Best and Worst of Paris


It took two flights, twelve hours, and a lot of airport food to get me back to Boston, but I survived it as well as I survived my four months in Paris. I’m still pretty jet-lagged and trying to press the button on my childhood toilet, but I’m coherent enough to write down the five best and worst things about my Paris … aka the things I will miss and the things I most definitely will not.


Top Five Best Things About Paris:

1. It’s beautiful being lost

Even though my Paris Pratique pocket map has the cover torn off and the pages wrinkled and stuck together and circled streets and attractions on every page, I still would end up getting lost. The Paris streets are not organized in the clear, comprehensive grid pattern that Philadelphia is, so it was very easy to go the wrong way or walk past a certain street—and this is something I did up until my last week in Paris.

The best thing, though, is that I never felt very terrified getting lost. In fact, sometimes I would just wander around and wouldn’t look at a map until I found a Metro station. Let me tell you, you cannot just wander around in Philadelphia, so it was a treat to find the beauty in being in a new area and stumbling upon a pretty garden or a cute café or a little deli.

Maybe it’s because in Philadelphia, I always had real schoolwork and actual jobs, so I didn’t have time to get lost. Or maybe it’s because in Paris, I always felt guilty just being a schlub on my laptop at home, so I would force myself to get out of the house for a couple hours. But it’s something I made sure I did a couple times a week, and that’s really the best way to know all of the individual neighborhoods.

2. Everyone puts a lot of effort into the littlest things

This was something that took a while for me to notice, but in Paris, beauty is really paid attention to and people always try to be beautiful or make beautiful things.

There’s a patisserie by my house where the employees always wear crisp black blazers and white button-down shirts … even though it’s a pastry shop and you can buy a big macaron for a euro. And even then they will put it in a little shiny gold box and tie a ribbon around it.

When I bought my host family flowers as a goodbye/thank-you present, I went to the neighborhood Monceau Fleur and felt really incompetent when I looked at all of the different flower choices. I didn’t want to actually tell my host family I loved them romantically or something like that, you know? But the florist there was super friendly and helpful once I told her I wanted to buy flowers for a gift. She asked me my budget and regular stuff like that, but also who the flowers would be for, how old the recipients were, how long have I known them—very personal things that showed how seriously she was taking it. Turns out she thought 60-somethings would like red winter tulips, and since I had no idea there was even such a flower like the winter tulip, I just went with it. So she picked out the tulips, then these ferns, and then these little sprouty things (obviously this is why I had to ask for help), and then cut them, watered them, wrapped them in red tissue paper, then plastic wrap, then put a red ribbon around the stems, then curled silver ribbons to tie around the stems, and then put a sticker on it. And after all of that time, even though there was someone waiting in line behind me, she still took the time to ask me if I was a student, where I was from (and then where I was from in America), what I was studying, which country I liked better, what was the biggest difference between the two countries, and then told me she hoped to go to America one day. By the time the conversation was done, there was a line of three people behind me, but she didn’t care. It was a lovely experience—but I’m sure that if I had been one of the people behind me, I would have been a little cranky.

Appearance is everything and this applies to industries or professions that you wouldn’t necessarily think of.

3. It’s really easy to meet people

Your accent, or your English, will be the greatest conversation starter. Sure, sometimes you’ll be cornered by creeps and weirdos, but the amount of good people you’ll meet really outnumbers them. It doesn’t matter what kind of social situation or setting you’re in, because inevitably someone will want to talk to you about America or Paris and then you can move on from there.

I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t go to bars in Philly, since I’m not 21, or if it’s because I didn’t go out as much as I did in Paris. Maybe we’ll see once I come back and can legally drink in American bars. But then I won’t be able to play the “where is your accent from” game, really.

4. No one wears makeup!

When I told boys who were friends at Drexel that I was going to Philly, a lot of them were like “Awh, man, French girls are the hottest.” And you know what, once I came here, I found out that was totally true—but for different reasons than the guys. I’ve seen the most exquisite bone structures and haircuts and legs and clothing, but I think that the French girls were so absolutely gorgeous because they wore minimal, unnoticeable makeup. And that astounded me.

These girls clearly aren’t wearing eyeliner or mascara or blush or lip color … but they still looked so good.

I wouldn’t say I cake on my makeup, but I would say it usually takes me like fifteen or twenty minutes to “put on my face.” And I thought that my makeup routine wasn’t that noticeable or involved, until I came to Paris. And it suddenly became very obvious to pick out who was American, because those women wear eye makeup and foundation and bronzer and everything. I realized how very American it was to line the upper and lower lids of your eyes, at the same time.

And … in a combination of laziness/”who cares, I won’t run into anyone I know”/”when in Rome,” I stopped wearing so much makeup. I would only put concealer on, and once I got bangs I stopped doing that as well since the only acne I still get is on my forehead.

True, I would still put on makeup to go out to bars and stuff, but that was it. And it was actually kind of empowering (and, you know, let me sleep in for twenty minutes). It sounds dumb, but if someone complimented me on some part of my appearance when I wasn’t wearing makeup, it kind of meant more. It sounds completely dumb and superficial, but I stand by it because it’s true.

I hope I can continue this no-makeup makeup routine once I’m back in the States.

5. Being blasé

The French are very good at relaxing. It’s why they have so many vacation days and long lunches. I didn’t get those, since I was just studying here, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try to be as relaxed as the French.

It was nice to be able to spend two hours at a café after only ordering a four-euro cup of coffee that was finished in the first half-hour. Tip is already included in everything you buy at a restaurant, so the waiters don’t have to work for their tip and therefore, unlike American waiters, don’t pester you every ten minutes asking if you want more water or the dessert menu or anything else, anything else, anything else. Bartenders are more likely to just let you sit and talk too, even if it’s been kind of a while since you bought your last drink.


Top Five Worst Things about Paris: 

1. Public Urination

Look, I live in Philadelphia, but I was still shocked about the amount of public urination there was in Paris. Even if you didn’t see it happening or that it happened, you could still smell it—especially on the Metro.

I’ve been in the Metro and watched homeless guys sitting on plastic chairs, just peeing in public. I’ve seen guys who don’t look homeless pee on vending machines, which is why I will never, ever get anything from a vending machine, whether it’s the white chocolate Twix bars I can’t find anywhere else or if I am literally about to kneel over and die from starvation or thirst. I’ve just seen too many people pee on them.

And there’s public urination above ground too. There have been too many times where I would round the street corner and almost run into a guy peeing on the outside of a building. There are even public urination stands where a guy can just walk up to this plastic receptacle and just start doing his thing.

2. Paris PDA

I get it, I get it. Paris is the city of love. I believe you. You don’t have to shove it in my face or push it against my side or step on my feet while showing me. But I’ve seen people sucking face in the most unromantic of places—like down in the Metro where there’s a homeless guy peeing on the left of me and a couple making out, hands everywhere, to the right of me.

It’s like I’m third-wheeling even though I have no idea who the other two people are. Paris, je t’aime, but not that much.

3. No berets

There are the stripey shirts and scarves and leather and trench coats, BUT NO BERETS. The first person I saw wearing a beret in Paris was my grandfather when he bought one for eight euros at a cheapy tourist stand across the street from the Louvre, and that was at the end of September. I’ve seen a couple more berets outside now that it’s gotten colder, but even then it’s mostly on grannies with dyed red hair.

