In two months, I will be arriving in Paris for the semester. First time in France, first time in Europe. Although I am not there yet, I feel that my study abroad experience has already begun. Each day that goes by, I speak more French, learn more about Paris and France, spend more time with French people, and allow my imagination to transport me to my new life.
Why am I going to France? Well, why wouldn’t I? I love to travel and experience different cultures firsthand. Having lived in Brazil, and then moved from New York to Los Angeles, I’m itching to have a big move again. Surely it will be for a much shorter period of time, but it will still be exhilarating and refreshing.
But why France instead of another country? Two reasons. One, I am in love with the language. It is eargasmic. How I love hearing the French speak and wish to speak it fluently myself! And two, France has one of the richest cultures in the world, from the language to the literature, philosophy, gastronomy, natural beauty and the (hopefully nice) people. Apart from this, there is no grand reason why France is my choice.
Unsurprisingly, my two greatest connections with France so far have been through music and food.
Over the summer I made a French friend online who mentioned Stromae as one of his favorite singers. The name Stromae sounded so odd and foreign to me that I associated it with a genre I dislike and assumed he was a heavy metal singer who I’d never listen to. But time went by and I realized the genre didn’t quite match with my friend’s personality, so I asked for the singer’s name again and looked him up.
Stromae, I learned, is a French-speaking Belgian singer and songwriter whose electronic songs carry some pretty heavy, mind-blowing lyrics. For instance, while you dance to the addictive beat of Alors on danse, Stromae expresses his disillusion with life as a result of divorce, debt, unemployment, and the cyclical nature of our problems.
From that day on, I fell in love with Stromae and, fast forward to October, I went to his concert in Los Angeles with my friends and boyfriend. Having spent months listening to his songs and gradually falling in love with (almost) all of them, learning all the lyrics, I could barely believe that small piece of my new French-infused life was indeed coming to life. The French friend wasn’t there and, obviously, neither was I in Paris, but there was Stromae – as present and as real as anything could ever be.
Apart from witnessing Stromae’s brilliance and energy, it was the first time I was consciously surrounded by many French people and French aficionados (maybe even some Belgian lovers, I wouldn’t know). The guy behind me in line who, although American and rough with his French skills, insisted on speaking French to me; the two French girls complaining about having to tip to use the restroom; the guy leaving the theater saying le mec… le mec… (the guy) to his friend with an authentic French accent.
The other place where I interacted with French people was at USC’s La Table Française, a new weekly French meet-up. Study abroad students from Sciences Po came and we made friends. I soon had my first French-speaking dinner with Christophe, the Parisian, although not a French dinner since we went to Bacaro for tapas and lamented over not being able to order wine as we’re both under 21.
He told me that restaurants in Paris are much quieter because people prefer preserving their privacy by speaking in low voice. It is interesting that the converse reasoning also works – if everyone speaks loud enough, no particular conversation is distinguishable and people can feel protected. But I guess that’s not how Parisians think.
I expectedly made many French mistakes. When speaking of the clothing style in Los Angeles vs. Paris, for example, and how Parisians do tend to stick to darker tones, I showed him my orange sweater to prove I probably wouldn’t fit in, and he laughed at me saying ce n’est pas poule, c’est pull, and a series of repetitions ensued until I was finally able to say pull correctly. Because I pronounced pull like poule, I accidentally said that I wouldn’t fit in because I had an orange chicken, instead of an orange sweater.
Perhaps what has caught my attention the most since our first dinner is how Christophe reminds me a lot more of my Brazilian friends than my American ones. We tend to agree when complaining about the many cultural differences we find in the US, since Brazilian and French cultures share some similarities. We had fun complaining about the mandatory tipping in America, and the more superficial relationships Americans tend to form compared to the deeper relationships Brazilians and the French seem to prefer, even if it may be harder to form them (this is, of course, a sweeping stereotype).
About a week later, I went to a gathering at his place where we ate a more French dinner with cheese, savory and sweet crepes, and ended the meal by eating yogurt. There, I spoke to another Sciences Po student, Julie, with whom I learned so many random things, such as verlan, that is, the act of inverting syllables in order to pronounce the words backwards in such a way that fou (crazy) becomes ouf, for example. So, hey, I learned that Stromae comes from maestro – and suddenly his name doesn’t seem so odd! This led her to tell me about Le Gorafi (inverse of Figaro, except done wrong), which is the French version of The Onion.
Julie also told me the double meaning of Moules Frites by Stromae, as I couldn’t stop singing it. It kind of ruined the song for me, but not enough to make me stop singing it regularly. To reciprocate the exchange of surprising but useful information, I told her to beware that, no, the word preservative in English does not mean préservatif (condom).
At another dinner, Christophe decided to open one of the French wine bottles he brought from France, and so he took a Swiss army knife out of his pocket, twisted the corkscrew and – broke the cork in the middle. At least he learned how to say cork in English. We then watched Les Tutos, a channel by a French youtuber, and Christophe was surprised to find out I had already watched it before.
I recently resorted to watching Les tutos even if I couldn’t truly understand the youtuber’s humor all the time because, I admit, I have finished watching all of Cyprien’s and Norman’s videos, my two favorite French vloggers.
It is because of these and so many more experiences that I feel like my French journey has already begun. And I feel ever so grateful for everyone who’s already appeared in my life as I embark on this journey. But before I get there, there is French bureaucracy to deal with while I join the academic program and apply for a visa – wish me luck.