Encapsulating the laughable moments (at myself) from my French Exchange Experience… but was I still happy to be in Paris?… OUI!


Why, the Eiffel Tower of course!

At the young age of 14-years-old, I had no idea what the country of France was truly like. At the time, it was a fairytale that lived in my imagination, only familiar to me from the movies (Ratatouille (2007), obviously). So, in grade 8, when I decided to embark on an 8 hour journey across the ocean to venture to this unknown land, I had no idea what would be in store for me. Residing with an exchange student’s family in the south of France for two months, this experience did more than just whip my French into shape. I was struck by the harsh reality that the French lifestyle was truly so unlike the North American way. From sitting clueless in German, Latin, and Greek classes to holding my breath as I sat next to other students who would smoke cigarettes between every single class, there is no doubt that I had fully immersed myself right into the French culture. So, no, I won’t be talking about the Lily Collins Emily in Paris that made its break on Netflix. I’m talking about me, Emily. And, let’s just say I didn’t live out exactly the kind of experience as Miss Collins did. 

Although it is easy to find yourself longingly day-dreaming about your travel destination, one must not forget the reality of getting there first. Of course, here, I fell into the day-dreaming category. Enduring travel time over the span of two days with three different plane rides, layovers and overnight bus rides was no walk in the park. If you know you have a tendency to break down with crippling anxiety when sleep deprived, then, please, factor this into your pre-departure plans. Come prepared with the travel necessities: 1. Sleep Mask. On an overnight flight, I learnt this the hard way when I was sandwiched in the middle seat of a plane next to an elderly lady who wasn’t aware that, between the hours of 10pm-5am, the overhead plane lights don’t benefit anyone’s well-being. 2. Contrary to popular belief, neck pillows actually do work wonders, especially when avoiding direct contact with the passenger next to you who might want to nuzzle onto your shoulder for a long-night’s slumber. 3. Snacks. No further explanation needed.

On the streets of Aix-en-Provence. The small, authentic restaurants always caught my eye.

Once I finally made it there, I was truly breath-taken as soon as I left the airport, entering this foreign land filled with lavender fields and cobblestone streets. There were so many new, exciting and beautiful things to experience; I’m not lying when I say that my face was glued to the car window the whole drive home from the airport, watching bakery after bakery pass by on every street corner. As I captured mental images in my head, I was having a hard time believing that somewhere so different could exist. I wanted to be able to frame this picture-perfect moment forever. My spirits were high and I felt ready to take on this wondrous place, or so I thought. This all changed very quickly. If only Netflix had released Emily in Paris years earlier to give me the same kind of main-character energy and confidence that the other Emily had. 

In France, everyone greets each other with a “bisou”. Being the French word for kiss, friends and family members will always begin an interaction with a small peck on each cheek. But the question is, how do you know which side to lean into first? Of course, the French have it down to a T, but it was rather shocking meeting my exchange partner’s family and friends for the first time, being totally oblivious to the fact that they were going to approach my face very quickly and closely. Little 14-year-old me did not expect for a 6ft French man to lean in for a kiss. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the other people around me silently chuckling to themselves thinking, what a naïve and silly North American girl. I felt ridiculous, and still ask myself today, “How could I have messed up something so integral to their culture?” Something as seemingly simple as this loomed over me at the beginning of my experience, immediately feeling like an outsider in this new country. 

My exchange student’s family house in the south of France where I lived for 2 months.

If you ever decide to venture to the south of France–I highly suggest you do–pay close attention to the architecture of the homes. You will notice that they all have shutters on all the windows. They call these the “volets” in French. Each night before going to bed, I would have to use all of the pre-teen strength I could muster to shut these massive, heavy, wooden shutters over the windows from the inside. Although I felt safe in my little room at nighttime, I found it difficult awakening to my 6:30 am alarm in the complete and utter darkness. One morning, I was feeling a little more lively than usual and wanted to kick start my day on a productive and early note. Off I went to open the shutters. As soon as the beautiful, warm, morning sunlight streamed down on my face, I regretted what I had just done. I dropped to  the ground with both hands over my ears, praying that the blaring alarm I set off would  stop. How was I supposed to know that these so-called “volets” would sound off a security system? Imagine the sound of a fire alarm, but 100 times louder, and instead of just waking up the entire house, this sound could get people springing out of bed all the way down the street. Once again, I proved to myself that I still had much to learn, apparently about how seriously they take their home security. 

Me. A young pre-teen taking in all the sights to see around me.

When we think of France, or Paris more specifically, fashion comes to mind right? Emily in Paris proves this to be true, as we watch this beautiful young girl put together  head to toe coordinated, designer outfits every day. Unfortunately, in grade 8, I was not quite as prepared in the wardrobe department. Walking down the streets downtown in my leggings, Roots socks and moccasin shoes did not play out in my favour. Ladies, you’re lying if you didn’t rock the socks-over-leggings look at some point in your life. I am not exaggerating when I say that I felt every single pair of eyes looking me up and down. In France, when a woman steps out onto the street, “she’s onstage”, and, as I learned, the French take their appearance very seriously. Girls would wear heeled boots to school and there I was in my low-top Converse, flabbergasted by their sophistication. I immediately had to go out and buy an accessory scarf to feel like I would fit in with the others. 

For anyone interested travelling abroad to Europe, I’m not saying that you should go out and max out your credit card on new clothes, but maybe keep in mind that you are entering the fashion capital of the world, with people who take pride in the way they present themselves, hoping to make a good impression on the public eye. Not that Canadians don’t care about our appearance, but I could never leave the house in my pajamas in Paris the way I’ve done many times here. 

I could write a book worth of stories about my experience, like how I tried to order a crêpe with chocolate and strawberries but instead got one adorned with ham and blue-cheese or when I wanted an herbal tea but got an espresso instead, but alas, it would take weeks to read. 

One of many beautiful landscape shots that I captured.

So, let a few of my personal moments of embarrassment act as a reminder to you all that we live in an extremely diverse world, filled with different cultures, values, practices and lifestyles; all of which we should appreciate for their beauty and uniqueness. There is definitely something to be said about taking the plunge and immersing yourself right into a new experience, learning as you go (as I did), but if I can suggest anything to eager travellers who dream of escaping the Great White North, do your research. Ask others with previous experience questions. And, most importantly, prepare yourself to keep an open mind and be accepting of potential embarrassment or adversity. 

These brand new, exciting, sometimes scary and unknown experiences open our eyes and add a layer of complexity to our backbones. They help us grow, they bring new perspectives into our lives, they teach us the workings of the world and they broaden our horizons. Heck, did I still enjoy my time spent in Paris despite these funny little moments? Oui, of course! Every day I dream of returning, though maybe this time with a little more experience. With my fingers crossed that Queen’s exchange program is still able to become a reality for students, then come Fall 2021, I will be able to once again hold the title of “Emily in Paris”.


HEADER IMAGE: EMILY HARGRAVE and https://www.pinterest.ca/pin/54676582956941654/


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