4.  No smiling allowed

I really had trouble with this. I’m smiley by nature, and this is a bad thing in a country where, as a French professor aptly put it, “smiles are rare and people have to earn their smiles.” Well, I did not make people work for their smiles, and that gave people certain assumptions that they should not be making. Mostly, guys.

I have a lot of smiles that I give out, and I have some smiles that I don’t really mean. It’s sad but it’s true. I guess the French don’t have those kind of smiles.

So when some guy asked me what time it was and I gave a close-lipped half-smile as I responded, all of a sudden he wanted to know my name and where I was from and what I was doing in Paris and everything that wasn’t what time it was. Or when I went for a Metro seat at the same time as a guy and he let me have it and I thank-you smiled at him. And I thought that was that and we’d each go off into our own little Metro world and just stare blankly at the floor. But then suddenly he unnecessarily was standing way too close for comfort while he not-so-subtly looked down my shirt as I sat awkwardly in my chair until I switched cars at the next stop.

Smiles are like come-ons here, I guess. So that made me an unintentional smile-slut in a weird sort of way.

5. Being blasé

This was both good and bad, as you can already tell. It was good outside of the house, but it was bad with my host family. And from other stories my friends would tell, it wasn’t just my French family in particular. Family members would leave and come back without letting me know, and they’d let people stay over the same way. I’d go upstairs in their upside-down house and see this random person sitting at the kitchen table or at the couch and be like “HI … who are you?” It was like they thought this was something I shouldn’t have to worry about … but I got really freaked out and annoyed every time it happened but of course never said anything.


Paris To-Do List: DONE!

I wish I had posted my list of things I wanted to accomplish in France in the beginning of my study abroad experience, but I didn’t. Rest assured, I didn’t just put up random things that I did so it could look like I am Super Woman.

There were things I didn’t do that I would have liked to have done. For example, I would have liked to go to an apple ciderie in Normandy, but I really didn’t put that much effort into going there. It wasn’t on the list, but it was worth mentioning. Next time, I guess!

And there were things that I wanted to do that I did, but they weren’t that big of a deal. I drank hot wine, I ate macarons, I bought baguettes and ate half of them on the walk home. They weren’t big deals or anything.

Anyways, here are the top five things I would have been pissed about if I didn’t do them while living in Paris:

1. Eat weird animal products.

This was the biggest, and also vaguest, thing I wanted to do. There were specific meats I wanted to try—horse, rabbit, duck, snails—and there were specific animal products I wanted to try—foie gras and boudin, mostly. Basically, I wanted to eat all of the crazy French foods I would never eat in America, which is pretty much what I did, minus frogs legs. I really had no desire to eat frog legs and, what’s more, I didn’t see them at all on any of the menus I looked at.

Robert et Louise -- (L to R) rillettes, boudin, foie gras.

Robert et Louise — (L to R) rillettes, boudin, foie gras.

But whenever I saw something on a French menu I wouldn’t necessarily see on an American menu, I ordered it. Granted, I was still eating on a college student’s budget while in France, so that would sometimes mean a week living off of a one-euro bag of pasta, but I did eat out sometimes and when I did I tried to make it count.

The hardest part, for me, was finding a restaurant that sold horse meat too—I would only find horse meat at open-air markets or at butcher shops, and goodness knows there was no way I would try and cook horse. It wasn’t until the last week when I finally asked my program director where was the best place to eat horse and he gave me a recommendation.

Except, they didn’t have proper horse on the menu, which was good because the cheapest plate was 24 euros and my friend Jenn and I started hyperventilating about how to leave this super expensive restaurant. I asked the overly attentive waiter if they had any horse, and he even went to the kitchen to ask. I said we came just because we heard this had the best horse in Paris, and he said we could have “charcuterie de chevaline,” or horse charcuterie  which is basically saucission or jerky of horse meat.


Jenn and I split it for 14 euros and even though the waiter asked if we wanted wine, coffee, or dessert after, he let us do it. So I did eat horse, but not the kind I was expecting.

And, I ate a lot of unpasteurized cheese. So much that something weird should have happened with my body but it didn’t. I just liked the idea of eating cheese that was illegal in the States, so sue me. I would literally ask the fromager at a fromagerie or a cheese stand what was illegal in the States, taste whatever they offered me, and then end up buying it.

 2. Get my French makeover

I already blogged about this, but I did get a French makeover even if it was one that wasn’t exactly like celluloid makeovers. Still, I got bangs and five inches of haircut off, so I consider it a success.

I also picked out a nice pair of frames for my dad to give me for my birthday, which is December 28. They’re men’s glasses, but they don’t look like them, I swear! (although I have a wide face so they kind of had to be a little bigger). So I really will come back a whole new person!

 3. Receive an invite to a French party

I wanted to do this just because it would mean that I would make French friends, and good enough French friends to get invited to their house. Being invited to a French person’s house or apartment is like a big deal, because they are oddly private.

I did get invited to French parties … that were taking place in my house. Haha. But still, I was really, actually invited to them. And what’s more, at the last house party, my host mom came home early and I helped make the introductions between her and most of my host daughter’s friends. So that made me feel really welcomed!

 4. Give directions in French

The first time someone asked me for directions, it was only the second week I was in Paris. But, it was a letdown because some American girls asked me, in English, where the McDonalds was. Talk about stereotyping! The worst part is that I actually knew where the McDonalds was … because it was literally down the street, within viewing distance, so the whole asking for directions thing was completely unnecessary on their parts. Hmmph.

This is what escargots look like BEFORE you throw them up.

This is what escargots look like BEFORE you throw them up.

But the other times I gave directions in French were much better, mostly because they were done in French to French people. I’ve given directions to the nearest Metro stations, the nearest biggest streets, and how to get to my apartment from a cab. One time someone asked me where the closest Metro station with Line One was and even though that question was crazy specific, I was still able to do it (only because there were two stations with that line within walking distance).

So not only did people think I was a local, but they thought I was a competent local who knew where shit was. Boo yah!

5. Become a regular somewhere

This was just me being superficial and wanting someone to recognize me. The first time I became a regular was at my local Franprix, but that’s easy to do so it doesn’t count. I wanted a kind of Cheers deal where everyone knows my name, or at least my face or my drink order. But have this happen in Paris.

I got that at The Green Linnet, this Irish bar by Châtelet. It’s a block away from the Metro, and originally we only stopped in because I couldn’t remember the bar we had set out to go to and it was cold and rainy and we wanted to go inside somewhere, anywhere. Blindly, we made a good choice. It’s small and cozy, with couches and wooden furnishings and live Irish music every Saturday night. It’s a chill bar where you can hear yourself think and most of the other patrons let you do just that.

La Fée Verte -- parmentier de canard

La Fée Verte — parmentier de canard

Plus, there was an American bartender from Green Bay, Wisconsin who studied abroad when he was in college and loved to give us tips and ideas and recommendations. He warned us no one would ever know what our study abroad experience would be like besides us, and he said this to me so long ago I had no idea how right he was until now. He was wise that way, and also because he gave me the name of the best authentic Mexican food place in Paris that helps during those times he described as “when you just really want some fucking sour cream, you know?”

