Feeling out France

I would begin this column with a broad generalization about humankind, and in some circles, with my authoritative tone and privileged position as the author of this column, people would buy it.

You, however, are Knoxians: trained from your first day of FP to challenge everything laid before you. Therefore, I will rephrase my statement into a hypothesis.

After my first two weeks in France, I posit that there is an inherent drive in all humans to establish themselves and feel settled. We’re adaptive creatures, and to what end? To re-establish a state of “normal” as quickly as possible. A homeostasis. The way the pupil of the human eye expands to take in more light when you walk from a bright space into the dark, the person (in a less scientific sense of the word) adjusts to new environments with an almost instinctive force.

The study abroad student has one question behind all the smaller inquiries about table manners, ATMs, and public transportation: how long until this feels like home?

During my first week in France, I found it incredibly difficult to plan for anything much beyond how to get from my house to the center of town (Tramway Line 1, stop Mediathèque) and what I was going to do for lunch (continue, for the third day in a row, plugging away at my sole jar of Nutella.)

“Are you going to travel during break?” my fellow students asked me after detailing their own plans. Travel? You mean pick up and go somewhere new and different and challenging? I haven’t even transitioned to Nantes yet! How can I make plans to go to Paris or London or Rome?

I remember feeling similarly my first year in college when, a newcomer to dorm life and the general Knox spirit, I reconsidered my plan to study abroad. I’d barely adjusted to life on campus! How could I consider uprooting myself again and transplanting to a completely different country?

In time, of course, I established myself in college well enough to make studying abroad conceivable again, and thankfully, the same phenomenon is taking place here in France. I now know, for example, that most passengers get off at the Tramway stop just before mine, so even if it looks like I’ll be stuck on the far side of the car and unable to disembark at the appropriate moment, the crowd will clear out just before Mediathèque and I can reposition myself strategically beside the door.

I also know what to expect from meals with my host family. It can be difficult with a meal served in courses to gauge just how many courses there will be and how much you need to eat of each one to be sure you’ve had enough without being obliged (by politeness) to overeat.
The parts of the meal, though, are often established by the utensils at your place setting: a salad fork, a dinner fork, a big spoon if there’s soup and — harbinger of happiness! — always the adorable little spoon at the top of the plate that announces there will be dessert.

Now that I have such basics figured out, I can look out the window during my commute and attend to the conversation at dinner. I know when to go to bed and wake up, how to greet my host parents in the morning and where to find a little grocery store for purchasing lunch supplies (something to supplement my jar of Nutella).

Classes just started, which will take some adjusting to, but I’m comfortable enough with the basics of life to be prepared to add new things to the mix. It seems I am “enracinée” — rooted — and now that I have a firm base established, I can confidently begin expanding my reach. New classes. New lunch foods. New friends. Who knows? Maybe by my vacation in March, I’ll be at home enough here to contemplate going elsewhere. Hmmm, London, anyone?

Lauren Styczynski

Tags:  France London nutella Paris Rome study abroad

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