Social butterflies in Paris

I know my friends were concerned about the tweet I left last night about wanting to come home, and I realized this morning there was no way I could explain what was going on in my head in under 140 characters.  I could say "I'm homesick," but that puts a cheap and easy spin on something I recognize is not either cheap nor easy.

The real issue going on here is that I'm a social creature in isolation. I have a couple of friends here in Paris, and I am incredibly grateful to them because they have helped me keep my sanity, but past them, the trouble begins. While I'm decent at puzzling out word roots, thanks to all those years of spelling bees, I can't say that I speak, read, or understand French, and I have no fallback here.  At the end of the day I go back to a Francophone hotel in a residential (read: non-tourist) area of town.  There's no one to just talk to at the beginning or end of the day, since I'm traveling alone, and that isn't working well for me.

I've tried to avoid being The Ugly Tourist. Every conversation begins with an apology for not speaking French, followed by my best halting attempt to ask my question or state my need.  I've approached every situation with the expectation that the language barrier would make things more difficult and make them take longer. I will also say that this appears to be the right approach.  Parisians, every single one of them, have been kind and helpful and understanding and switched over to English immediately. Read that again and understand that I have had zero angry or negative experiences.  Zero.

I knew something was going on yesterday when I was shocked to realize I understood someone in the post office -- a British tourist trying to figure out how to post a letter home. My expectation now is that I cannot communicate in any meaningful way with anyone I encounter.

Make no mistake.  Paris is beautiful, and old, and unlike any place I have ever been. I think eventually I will be glad I came, but I think it will be more in terms of the learning experience had than any actual experiences I've had here.  I shouldn't have come alone; I had serious concerns about what being socially and linguistically isolated in Paris would do to me, and I should have trusted those concerns. They were valid.

So I'll put my shoes on, make my first apology of the day, and hopefully get a croissant for it.  I'll do my best to get the most out of my time in the city, but I'm ready for drupalcon to start.


*nods* I recognize a lot of myself in your words. I can remember traveling out-of-country the first time, in my case also to Paris, and having the exact same feelings, and in my case I actually spoke French passably. It's a bizarre experience to realize you *can* understand the conversations around you when you get back: I have the same experiences every time I hare off somewhere with the touring gig, only I have 39 people to fall back on for comfort if I so choose, and it always unnerves me to come home after a month to English in the background after so long hearing nothing I can comprehend. Hang in there-- your photos are *beautiful* and I can't wait to hear more about your travels and experiences. And culinary adventures... OMG 'scuse me I have a totally indecent craving for cupcakes and Nutella. ;)

 *hugs* I imagine that when I travel (I intend Japan in my future plans) that I will feel much the same way. I hope the con goes well for you, and that you are getting something out of Paris :)

I don't want to say "you'll get over it" because that's not the kind of phrase I'm trying to say.  I know exactly what you mean, although for me the details were slightly different.  When I was in Africa for 6 weeks, I ran into the same language barriers.  It was very frustrating and I didn't expect it or even have a clue that it would be an issue.  It took me a long time (couple weeks) to figure out why I was so depressed while I was there, and it was because I couldn't communicate.


"Get over it" seems to imply that what you're feeling isn't valid and that's bullshit.  It's better to say you'll get through it.  There's nothing wrong with you.  You don't have some form of aphasia and you didn't lose your voice.  It's hard but you can do it.  Take pictures.  Take more pictures.  Tweet.  Try talking to the friends in your head, that is, pretend you are talking to your friends while you are walking around.  That's one of the things that helped me.

I remember that feeling very well.  In my case, I was staying with a somewhat-English-speaking family, with a very outgoing student my own age who spoke moderate English - but the constant stream of French around me was absolutely exhausting.  Even though I had had a few years of high school french at that point, the extra work needed to communicate about simple, daily things was offputting.  I ended up spending only six or seven hours of the day out and about with the family, and the rest of my time reading in my room.  I think I finished "The Fountainhead" in two days.

"Exhausting" is exactly the right word. When I lived there as a teenager, I remember feeling like every communication I had was through a wall of glass, and we were all shouting to be heard.  After a day of classes in a language I was still just barely learning, I was completely wiped out.  It was worse, of course, as an angsty teen. :) 

Many years later, I also came to realize that the culture shock wasn't just a French/American thing but also a geek/normal people thing.  :-)

I agree with jowilson!  Take pictures, tweet, and get on facebook. We're still here for you!  Also, are you keeping a journal? This could be a great chance for some inner reflecting time.  I also suggest, as always, losing yourself in the art.  After all, pictures don't come in just one language- they're universal! 

It is hard to be in a strange country where nothing is the same (I mean, c'mon.  Not even the electrical outlets are the same!) When I was in both Paris and the CR I'd often be tempted just to stay in my hotel room- not have to deal with the language barrier/isolation/etc.  But then I'd give myself a pep talk "This is a once in a lifetime experience.  You will probably never get to come here again.  GO BIG OR GO HOME!!!"  and it helped, a little.

Anyways, just know that you are loved and missed by all those at home!

Ames, I had similar issues when I lived in France for 9 months. No friends, lots of foreign language (which I knew, but had never regularly had to listen or respond to), and a great big disconnect from the world I knew. Culture shock is a poor phrase to explain that sense of being disconnected & alone. You WILL get through it & have good stories to tell. See you in a few days!