But, best of all, he knew my drink—the fantastically cheap and wonderfully strong martini blanc—and he knew me enough to say “Hey! How you doin’?” instead of “Bonsoir” whenever I would first come in.

Getting a haircut in France

While some kids were opening up their French textbooks in the days before we left for Paris, I did some auto-didactic learning about Paris through American and French films. And maybe it’s because all of the actresses in American films about France—Kate Hudson in Le Divorce, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and Funny Face—all got these terrific, life-changing makeovers.

And I wanted that to happen to me, little ole Alissa, in real life, in real time, in real Paris, in a real salon.

When I had to fill out applications asking me what I hoped to accomplish in Paris, I would always right that I hoped to be fluent enough to get my haircut in a French salon and only speak French to give directions.

I waited until the last week to do it, but I finally got my French makeover experience.

I wish I had started earlier, though. The one makeover place—that actually gives hair and makeup makeovers, not just haircuts—didn’t have any openings until after Christmas, so my friend Lily will able to get her France’s Next Top Model experience then since she’s staying the whole term. After that, I found out that two other hair academies were on vacation, so there weren’t any students to give me free hair cuts, and three other academies or salons were booked until after Christmas. So I was all the way down on the bottom of the list when I called this one academy that only offered haircuts, no colors, and made you pay 10 euros.

Asking for the makeover was half of the problem. All of the places had advertisements for “models” so whenever I asked I would have to say, “Um, yes, hi, I would like to be a model?” and that’s an awkward sentence to say in English, let alone French! For the first two places I tried, I walked in there with the list of some random blog’s recommendations for cheap hair makeovers, so I would say “I would like to be a model” but also point to their spot on the list to have backup. But once I got tired of running around Paris, I ended up just calling these places and having to explain myself in French. And then listen to their rejection in French.

But finally, I found a place and got a time slot. I just said I wanted to be a model and the woman on the other end of the phone knew exactly what I meant—“Of course, come in at 11 on Monday” she said, “Au Revoir!”

Well, that was easy, I thought to myself as I listened to the dial tone. I hope that’s a good sign of what’s to come.

It kind of was.

For starters, I showed up at the place with Lily, and there really wasn’t a reception area or a front desk when we immediately walked in, so we were being awkward and they were being blasé French right from the get go. But once we were ushered it, it seemed like in the next minute I confirmed my arrival, paid 10 euros, gave them my coat, put on my cotton bathrobe (and it’s sash—can’t forget the sash), and was sitting in a chair.

The first thing I noticed was that there were all old ladies with grey hair getting their hair cut.

Not the most promising sight.

The "Before." DUH DUH DUH.

The “Before.” DUH DUH DUH.

And my student haircut guy (never got his name and he never asked for mine) was this tiny Asian guy with beautiful, delicate features and a tiny black soul patch. He was wearing black cargo pants that did the whole zip-off-shorts thing … which he paired with pointy black dress shoes.

Again, not the most promising sight. This was, after all, the guy who would ultimately be responsible for my style.

I’ve gotten my hair cut at beauty schools before, so I wasn’t surprised when an older guy wearing nicer black shirts and nicer black swishy pants (swishy pants! Really! With black dress shoes!) came over and started asking my little Asian haircut guy where my split ends were and where the dead, dry hair ended and where the highlights ended.

I was a human pop quiz, y’all.

The instructor had fantastically shiny Disney prince shoulder-length hair, which I got to admire while he got all up in my face and studied me for a couple seconds, looking at me from every angle and even picking out a strand of hair and twisting it between his fingers. I really wasn’t kidding about being a human pop quiz.

“This is your first time here, right?” he asked once he moved out of my personal bubble.

“Of course,” I answered.

“But you know what we do here, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I do.” Believe me, I do.

“Great. Ok, okay,” he said, and then looked over to little hair cut guy. “It will be the ends. But now, shampooing!”

The little hair cut guy, who literally has only said “come” to me by this point, said it again and gestured towards the sink area.

Shampooing? We’re not discussing my haircut? I wondered as I followed him.

Lily, who had been awkwardly waiting in the non-waiting area, hissed, “So what’s up? What are they doing?” when I shuffled by her.

“I have no idea. I think they’re only cutting a little,” I whispered, which was ridiculous because no one had given any indication that they spoke English.

“All right, I’m gonna go to Starbucks. Text me when you’re almost done,” she whispered back, and then she was gone and haircut guy was impatiently pointing at the chair in front of the sink.

I sat down in the shampoo chair and closed my eyes as he wordlessly rinsed my hair with warm water. That, I was used to. But the shampoo was freezing, the equivalent of being sprayed with freezing cold water—which I know because my hair was rinsed off with freezing cold water, which has never happened in a hair salon. And, even worse, I was done after the shampoo. No conditioner. And with my thick curly hair, let me tell ya, you need the conditioner. Especially if you’re going to be brushing it afterwards.

I did not make any friends.

I did not make any friends.

Aiiiiight, it’s your funeral, I thought as I followed him back to the chair.

When I was seated, he started combing—not brushing—my hair. Now, my hair was in its normal crazy curly state when I came in, so he should have known what he was working with. He didn’t even spray a detangling spray or anything!

It really was his funeral—and mine; his was going to be death by hand exhaustion and mine was going to be death my embarrassment.

But in reality, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. There were a couple tugs and a couple knots, but nothing I couldn’t handle (or hadn’t already handled in previous trips to the salon). Usually during the brushing part of the hair cut experience, the stylist always says something like “You have so much hair!” that is meant to be positive but really isn’t.

I didn’t hear it this time—but I’m not 100 percent sure that’s because of just the language barrier. My haircut guy wasn’t that social and didn’t ever interact with the other haircut girls; while I was waiting for my hair to dry, he just leaned against a table and flipped through a magazine.

So he brushed my hair and starts sectioning it off in clips and I started to get excited. I still wasn’t really sure I completely understood what the instructor said they were going to do to me, but I signed up to get a surprising makeover, didn’t I? So I watched the little haircut guy in the mirror as he … started cutting off maybe two inches of hair. And that was it. Every section he took down, he’d cut just my split ends off.

And when your hair is as long as mine was, it really isn’t that much—and definitely not enough to count as a real French makeover.

I was trying to quietly not freak out about how small my French makeover would be when the haircut guy called over the instructor. Shit, I thought, that means he’s done and wants to get approval.

Haircut guy says something to me, and I just have no idea what he’s asking. I was so surprised he said something other than “Come” or “Sit” that I forgot to pay attention and there weren’t any context clues words to help me figure out what he just said. I heard “right” and “left” but don’t know anything else.

“What?” I asked.

He kind of hits my knee—not hard, but in an oddly familiar kind of way. It’s the kind of smack you’d give to a friend if she was talking about someone and that person just walked in. A “hey, pay attention” smack, if you will.

And then it clicks. He wants me to uncross my legs for the instructor. Sheesh. But I do it.

Disney hair prince comes over. He snips some pieces, measures the bottoms of the front pieces, and walks around in a circle. “Nice work,” he finally says to haircut guy, and then looks down at me. “C’est tout,” he tells me—“That’s all.”

I looked at the mirror, at my reflection, at my barely noticeable haircut, and muster up all of the French haggling vocabulary and courage that I can muster.

