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.

Greetings from French Camp

Second day of French camp was good. And that’s absolutely what I’m going to call the orientation time where I’m at a hostel because it really is like summer camp, except my parents didn’t drop me off =/

For one thing, we have to wake up at a god-awful early time, which is especially sadistic because we all still have jet lag. We had to meet at 9 a.m. (aka 3 a.m. in EST) to take the Metro to our school, which meant I woke up at 7:30 a.m. and ate breakfast at 8. And when I have 8 a.m. classes, I usually say “eff this” and sleep until 7:50 and then run to class and my hunger keeps me awake until I can run back and have breakfast. So this morning was pretty rough.

I know I set out to write about French food mainly for this blog but I don’t think I will be able to do that for a while. We all received breakfast and dinner vouchers for the time we spend at the hostel, and what we get to eat is basically French cafeteria food. And I can’t bring myself to take pictures of cafeteria food.

Breakfast today was literally orange juice, a choice of Kellogs corn flakes or Chocolate pebbles, a roll or croissant, and for condiments there was butter, honey, and a knockoff version of Nutella. The milk was lukewarm whole milk and the coffee was very, very strong and I added so much lukewarm whole milk it looked like baby coffee.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine eating this food. It’s good and it’s filling, but I don’t want people to think that all French food is like this. And yeah, I’ll admit, I haven’t been as culinary adventurous as I would like because my stomach is still acting up and being queasy and I haven’t really been hungry when it is meal time here.

So far we’ve just had takeout pizza for lunch, which I thought was hilarious because the pizzas are like the size of a small pizza in the States so there were like 30 pizzas ordered for 40 people. The cheese pizza was literally a cheese pizza—in addition to mozzarella (and no tomato sauce) they threw a bunch of different cheeses on the pizza so there was a different cheese in every slice (pretty sure I just came up with a slogan there). I had a slice of mozzarella and blue cheese that I traded with someone (see! Summer camp all over again!) who had a slice of mozzarella and brie, and someone else had goat cheese on their pizza. The French meat lovers pizza had big, thick slices of Easter ham that fell off the slice as soon as I picked it out of the box, and there were little crumbles of sausage (however, I don’t think it wouldn’t have bummed out Liz Lemon). But the veggie pizza, man, it had olives, spinach, eggplant, a bunch of other chopped green veggies, and we all think maybe a white carrot or something. It was really veggie-y.

Dinner was at the hostel again, and we get two small sides, a big plate, and a drink. The small sides can be a variation of a small salad bar plate, cheese, yogurt, or an actual salad, or one of the different kinds of dessert. The wine dispenser (like a soda dispenser when you have a bunch of different sodas and drinks and you can press your cup on a lever and the drink comes out…no one I’ve asked knows the word for that) wasn’t available though, which was embarrassingly disappointing.

Basically, we have all of our meals taken care of even though technically we are free to eat anywhere we want. Because the Drexel study abroad office lied to me and I am actually at a summer camp in Paris.

The teachers are like our camp counselors, taking us on exciting excursions like buying phones or going to the pharmacy. It was the worst when we squished ourselves into a Metro car and one of them hollered “CIEE STUDENTS WE GET OFF AT THIS STOP!!!!” and even though I was standing in a throng of college-kids at the other end of the car I still felt like, Mommmmmmmmmm stop it, you’re embarrassing me!

Then we split into groups with a different leader that gave us little lectures on different topics. My group leader, the in-house guidance counselor/director of housing placement/French professor, talked about health and safety tips.  The two takeaways I got from that was a) apparently my international life insurance policy is worth 100,000 Euro and b) I have to stop smiling at French people (mostly men) on the street because they’re going to think that the blonde American girl with blue eyes is hitting on them. And yes, the guidance counselor used me as an example because she said I smiled too much during the talk—and not even at my friends or something, but I smiled too much at her. Um, sorry.

Mostly it was like the talks they give on the first day of camp and then we went on a field trip to the most ridiculous boat ride on the Seine. So I went by the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre and a bunch of other important French landmarks, but I didn’t take pictures because I have them from the other times I’ve been to France. Just Google them or whatever.

After we split up and my group went to Monoprix. Monoprix is basically a Tar-get but it is actually French. I bought my face wash there and was too vain to buy a French face wash, so I just bought the same Neutrogena pink grapefruit scrub I use at home. It’s still cuter than that American face wash, obviously.

But unlike the American Targets that I am freakishly in love with and spend exorbitant amounts of time and money at whenever I’m home, this Target let me down. I was like 99% sure you used le flip-flops for French class, and all of the girls I was with thought that was right. So when I went to buy my faux-French face wash I politely asked Avez-vous des flip flops, or ‘do you have flipflops?’ and the cashier just looked blankly at me. So no English skills, then. I had to be very poetic and ask if she had plastic sandals that you can wear to the beach, and she finally understood what I meant and said no, they didn’t have it and I could try this little boutique down the street. Which was really disappointing, especially because the store had literally twelve different pairs of slippers.

SO now that we have free time for the rest of the night, it was another night of standing on large hand towel in my crappy prison shower because I didn’t get a pair of stupid shower flip-flops. But hey, I still showered, which is better than some of the people at this camp and even some French people on the streets. It’s really disconcerting because the man or woman will look professional or normal and then you walk by and you have to turn around to make sure you didn’t just walk past three naked homeless dudes.

P.S. The French word for “hipster” is “le hipster” or “le bobo.” I have no clue why that isn’t printed on a crop top at Urban Outfitters but it needs to be.

P.P.S. photos take FOR-EV-ERRRRRR to load. And the Internet access keeps dropping. I haven’t tried the wifi on my laptop at school so maybe that will help. But I’ll upload most of my photos on Facebook, FYI.