (at the time) receiving an IB diploma would guarantee free in-state tuition. It was my ticket to my Parisian dreams.

Other kids dreamed about Ivy League educations, far away universities in exciting cities, or private colleges dedicated to a particular craft. Some of my peers talked of pursuing theatre in Manhattan or studying film in LA. Some couldn’t decide where to apply, there were too many options. I knew some people who filled out dozens of applications. Me? I applied to one school (University of North Florida), early decision, got in (earning a couple small scholarships, thank you) and that was that. I got my IB diploma and my dad came through on his side of our deal.

I was going to France!

I don’t care if Skyler goes to college; maybe he’ll follow more of a trade path or get a technical cert. College is not the appropriate route for every person (it wasn’t for many people in our family) and I won’t force him to do it. But one thing I absolutely will insist upon, regardless of if he’s in school or just working: he must spend a year abroad in a non-English-speaking country.

Studying in Paris for the 10 months was the best part of my 5.5 year college career and taught me more about life and myself than the entirety of my university education.

Not only was Paris the first time I lived alone, but it put me thousands of miles away from all of my family and friends. All by myself. My dad hung out for the first two weeks, but after that, I was solo. Alone. Toute seule. I’d only ever lived at home or on campus, and here I was living in an adult’s apartment, in a building with other non-student adults. I had to act like an adult. Grocery shopping and cleaning, figuring out what I was going to eat every single day of the week, budgeting the limited money in my account to last ten months… and do it all in French!

I also had to problem solve in another country, dealing with another country’s bureaucracy, in another language, where I didn’t know anyone anywhere beyond the students in my classes. I had to figure out how to pay my internet bill in person because they didn’t have online billing at the time and I couldn’t understand the lady’s French over the phone. I had no idea what to do when my tiny washing machine stopped working or how to get into the apartment that one time I lost my key. And just wait until I tell you what happened when I got the physical exam required for my student visa!

But those experiences are so necessary! Those frustrations and inconveniences and absolutely confounding situations that make you want to pull your hair out make all of the shiny, happy moments that much more satisfying. They teach you so much about dealing with people, including yourself. They give you the tools and armor needed to deal with life’s challenges. And I think doing so in another language forces your brain to work differently, forces you to think and react differently. (And it also makes dealing with those things back home in English seem way less stressful later on!) I want Skyler to have those same types of opportunities to learn and grow and toughen up and step outside of his comfort zone.

Studying abroad gave me so many opportunities learn outside of the classroom, but also have far too much fun. I was on my own, truly, for the first time! And in some ways, I didn’t fully take advantage of that. There are still so many things I should have or could have done that I didn’t. Like, I shouldn’t have had a long-distance boyfriend back home, and I should have had a European affair. I shouldn’t have had as many solo nights in and should have gone out at night so much more. I shouldn’t have come for spring break, and I should have gone on a fabulous train trip with my school friends. But I was young and dumb, overly cautious and risk averse, and always a little bit homesick.

BUT there are so many things I did right, too.

I visited every single arrondissement (neighborhood/district), all 20 of them! I rode the metro, a lot. I walked, a lot. I ate a LOT of crepes. I sat in many a park. I tried (and failed) to make local French friends. I saw two musicals at the local theatre. I went to an exercise class, a Halloween party, a sleepover in the suburbs where I had to order pizza over the phone (unsuccessfully, I might add). I got my ears pierced at a shop in Les Halles, and joined friends at local bars to watch big soccer matches. I spent a lot of time at le Louvre. I witnessed more demonstrations and strikes than I thought was possible. I learned some very important lessons about what kinds of men you should talk to and which kinds you should actively avoid.

I hosted many dinner nights at my large-by-Paris-standards apartment in the 5th for all of my school friends where we made large pots of pasta, sautéed bags of frozen green beans, and guzzled cheap champagne from the bottle. I certainly didn’t make any friends of my neighbors with these late night gatherings, but I created so many memories and had so much fun.

This might sound kinda silly and not seem like a very “French” thing to experience but I bought a year-long unlimited student membership to the movies, which got me out of the house on the nights I was feeling anti-social and let me see a ton of French movies I never would have otherwise. In purchasing this all-you-can-eat package, it allowed me to experience cinema the way the Parisians do. I’d never been to an underground movie theatre with 50 seats before; I’d never been watching a movie only to feel the rumble of the subway every few minutes; and I’d never been asked if I wanted salted or sugared popcorn before and quickly learned that the trick was to order “les deux, s’il vous plaît” so you’d get a nice salty-sweet mix.

My commute to school varied by the day, depending on which class I had to attend, so sometimes I rode the RER to the south part of the city, other times I could just meander slowly down the cobblestone streets of my own neighborhood to get to class on time. Some days I walked through the park listening to my iPod, watching the kids run away from their scolding moms. I’d smirk at the tourists taking photos in the jardins de Luxembourg – they only got to see this beautiful place once, and I got to see it anytime I wanted.

I fell in love with a place in a way that I have only ever done once since. Paris became part of my story, a lover, a mentor, an antagonist all at the same time. Even at its most frustrating and baffling, the city’s beauty and historical charm outweigh its flaws. It is a place where I learned to handle shit on my own, where I started to come into my own, on my own, so it will always be special to me. It is a place that has forever earned my unconditional love, like a member of my family.

Showing off les jardins des Louxembourg, a 10 minute walk from my apartment

I want my son to have the chance to create these kinds of memories in a place that steals his heart. The selfish part of me hopes he falls in love with a place that I love too; I’m sure my dad didn’t mind my affinity for a city that he loves just as much and a language that he can also speak. I can’t predict or plan where Skyler will want to study and travel, but I’m working hard to make sure he’ll get to have the opportunity to go wherever his heart takes him. I just hope he lets me tag along. 🙂

Did you study abroad? Have you fallen in love with a far off wondrous place? What city will live in your heart forever? If you could travel abroad now, as an adult, where would you go? What other culture and lifestyle would you want the chance to experience?

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