Little haircut guy and Disney hair prince. And me, crossing my knees like an oaf.

Little haircut guy and Disney hair prince. And me, crossing my legs like an oaf.

Non, ce n’est pas tout,” I said—“No, that’s not all.”

Disney hair prince raised his eyebrows, or at least I think that’s what’s going on under the heavy bangs. “You don’t like it?’ he asked.

“No, I do,” I earnestly told him him, even turning and giving haircut guy a smile.

How do I say this? And not get like the salon equivalent of the restaurant spit trick? “But I signed up to be a model. I want … a new identity.”

Why the hell didn’t I look up the French word for “makeover” I yelled at myself. Or at least make sure there’s a ‘France’s Next Top Model’ with the drastic makeovers. 

They didn’t look that confused by my sudden spy lingo. “You have a new identity, and it is beautiful,” Disney hair prince tells me, gently brushing my hair as he points at my reflection in the mirror.

I’m almost tempted to pick up the scissors and hack off some hair just to get this moving. “Yes, it’s beautiful, but I wanted a good French haircut for when I leave to go to America next week,” I said.

This is diplomacy at its finest, kiddos.

Disney hair prince taps his lips. “Okay, then,” he says, and leans forward in front of me, his eyes meeting mine in the mirror. He takes out his comb and starts brushing my hair so it’s covering my face. And it isn’t until he’s reaching for the scissors and taking a clump of hair that I realize what he’s going to do. And by then it’s—

“Say goodbye to your forehead,” he says, and cuts through what used to be the sides of my hair like he’s cutting a paper snowflake.

What a lame reference to “Say hello to my little friend,” is my first thought.

And then I realized, Holy shit I have bangs now. 

New identity, indeed.

Beetlegeuse hairdryers!

Beetlegeuse hairdryers!

“Eh?” Disney hair prince says, smiling and holding the handful of hair that he just cut off.

“It’s perfect,” I say, grinning. Bangs. Bangs. Okay. I have bangs.

“Perfect,” he grins back, and then walks away, still holding the handful of my hair.

I tried not to think about why he would need that hair as haircut guy steps in to trim the bangs.

Haircut guy burns holes into my eyes as he snips snips snips and I’m not sure if it’s because of concentration or he’s pissed that he has to do more work. He cuts off another four inches of hair now, almost for the hell of it.

My hair is now shoulder-length and shorter than it’s been since … elementary school, when I cut my hair to make my growing-out-my-bangs stage complete. It’s kind of a Bettie Page kind of look … if Bettie Page had thick curly blonde hair that was brushed out Hermione Granger style

Now that I got the haircut out of the way, I’m looking forward to the finishing. I didn’t bring a hair dryer or straightener over with me, and I didn’t buy any either. It’s the first time in four months that I will have straight hair and I’m stupidly, superficially excited to remember what my hair looks like straight and compare it to what it will look like straight now. I’m already trying to guess if the blowdry process of the hair cut will be shorter than what it usually is, now that there’ll be less hair.

I don’t find out. Little haircut boy tells me “come” and “sit” at this Medusa lamp-looking chair. It’s like a chair from Beetlegeuse with big red light bulbs coming out of its arms. He turns on a button when I sit down and I immediately feel heat coming out. So it’s a dryer, I think—the kind of dryer you’re supposed to sit under if you got your hair colored.

And so I just sit there for the next twenty minutes or so. No magazines are even in sight, except for the one haircut boy is lazily reading. Lily left to go to a Starbucks and work on a paper, so I amuse myself by texting her I think I’m almost ready. I tell her I got bangs and shorter hair, but that’s it.

My hair is going to look horrible, I think. Like I said, I have thick curly hair, and whenever you brush curly hair you’re going to brush out the curls and be left with these kind of thick, frizzy strands. Pre-haircut, I would brush my hair maybe once a week, and even then it’s before I would take a shower. I get Hermione Granger hair if I brush my hair. And now, they brushed my hair and then threw me under a dryer, so I just know it’s not going to be a good hair day even though I went to a salon.

The "after" pic I took at home, not at the salon.

The “after” pic I took at home, not at the salon.

This kind of pisses me off, but not enough to speak up. I did pay for a haircut, so maybe a blowdry is extra? Or isn’t guaranteed? There’s a small part of me hoping that they did this just to get the hair dry before they style it, but that part withers and dies when haircut guy finally gets me—“Your hair’s dry, right?”—and shuffles me over to where Disney hair prince is combing the hair of a beautiful elderly French woman with a sleek, thick shoulder-length bob.

Lily’s arrived at this time, and she’s smiling at my hair and telling me I look good and taking pictures. And I feel good and confident about the haircut, just not about what they did with my hair after it was shorn. I kind of hope Disney hair prince will be my Prince Charming and say I’m fit for a blowdry now.

Disney hair prince gives me the once-over. He half-smiles and then turns to his client. “This is what I am going to do. Your hair is thick like hers, so it will puff out too”—or, at least I imagine that’s what he’s saying, because I understand up until the “thick like hers” and then he mimes having puffy hair and I try not to get insulted.

“Yes, I love it. It’s pretty,” she says, looking at haircut guy and not me, so I’m not exactly sure who she’s complimenting.

“Great. Thank you,” Disney hair prince says, dismissing me with a flick of his comb. I wonder if it’s the same comb he used on my hair as I follow haircut guy back to the chair.

“Thank you. Have a nice day,” he tells me, and then practically runs away from me down a random corridor.

“Thanks…?” I call out after him, watching him walk away.

I mean, I had watched the old ladies finish up, say thank you, get their coats, and then leave—so I knew there was no tipping here. But still. It was like he couldn’t wait to be done!

Lily patiently listens to me explain basically everything I’ve written about here, and by the time I’m done we’re back in the Metro station, ready to go over to Rue Mouffetard so I can give her the unofficial Hemingway tour as a thank-you for coming with me to get my haircut. I’m at the point where I’m complaining about how bushy my hair is now that they didn’t style it, and she just says, “Why don’t you put it up in like a little hipster bun at the top of your head?”

The Metro "After" pic. Thank goodness.

The Metro “After” pic. Thank goodness.

And I do, and she takes a picture of it and shows it to me, and just like that my crankiness has been cut off, like my hair just was. I really like how I look now that my hair isn’t triangular. I start imagining hairdos, wondering whether I’ll be able to French braid my hair now—turns out I still can, but a regular braid is pretty small—and I feel much better about my French makeover.

It may not have been exactly what I was expecting, but it was still a makeover and it was still a story.

I’m still trying to figure out my hair. The first shower I took, I had to unscrew the cap of my conditioner bottle and put back about half of the conditioner I had squeezed out—too used to having long hair, I guess. My hair only takes about an hour to dry, as opposed to three, but I’m still trying to figure out how to walk down a street and not have my bangs flying in every direction.

It’s also a little hard because, like I said, I don’t have a hairdryer or a straightener and I only have four days left in Paris so it’s not like I’m going to go out and buy one. That’s a good thing about waiting until the last minute to do this, I guess, because I definitely would have just sucked it up and bought a blowdryer if this happened in the beginning of the program.

But each day is a new hairdo and I love that I can think that now! I had to fight to get this haircut and you can bet your butt I’m going to make it work!

