France is a country that most people associate with several distinct things: wine, baguettes, cheese, and Paris. Paris is an important French city, both for France (with it being the country’s capital) and for foreigners who dream about finding love at the top of the Eiffel Tower, strolling along the Champs Elysée in a beret, or having a beautiful picnic along the Seine. Paris is also a great example of a place that can cause serious culture shock if people do not manage their expectations for going abroad appropriately. Having expectations is always a good thing, but when studying abroad anywhere, it can be dangerous to believe that your life in another country will be like something out of a movie – this is an especially distinctive phenomenon in France, a country associated with ideas of love and philosophy.
Before I visited Paris a few weeks ago, I geared up by watching one of my favorite movies, Funny Face (1957, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire). And while I definitely listened to “Bonjour, Paris” a lot on the flight, I tried to remember that Paris would be nothing like what Hepburn’s character, Jo, experienced in the film. In fact, my brain went in the opposite direction as I recalled what others who had studied abroad in Paris had told me: it is dirty and full of crime. And yet neither sentiment really held up to what Paris was. Because, truly, Paris will always defy whatever expectation you have conjured up in your mind.
I will admit, it was a magical moment when, as the airplane descended into Paris, Louis Armstrong’s “La Vie en Rose” came on as I saw the Eiffel Tower in the distance. But, the sky was also full of dark, gray smog. After checking into the hotel, our study abroad group made its way to the Seine – a river that is truly not as beautiful and magical as all those old Hollywood films led us to believe. The water is brown and, during our boat ride on the river, a group of kids flipped us off from the shore. It was not an unpleasant experience, overall though (truly it was quite funny), because I reminded myself that Paris is only a city – just like Los Angeles, a city I had grown up next to. I had always laughed at people who moved to Los Angeles to chase some sort of whirlwind fantasy so why should I have those same expectations with Paris?
The next day, the sky was still gray with clouds and smog, as we visited the Notre Dame and toured the Latin Quarter. Yet nothing will compare to the experience of seeing that type of gorgeous architecture up close and in person. After our tour, a group of students went in search of a classic cheesy, French dish: fondue. As we walked through Paris, we were careful to hold onto our belongings as we were approached by the notorious pickpockets that our program director warned us about, and tried not to feel too uncomfortable or nervous by the soldiers with machine guns in the streets. Yet none of us felt cheated out of a dreamy Paris experience; we simply laughed off all of those little nuances. They would make for great anecdotes to tell our families back home.
There is one thing in Paris, though, that I found to be exactly how I fantasized it to be. After dinner that night, my friends and I set out for an adventure to find a good spot to see the Eiffel Tower at night. The journey started out a little nerve wracking as we were taunted and harassed in the metro by a few pickpockets – luckily, everyone was very vigilant and cautious and no one was robbed or hurt. By the time we reached our metro stop, everyone was jittery and anxious to see the infamous Tower. And the experience that followed was truly every bit as magical as those classic Hollywood films make Paris out to be.
We exited the metro station to find ourselves in a little courtyard on a hill, overlooking the Eiffel Tower which, like magic, lit up the moment we saw it. And the group of us stood there, for a moment, just watching it, gasping, tears pricking the corners of our eyes. After stopping a moment to take in the sight of the tower, and to take billions of pictures of course, everyone got crepes from the little crepe cart on the side of the courtyard. And then we sat down and watched the Eiffel Tower, eating our crepes, and enjoying each other’s company. Afterwards, we all found a calm little jazz bar where we sipped on some drinks and listened to live Jazz – like real Parisians. It was an incredible night.
The rest of my trip was also quite fun – Montmartre was a lovely little part of town full of amazing cafés and history and the Opèra Garnier had some of the most extravagant architecture and art I have ever seen. Paris was, by no means, anything like I had ever expected. The Seine was pretty dirty and it was always a chore having to shoo away pickpockets. It is important that people keep an open mind, and have a good sense of humor, when discovering the culture of a new city or country. If you go in with illusions of having a life like one out of a musical, you are going to be very disappointed; but you should not go in believing that life is going to suck in a new place either.
In the end, I did end up having a magical, old-classic-Hollywood type of experience at the Eiffel Tower even though my entire trip did not end with me sailing off with Fred Astaire in a white dress. But it was truly a s’wonderful, s’marvelous experience.