I’m reading on a bench in the sun, as tourists around me wait in anticipation to enter a museum; a museum that was supposed to open at 2 p.m. It’s now 2:30 p.m.
Living in France has been filled with delays like this along with strikes, holidays and erratic business hours. Every task here seems to take five more steps than the equivalent back in the U.S. Even with the ostensibly simple task of doing laundry, I have to go to reception (which is only open six hours a day) hope that the one lady who controls 300 student rooms is actually there, buy my fake money laundry coins with real money coins, then wait for one of two washers to become empty (which they never are).
“Throughout this semester, problem solving nonstop has been a way of life.”
Want to go to the store on a Sunday? Think again, it’s most likely closed.
Bus not running? Probably a strike or a holiday, or some days it could be both.
Want to cancel a phone plan? First, go to the store to pick up a letter, next send said letter, finally wait 10 days after it is received for your phone to stop working.
In short: daily life in France is inconvenient coming from the world of always open McDonald’s and around-the-clock customer service hotlines.
Now this sounds like a scathing review of my host country, and yes at times I want to scream and pull my hair out over French bureaucracy, but this slower pace of life has led to me to discoveries on the type of lifestyle I want to lead.
Throughout this semester, problem solving nonstop has been a way of life. Like the time I arrived in the Paris metro, ticket in hand, ready to take the tram to the airport. Unfortunately, it was under construction that day. So, I found a different route, which was a bus that was double the time and 10 euros more, but I eventually arrived at the airport.
Before studying abroad, anxiety consumed me about even the little things going awry. I would get ill thinking about deviations from a plan or considering changes in my routine. The night before leaving for France, I stayed up, terrified, trying to convince myself to board the plane the next morning. Thankfully, I succeeded. If I had been in the tram situation whilst in the United States, I would not have made it to the airport.
But since coming here and being alone, having to speak another language, and not having the convenience of calling a friend or family member to tell me what to do, I have developed a sense of agency and become a less anxious person.
When finals rolled around last week, the realization hit me that I knew none of my grades in my classes. Since this semester is pass or fail, I was not too worried. Yet, going into an exam worth 60 percent of my final grade and having no clue of my standing would have been too much for me to handle four months ago. I was always grade calculating, down to the percent. But here, a controlling attitude is impossible. Most days I have to say c’est la vie, do my best, and not worry about what is outside of my control.
Additionally, in the United States, as a college student there is a pressure to always be doing something to further one’s marketability to future employers. Being a full-time student is not enough; one must have an internship, a part-time job, volunteer and join clubs as well.
Abroad, I don’t have access to any of those things. My free time is mine to spend however I please, which — yes — sometimes results in boredom and the feeling that my peers back in San Diego are getting further ahead than me. But then I realize that spending a semester abroad in itself will make for some interesting future interview answers. In addition, boredom has allowed me to paint, read, write, go to parks, meet new friends and spend days riding the city buses. Being in my second year, this break has been much needed to refocus my intentions for the next two years.
France’s lifestyle has most importantly changed the way I view time. I am now convinced that the best days are those that are kept (mostly) unplanned. Some “what ifs” in life are bound to happen, but the world keeps turning with a gentle indifference, as noted by the French author Albert Camus.
It’s 2:35 p.m. and the old doors finally open to reveal an ancient Roman crypt. I walk inside, feeling the cool musty air and descend the wooden staircase. It may have been more effort than originally intended to get here, but I’m sure glad I came.
Sarah Karver is a comparative international studies sophomore with a minor in French. She is studying spring semester in Reims, France.
This is sooo interesting, vein French myself I’ve never realized foreigners could feel like this about my country, but I also completely understand as I sometimes face the same frustrations studying abroad in Latin America! I’m guessing you’re doing an exchange with Science Po Reims? My older sister went there! Have a lovely time x