First encounter with the city
- First Impression
Despite its fame as the number one tourist spot in the world, Paris has a much relaxed vibe than I expected. I was born and raised in one of the busiest cities in the world, in which everything has to be automatic, fast, and user-friendly. I had an expectation that most other big cities would be similar, which was broken by coming here.
On the first day of the orientation, Google map showed that going to the Middlebury center on the subway would take only a few minutes less than getting there on feet. Having experienced the stuffiness of Paris subway the day before, I decided to take a half hour walk. On my way to the center, I found that no street has more than four lanes even at the very central part of the city. It was also hard to find skyscrapers or huge malls, which for me was a symbol of metropolitan cities, and most parts of the city were occupied with old buildings without being reconstructed.
The first day’s schedule of the orientation ended at 6pm. I had an appointment with my high school friend who also came to Paris for an exchange program, but it was so hard to find a restaurant that are opened by then. Because most of the restaurants in Paris take a long break between lunch and dinner, we had to wait for an hour before having dinner. It was also hard to find a café that opened late at night, so we went to Starbuck after dinner, which was the only place around us that opened until 9pm. I later figured out that most cafés in Paris close before the nightfall. In the viewpoint of a college student who is used to cities that ‘operate’ for 24 hours, Paris seems to ask its people to take rest at the end of a day.
So far, my favorite part of being in Paris is that there are a number of bookstores, especially those selling old books, which are found at least once in every three blocks. I know that I will never be able to buy or read them all, but the old books have a power to make people feel better just by looking at them, and it is exciting to having an easy access to beautiful old books just like going shopping for clothes. I particularly love the book trucks that are lined up along the riverside. Crossing the river Seine everyday on my way to the Middlebury center, I could not resist the temptation and bought Notre dame de Paris and The Metamorphosis.
- Being me in Paris
“Comment est ce que je peux… ‘sign up’ pour la carte du magasin? (How can I sign up for the card for this store?)
“Je voudrais un petit chocolat chaud… ‘to go’ s’il vous plait?” (A small size hot chocolate to go please?)
On my first day in Paris, every single time I spoke to anyone, I was surprised at how unfluent my French was. It was so funny that I could not even buy a cup of hot chocolate in complete French despite my past two years of taking French classes. Combined with the thrill of starting a semester in a new city, even my messed up French excited me. It was even more interesting that even if I succeeded at making a complete sentence in French, a number of Parisian(ne)s I encountered on the street responded in English. Maybe it was not only because of a strong touch of foreign accents on my French, but also due to my awkward smile and nervous rolling of eyeballs which made me absolutely look like a stranger.
Two weeks have passed since I had arrived here, and I have never passed a single day without running into questions like “Where are you from? China?” “You came here to travel?” I do encounter where-are-you-from questions when I visit big cities in the United States as well, and this is not my first time being a foreigner, but being an exchange student of l’université Panthéon-Sorbonne in Paris feels different from being a full time student of Amherst College visiting New York or Boston. Maybe it is partially due to the racial demographics: I have never met a single Asian in my classes and usually I find myself the only Asian in public transportations. Maybe it is because of an expectation that the former will leave the country soon, an idea that the former came here to ‘experience’ a city rather than to ‘live’ the life. For whatever reason, my position in Paris feels completely different from my position in the United States, which might change after spending five months here.
One thing I know for sure is that now I feel less pressure to settle myself in France than my first semester in the United States. It seems that getting used to a city called Paris is a bit different from getting used to a community called Amherst. Even if I am a noticeable stranger here, the city guarantees an enjoyable anonymity, which frees me from the burden to make myself less conspicuous. Also, two years in Amherst taught me that I do not necessarily need to imitate the thoughts and behaviors of the natives to live the life in a new place. I learned that living in a new environment means to let the surroundings affect me as well as to understand the effects of my being there. I am more than excited to observe the interaction between Paris and me, how my being will serve as a small crack in this city, and the changes that this city will cause in my life.