May 2, 2012

CULTURE SHOCK: Je Parle Pas Français

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I arrived in Paris on a Friday evening, February the tenth. As a disclaimer for the following saga, my knowledge of the French language is limited to the children’s lullaby “Frère Jacques” and the opening sequence of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. My roommate, who accompanied me on my Parisian adventure, so kindly described the two of us as “knowing even less French together than we do separately.”

For the previous month and a half I had been living in Dublin, a culture that is anything but blasé or standoffish. It only took one stop outside of my Parisian friends’ front door to realize that her French neighbors did not share my enthusiasm. Forgetting myself completely, I let out a typical American girl’s “Hiiiiii, good morning!” to a mother and her two children, and if you saw her expression you would have thought I offered her kids a free ride on my pet baby dinosaur. I quickly corrected myself with an “Oh…uh…bonjour?” But it was too late. The damage had been done, and she scuttled away.

Our first order of business, following failed attempts to blend in as Parisians (or at least Europeans), was a trip to Château de Versailles. Versailles is a palace whose purpose, other than looking beautiful and boasting hundreds of gilded cherubs, was once to house the French Royal family.  A more complex understanding of its history escapes me due to my incompetence in AP European History, but you get the idea.

My roommate now wants to replicate its Rococo and Baroque style interiors in our house next year on College Avenue—dream on, Alexandra Ruby. After arriving at the palace, I once again managed to blow our disguise of being two chic, traveling European students when I tripped up the stairs to the information building and let fly a slew of obscenities and laughter that were most definitely American. Walking up to the info desk, we were disappointed to hear an irritated “Hello, how are you?” as opposed to a hopeful “Bonjour.”

The two of us learned many things on our daylong excursion throughout Paris, but one we did not master was how to buy bread at a neighborhood bakery.  After waiting in line, we reached the counter, pointed to the baguettes, held up four fingers, and I said “quatre.” My roommate was astonished that I could count to four in French, but my pride was short-lived.

Apparently, the whole yelling “quatre,” over again and pointing to the baguettes did not get the point across well enough, and within five minutes, everyone working at this bakery (albeit, only four employees, but still) was struggling to understand what it was we so desperately wanted to buy, holding up various pastries and cakes and looking to us with puzzled expressions.

Paris is a beautiful city. While my inability to master the language prevented me from truly experiencing the culture, I was not deprived of some of the best things Paris has to offer American study-abroad students—gorgeous architecture, compelling fashion, and last but certainly not least, cheap and tasty wine and cheese. Although my love for fashion, wine and cheese may not be immediately reconcilable for obvious reasons, I will fondly look back on my first weekend in Paris with my roommate as one of true culture shock.

Devon Quinn is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at dquinn@cornellsun.com. Notes from Abroad: Culture Shock appears on Wednesdays.

Original Author: Devon Quinn

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