Awkward Abroad: David Bowie Killed the Radio Star

I could write a whole blog post about awkward pop-culture conversations I’ve had with my French family. Sad, but true. They said I had the best French out of all of the four girls they’ve hosted, but they’ll probably also say that I was the most awkward. Whatever. I totally earned that superlative.

This is the first awkward conversation that I had with my host family. And, I should add, the one that made me the most upset.

I need to preface this by saying that my French family LOVES the radio the way that Americans during FDR’s fireside chats probably loved the radio. Morning, noon, night: doesn’t matter when but it’s always on. ALWAYS.

And it’s not just the old folks. It’s the twenty-three-year-old daughter too. Which floors me the most, since she’s practically my age and I don’t ever listen to the radio when I’m home or even when I’m in the car.

Neither of my host parents work, so they’re always in the house and that means the radio is always on. So I could exaggerate and say that the radio plays 24/7 … but it’d actually be truthful if I said the radio plays 12/7. I’m not even kidding. There’s chat radio on when I eat breakfast at 9 a.m. and there’s the “100 percent Jazz” program playing up until dinner at 8 p.m. and then afterwards.

At first I thought it was because of me. Like, I was so awkward and conversationally-challenged they couldn’t stand the silence. But then once I started coming home and finding the radio already on, I started being less self-absorbed. Now, two months in, I cringe whenever I think about how self-absorbed I used to be.

So yeah, no radio silence ever. Mostly it’s talk show programs. But even when it’s music, it’s French or old American jazz and blues. Never stuff I know. Except for one glorious time that I wanted acknowledged and … it was not. Not at all.

I’ll cherish it forever. It was the first English-language song I heard on the radio in Paris. And, coincidentally, it was the first song I recognized, and … IT WAS DAVID BOWIE!

DAVID BOWIE!!!!!!!!!

I mean, I’ve written about my David Bowie obsession and how I always judge record stores by their David Bowie selections no matter what country I’m in.  He’s always on my “Top Five People You’d Want At Your Dinner Party” list, although the David Bowie that I want always varies (mostly on the other guests and who has a drug problem there that specific Bowie might have encouraged).

I thought it was a sign.

It was in my first week of living there, I think. I  was at the kitchen table, doing homework. My host dad was on his desktop computer, sitting behind me. My host mom was at her desktop computer on the other side of the room. We had all been sitting quietly, doing our own thing but listening to the radio together.

“Oh Mon Dieu! C’est David Bowie!” I announced (“OMG, it’s David Bowie!”) as soon as I recognized that first guitar chord of “Ziggy Stardust.”

The way I said it made it seem like I was walking down the street or something and saw David Bowie coming towards me. I was that excited.

However, my host parents’ reactions were not even close to being that excited. They weren’t even excited that I was excited. My host mom looked out past her computer and smiled encouragingly at me for a second before going back to work. My host dad didn’t even turn around.

So I sat there at the table mouthing the lyrics to myself and grinning down at my homework. For the rest of the song.

Just in case that description didn’t do a good job of capturing the moment, I’m going to write it out like it was taken from a scene of a play:

[“Ziggy Stardust” comes on]

Alissa: Oh Mon Dieu! C’est David Bowie!

Host mom: …

Host dad: …

Alissa: …

Election Night in Paris: American? You’re on the V.I.P list!

When I registered for my absentee ballot in the summer, I didn’t really think about what it would be like to vote outside of the United States or be outside of the country on Election Night.

I applied for it when I was in the middle of filling out a bunch of other paperwork for studying abroad and then scanning it and sending a copy to each parent. At that moment, and in that state of mind, it was just another piece of paper requiring my social security number—nothing more, nothing less.

This apathy righted itself as soon as I came over to Paris. But even then I didn’t become swept into the upcoming election by choice or desire; it was the French pushing me into caring about it, or at least carrying on a conversation about it.

One of the first things my host father asked me at our first dinner the day I moved in was whether I would be voting for “Rom-i-ney or O-bahm-a.” Later, my host mother would ask if I did everything I needed to in order to get my ballot. And when I did email in my ballot (thanks, always-forward-thinking Massachusetts), I knew I would have to tell her and I did—twice, since she wanted me to explain it to her husband at dinner that night after I had already described it to her when I came home from school.

My very liberal, very politically minded parents—my host mom went to a protest once, even though she’s in her ‘60s … and she judged me so hard when she asked me about Occupy Wall Street and I had to confess that I never actually participated it. So in the beginning, at least, I thought that maybe it was just them. At that time, it was only a couple weeks into the program and I hadn’t had any conversations with French people who weren’t required to talk to me because of their job (i.e. my professors and people behind the counter, whether the counter was in a restaurant or a clothing boutique).

But then I learned that I was being silly. French people liked talking to be about Obama and the election, and I’m assuming that it’s simply because I was American. Even if people didn’t know enough English to carry on a conversation with me, they knew enough to say “OBAMA!!!!!” and shake their fists in the air like they were Rocky in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  And the ones that did know English felt more than comfortable in their language skills to start a political conversation with me—and even the ones who didn’t speak English knew enough to try and start a political conversation in French with me, those poor, unsuspecting people.

No matter who I was talking to or where it was taking place, I always felt guilty, because I never felt as impassioned as my conversational partner did.

Most of the time, they would just talk about how great Obama is or how terrible Romney is. No one ever mentioned Dubya, for all of the stuff he did to make the French hate him. In these occasions, I would just shake my head and say “Oui, je suis d’accord avec toi”—which in my translation means “Yes, I agree with you, so there’s no need to keep talking about this!!”

But then there would be someone who knew facts and percentages and could quote from the debates and knew where the candidates were speaking that day. Those would be my oh shit moments. Oftentimes, they’d know more about the election or the candidates’ talking points before I did.

My host mom would stay up late to listen to coverage about the debate on the radio, and I would have nothing to contribute when she would ask me about it the next day. Sure, I’d watch the video the next day, but I wouldn’t stay up late to stream it live or wake up early the next day to watch it before school. And every time I had to explain this to her, I felt like she was disappointed in me.

I never encouraged these conversations. Even in America, I would never start a political debate or mention politics. I never liked debating in the political science class I took in high school that took place in Massachusetts after Ted Kennedy died and before Scott Brown was elected as senator.

But because I’m American, it’s not only assumed that I would want to talk about Obama, or that I would be capable of having something to say about Obama. I found this to be truer the closer it got to November 6, 2012.

And then once it did get to Election Day—or night, in my case—then I got the biggest idea of what is expected of me as an American abroad.

It was my Irish professor that first told me about Harry’s New York Bar, the American bar famous mostly for three things:

1.) It was one of the many hangout bars of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But a lot of bars can claim that in Paris. So …

2.) It is the birthplace of the bloody Mary and was the first place in Paris to sell hot dogs. But I don’t like tomato juice and I always publically say that I don’t like hot dogs. So that leaves us with …

3.) Since the Hemingway/Fitzgerald times, it has conducted these straw polls for presidential elections that only Americans could vote in. During the whole 80-something year history the results have only been wrong twice, in 1976 and 2004.

When I googled this point, I read on blogs that it’s usually pretty hard to get into Harry’s New York Bar on election night, since the actual bar itself is reserved for V.I.Ps and media types. But I also read that the whole street is closed off and there are giant screens that play CNN all night, so I thought it’d be fun to check it out with a couple of friends.

The outside of the bar. Note the bouncer/boxed-off section.

When we got there, we saw that the boxed-off smoking section outside the bar had a bouncer in front of it, and the makeshift entrance had two people with clipboards standing in front of it. I didn’t even now what to call a V.I.P in French to try and worm my way inside, and I didn’t have my “News Editor” press badge from The Triangle, not that I thought it would work. But it wasn’t too cold out and we were waiting for some friends to arrive, so we just stood outside the bar and talked about how we weren’t hearing any English from the people loitering in the streets.

We probably would have done that all night, except then this woman came up to us and said, in stilted French English, that she did PR for the bar and they needed to fill their American quota and we were American, right? Yes? Well, then, would we like to go inside and maybe talk to the media? There will be free champagne!

Obviously, we said “Oui.”

All in all, there were nine of us American girls, and when I brushed past the people waiting in line to get to the bar I reflected on the irony that we were being brought inside not because of our looks, but because we would be good interview subjects.

How many other girls can say that, am I right?????

He doesn’t look too happy about giving away all of that free champagne.

I’d say that media types cornered us as soon as we walked in the door … but for me, there was a guy with a camera tapping my shoulder as I waited in line to get through the door.

“American?” he asked.

I nodded. Le Duh.

And he continued to ask, all in French, if he could talk to me. Okay, I said. And then he started asking all of these questions.

Who did I vote for? Where was I from? Who did I think was going to win? Was I stressed about the election? What was I doing later that night (in terms of the election)? What was it like being abroad on Election Night? How long had I been in Paris? What was I doing over here?

“You speak very good French,” he told me after I stumbled through those answers, which would be hard for me to answer in my own language. “Can I record you now?”

“Um … I have friends inside. I’ll see if they want to talk too. You can ask all of us,” I said, hoping then the spotlight would be taken off me and some of my more politically-minded friends could take over for me.

He grinned. “Parfait!” he said, and followed me the two steps I could make into the door. And I did find two friends—two out of the nine who weren’t already talking to reporters—to cover for me. But after we all said our names (for me, this was the first time the guy even asked my name) and they realized this interview would be in French, they pretty much ran away, leaving me with this guy and the camera he was holding about six inches away from my face. Thanks, guys.

So he asked me the same questions he did outside and I gave my same answers.

The famous straw poll box.

I voted for Obama, and I thought he was going to win. I was from Massachusetts—the state where Boston is. I was nervous about the election, but not enough to stay up all night and watch the results because I had class the next day, because I am a student studying French in Paris. This was the first presidential election I ever voted in and it was a little sad that I wasn’t in my country the night of the election but I was glad to be in a country that cared about the election as much as France.

Then he said okay, and I asked what this was for. Le Parisien online, he said—aka, one of the major French newspapers. It should be up tomorrow, he said. And then he thanked me and ducked out of the bar.

When I met up with my friends, they were watching the bartender pour us free glasses of champagne. And as we sipped the drink, we talked about how weird it was that we all had to give interviews—and then, how unfair it was that most people’s interviews were in English! Some people spoke to Reuters, others spoke to a French radio channel. I was the only one with the newspaper.

I understand why we were singled out. A tour around the bar would reveal that it was still mostly French media types, and the little bit of English we heard were coming from old people. In this campaign, as young girls, we were the perfect people to give sound bites. But it felt really weird to be twenty years old and considered an expert on American politics, especially just because I am American!

I didn’t get to fill out the straw poll for the bar. And I didn’t want to, after I saw my friends and other American girls who came in later do it and get swarmed by French people, media or not, recording the moment with video cameras and regular cameras and even iPhones.

The bar was tiny and crowded and hot, and no one talked to us for the hour we spent there. Once we were recorded, we were no one. We sipped the last of our free champagne knowing that we wouldn’t be able to go to the bar and get a refill now that the PR lady was standing next to a new group of American girls. It was awkward, but I was glad because it meant I didn’t have to talk about Obama for a while.

They had all of the state flags in the bar. Including Massachusetts!

And since CNN wasn’t even talking about the election since there was still almost two hours until the first polling station closed, there really was no reason to be there anymore. When someone suggested we go, I went.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a good night. I got into a bar I didn’t think I would be able to get into. I got a free drink. And not only was I interviewed by a major newspaper, but the whole thing was conducted in French and I was able to keep up and sound reasonably competent. It was a personal success and I hoped the good luck would transfer over to Obama.

I woke up at 6 a.m. to check the results—Obama won!—and then went back to sleep at 6:03. I’m gonna need to know everything about the election for breakfast tomorrow, I thought to myself.

And it was “OBAMA!” as soon as I walked up the stairs. And I had to explain that I won because a Democratic state senator was elected in Massachusetts. And I had to try and explain what the electoral college system was like and how technically there are people who vote for us.

When I searched Le Parisien the next morning, I didn’t see a video of me—or anything from Harry’s New York Bar—on the homepage, or in the search results.

Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

P.S. One of the girls in my program got interviewed and literally this is all the article says:

Champagne toasts accompanied by cheers of “Four more years!” broke out in Paris at 5:20 a.m. local time, when President Barack Obama’s re-election was announced at a results-watching party in a chic nightclub just off the Champs Elysees.

Gabriela Reno, 20, applauded with a group of other American exchange students who’d spent the entire night watching returns come in at an event sponsored by the Democrats and Republicans Abroad.

Reno and her friends didn’t spend a lot of time celebrating, though.

“We’ve got class at 11 a.m.,” Reno said, as the partygoers filed out into the dark pre-dawn Paris streets.

See? All you need to do is find an American girl, and baby, you’ve got an election-night article going.

How to Live in Paris and Not be Awkward

I am now seven weeks into living in France. SEVEN WEEKS! It’s astounding to think how long I’ve been here.

Yestrday was the first time I went on the Metro and didn’t wonder if people thought I was French. I don’t feel like a secret agent anymore when I wander around Paris and blend in with the Parisians. So that’s nice.

Basically, I feel like I’ve finally earned all of the moments where French people or American tourists ask me for directions in French. Although, I could have done without the two French girls asking me where the McDonalds is…

What I’m trying to say is that I feel like a true Parisian and have learned the tricks of how to survive in France. And now I will share with you the Dos and Don’ts that I have learned along the way, so you don’t have to have all of the awkward or newbie experiences that I have had. And lemme tell ya: I have had A LOT of those awkward experiences.

And to make matters worse, there literally isn’t a French word for “awkward,” because French people are way too cool like that. Like, you know in the States if something awkward happens, someone (usually me) always says “awkward….” to comment on it? Yeah, can’t do that here.  So that makes this even more awkward….

Although I am embarrassingly awkward in English without any cultural or linguistic excuses to fall back on. So I guess I’m kind of a pro on being awkward. No biggie.

For example…..

DO: Mentally prepare yourself to have French people ask if you are British or Australian or Irish. It doesn’t matter where: the Metro, the bar, the café, the street, the museum, the shops. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting with my friends or on the phone with a friend or, in one case, when I dropped my bag and swore in English. And it doesn’t matter the age or gender of the curious French person. I get mistaken for a non-American every couple of days.

It’s not annoying to have people eavesdrop or interrupt your conversation. Having someone think I am Australian (the most common, actually) is the opposite of that. It is literally the best feeling in the world, especially if you’re a young girl like me who swoons whenever she hears a British or Irish or Australian accent. And to think that someone might feel that way about my (faux British or Irish or Australian) accent? It’s powerful stuff, man. It’s the nicest compliment especially when it’s for something I don’t have to try to be good at. People just automatically think I’m British and that makes me very, very happy.

The French are usually decent at speaking English, but they’re not so good at figuring out what type of English they’re hearing. I’ve tried to talk in a Southern accent, then a Boston accent, and then my regular accent to French people and they’ve all honestly said that they couldn’t tell the difference. Crazy, right?

DON’T: Say you are from China if someone asks you where you’re from, especially when you are a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl like me. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate. I’ve received a couple of blank stares from people after that joke fell flat.

D0: Expect to have random strangers come up to you and strike up a conversation based on your accent. If you’re with a group of American girls in a bar, chances are you’ll end up talking louder than most French people, and since you’ll be talking in a foreign language, you’re going to attract attention. It’s an instant conversation starter that can last all night and it can be very informative and funny to compare customs or phrases or movies or shows.

And it is very, very odd to realize that just because you are American you are instantly cooler and more interesting.

I’ve literally had a group of Texan boys walk by me and my friends in a bar, then turn around and point to us and say “Americans.” And, this is true, I only knew that they were Americans from that first introduction because Europeans would never have been that rude.

DON’T: Shy away from the conversation. It sounds sketchy, and if someone back home tried to pull the “Where are you from?” I’d be a little annoyed and like “Really?” But here, I’ve met really great people from all over—Norway, Germany, Ireland, and mostly France—just because they heard me talking. I’ve had Americans come up and try to talk to me too, just to talk to another American. The conversation can be awkward and stilted sometimes, but usually it will turn out to be pretty funny.

DO: wear deodorant. Dear God, please wear deodorant or antiperspirant or even slather on some hand cream under your armpits, just so you don’t smell like B.O. It is so, so obvious when someone isn’t wearing deodorant. Not in a HA I’M SO CLEVER, I FIGURED IT OUT kind of obvious, but more in an obvious way like you pooped your pants and you smell and your butt is brown and yeah it’s obvious.


DON’T (bother) wearing perfume if you go out: you will inevitably end up smelling like cigarette smoke because everyone and their mother (literally) smokes here. Why put on purchased perfume when you’re going to wear free eau du cigarette anyway?

DO: count on seeing blazers, leather jackets, nautical striped shirts, endless colors and types of scarves, skinny jeans and pointy shoes (for men and women). Every other stereotype about French fashion is true. BUT…

DON’T: count on seeing a beret. Seriously. Start prepping yourself for endless disappointment and no beret-sightings as soon as you make up your mind to go to France. No berets ever.

No. Berets. Ever.



(Imagine the last line said in the high-pitched Gretchen Weiner “YOU CAN’T SIT WITH US!” voice)

DO: Get ready to kiss cheeks. A lot. All day, every day. I feel like I’ve gotten, if not better, than at least less awkward about my bises. You just have to get used to it, I guess. Practice makes perfect. And it’s not worth complaining about the bises to French people, because then they don’t know what to do when you go to say goodbye or hello to them and they awkwardly stick out their hands. It’s so awkward that kissing them is just the better alternative (never thought I’d have to ever write out that sentence, am I right?)

DON’T: Hug. No hugging, ever. You know how in Arrested Development  there’s the running joke with George Bluth Sr. in prison where he touches one of his family members visiting him and that prompts the guards into yelling “NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!” and he immediately puts his hands up and repeats “NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!” That’s what I’m like in France. NO TOUCHING! NO TOUCHING!

I’m such a huggy person, it’s embarrassing. I hug for the dumbest reasons. You got an A on your exam? HUG! You failed your exam? HUG! You went to your exam today? HUG! I am the opposite of the hug Nazi—HUGS FOR EVERYONE! And I have to remind myself not to hug people. It’s hard for me, all right?

DON’T: order shots at a bar. They will be ridiculously expensive. Like, 5 euro expensive when a beer is 5 euro and a mixed drink is 8 euro. And they won’t even be good shots. It’s tequila, rum, or vodka here; and none of that flavored stuff either. If you ask for a shot of vodka you’re going to get a shot of Absolut and no chaser. It is not worth it. And the cutsey, fruity, sugary shots are usually more expensive when they’re available. The French don’t binge drink, ergo they don’t need shots.

D0: Buy wine. A bottle of wine at a grocery store costs as much (more or less) as a shot at the bar. Sometimes it cost less than soda or juice. Good wine too, not just shitty wine.

[sub-don’t]: Buy the disgusting rosé for two euro that came in a plastic bottle, like a soda bottle. It came with a plastic cap and everything. Wasn’t even worth a cork. with a cap and everything. Good story, bad wine.

DO: Eat bread. Eat all of the bread you are offered and don’t feel bad. Bread and carbs are your friends here. No, scratch that, they’re more than your friends—THEY ARE YOUR AMIS! Trust me, that low carb/no carb crap? It’s a mean American invention that just magically doesn’t exist in France so you should definitely take advantage of it while you can.

Pro tip: Keep your bread on the table, not on your plate or your napkin. Don’t worry about the crumbs, because the French don’t. Just trust me. I’ve eaten a lot of French bread in a lot of French places.

DON’T: Look to salad to being your healthy meal. Salads in France are loaded with weird, random, not-salad ingredients, like ham and deviled eggs and lots of other lunchmeat. If you go to a café, or even a take-away café, the salads are usually at least 3 euro more expensive than a baguette, and it will be salad with lunchmeat or eggs on it and maybe tomatoes.

And if you buy a prepared salad at a grocery store, it will usually have cold cooked pasta on top of lettuce. SO WEIRD. It is completely acceptable, therefore, to take pictures in the Franprix of “Penne salad” that is, as the simple title states, penne in an Alfredo or olive oil-based sauce on top of a bed of lettuce. Even if there’s more on the salad, like chicken or carrots, you’ll still get the pasta with it too. So they’re not always as super healthy.

I’ve even ordered a salad in a restaurant with mayonnaise as a dressing (with the other toppings being shrimp, grapefruit, apples, and tomatoes). And it was called La Salade Louisiane, or the Louisiana Salad. Although I’m pretty sure that salad doesn’t exist in Louisiana or in all of the United States. Because mayonnaise on salad doesn’t exist.

Basically, the French aren’t AMIS with the salad. Therefore, Alissa isn’t an AMI of the French salad.

Pro tip: Best bet for an American salad is to buy your own ingredients and just make your own. Just don’t expect to find any salad dressing either.

DO: eat Nutella on everything. Your takeaway from this is that you should eat Nutella always. It’s a free pass! Nutella for breakfast? Okay, sure! Nutella crepe for lunch? Why not? A knife’s-worth of Nutella for a snack? Sounds good!

DON’T: NOT eat Nutella on everything. Your host family will think it’s weird you don’t put it on chocolate chip bread, American bread, or a baguette for breakfast. And they will laugh when you say it is too early to eat something so sweet.

DO: speak French as much as you can. Even if you know a little French, like “Bonjour” or “Merci!” it will go a long way. And if you know more than that, like how to order food at a restaurant, then you should totally use it.  The waiter or the French speaker might switch to English, but stick to your French guns if you know enough vocabulary.

I’ve also done this with French people at bars, where we agree to talk in our other language until we get to a word or a phrase we don’t know and then we switch back to our native tongue. For whatever reason, that makes the idea of conversing in French less daunting for me, and I think it really helps everyone out in the end. Usually I’ll try and describe a thing in French and ask what that word is in French before I’ll just say the English word. It really has been helping!

DON’T: be afraid to ask someone to speak slower or repeat or explain. Maybe it’s because I do this with my host family more than with random people, but I’ve gotten rid of my fear and embarrassment about this.

DO: Study and practice using the different colors and sizes of Euro bills and coins so you won’t fumble with them when you buy something. You will be tested on this and just like regular tests, it is not a good feeling when you fail or do poorly on them. Your tests are when you try and buy something and you have exactly 0.5 seconds to get the right change out before the shopkeeper starts judging you. Not the best feeling in the world. So it’s worth dumping out your change and wallet on the bedspread and pretending to play “shopkeeper” with yourself so you know how to do it in the real world. No shame.

And, you know, if you can get a friend to play with you, you’ll probably feel like less of a loser…

DON’T: Call the different colored Euro bills cute. The French do not think they are cute. And they will not think you are cute for calling their money cute. Just trust me on this.


DON’T: worry about making a fool of yourself. Just accept it. It’s gonna happen so you might as well have fun and get a laugh and a story (or a blog post) out of it. It doesn’t matter anyway because you are in France and that means everything will automatically be better, even the bad parts.

What Came First: the Chicken or the Whore?

Today I couldn’t tell if the man on the Metro was calling me a “chicken” or a “whore,” so either I need to get better at French or stop dressing like a slut.

But don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a blog post about street harassment. If you want those, just google street harassment and be horrified at what comes up. I’ve definitely encountered that in Philadelphia and now in Paris, but I don’t think I am qualified enough to write that kind of post.

Instead, this post is going to be about my slowly-building self-discovery that being able to read a short story in French or correctly conjugate all tenses of French irregular verbs means shit when there’s a homeless-looking man hurling insults at your back as you run up the stairs praying he’s not going to follow you.

I’m a good French student. I’ve been taking French since my dad moved to the country when I was in the seventh grade. I got straight As all through high school and that streak more or less continued once I picked up French classes at the end of my freshman year of college and declared my French minor. All in all, I’ve never had to worry about passing a French class, because I’ve never had to worry about my grades in French classes in general.

I’m not telling you this to brag. I’m telling you this to say that I am a good French student in an American (or French, now) classroom with a French teacher (or a qualified American teacher) and other American students who are at the same skill level as me.

And I’m also telling you this because that all means nothing in the real world, in the real Paris. And let me tell you, it is an unfortunate realization to have while studying abroad.

I just wish that somewhere along the line I had learned the right French words to understand when someone is harassing me. I’m not good at spur-of-the-moment comebacks in my native language, and I feel like that would be reaching for les etoiles if I wanted to have comebacks in French. But how sad is it that I don’t even know how to identify what derogatory term someone is calling me?

This is not the first time I’ve felt incredibly incompetent with my understanding of French. I like to think that this is making up for all of the times in French classes where I didn’t completely misunderstand the French professor or I didn’t completely bomb that test. Because boy oh boy, I am failing at daily French.

Take, for example, the sheer terror I experienced in the middle of a grocery store aisle two days ago while trying to buy tampons.

[TIME OUT: please do not think that I camp out in the grocery store aisles looking for awkward experiences that I can blog about. This actually happened the same day as the events in my previous post. Talk about picking up extra items that weren’t on your grocery list!]

Obviously, I wasn’t going to write about this because who the hell wants to read a blog post about buying tampons in general? No one. Guess I found another thing that isn’t automatically cuter because it’s happening in France.

Buying tampons is like publicly declaring that you are not pregnant and that in itself is, for a college student like me, a Very Good Thing. But there is a certain stigma attached to the act of buying feminine hygiene products (for both men and women) and come on, no one really wants to be seen in that section of the grocery store.

Of course, I was there for longer than the two-second grab-and-go move that I’ve perfected in the CVS aisles in the United States because the game had completely changed in France. I was only in the aisle for about a minute or so, just staring at everything and desperately wishing I knew what was being advertised (even though if I had been carrying my French-English dictionary I totally would NOT have pulled it out of my bag because with God as my witness, I am not going to be that person). Luckily I was able to finally find what I wanted and got outta there PRONTO but I did end up using the pictures more than the words on the front of the package to make my final decision.

I had a grumpy walk home after that. I was angry at myself. I was angry that I hadn’t thought to look up certain words that would have been useful for selecting tampons, and I was angry that I would have needed to do that. I was angry that I have been taking French for so long and I didn’t even know how to make a simple purchase like this.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if I had taken a crash course in “How to Live as a Single American Girl in Paris?” Or if I had found a book with the vocabulary needed to buy tampons or understand if someone is calling you a whore? Or, at the very least, if I had known I actually sucked at the French language when I can’t study for it?

I feel like I failed as a French minor, unable to adjust or interact with others in French daily life, and I failed as a woman, unable to understand when I am being sexually harassed or how to buy feminine hygiene products.

Why the hell have I spent so much time memorizing verb tenses when I don’t know how to identify, let alone respond to, when a man is calling me a whore? What’s the point of learning vocabulary related to a certain movie or story I studied in French class when I don’t know the words needed to buy household items? How can I call myself a French minor when I don’t know how to do things that a French preteen or teenage girl can do?

Once I realized I didn’t hear footsteps behind me in the grungy Metro hallway and turned around to double-check that I wasn’t being followed by that guy, I turned up my walking speed even harder and made it to my final destination—school—in record time. And during that time, I kept repeating that man’s shout over and over again—so I would know what to Google when I got to school. I must have looked up seven different phonetic spellings of “poule” trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to me.

I even looked up if “poule” as “chicken” meant some kind of French insult. It doesn’t, and I’m not entirely sure that the French use “chicken” like in a “wuss” or “scaredy-cat” way like Americans use it. I am, however, pretty sure that it is used to mean “whore.”

I wasn’t dressed provocatively. I was wearing clothes I’ve worn to class, to work, and to dinner with both of my parents. Black cardigan, white shirt, olive green skirt. Maybe the black patterned tights (that are thicker than fishnets but still show some flesh) were what did it, but they so aren’t worthy of being used to call my sexual promiscuity into question. So there goes the whore theory.

And I don’t know why he would call me a “chicken” when all I did was walk down the hall with my eyes trained on the space right in front of me once he said “Hi,” then asked how I was, said some other really fast stuff in French that I think meant he was asking why I wasn’t smiling, and then called me the P-word once I didn’t respond to any of his initial attempts at getting my attention.

Britney Spears once said she was not a girl, not yet a woman. I say that I am not a girl, not yet a woman, and definitely not yet worthy of being a French minor.