The adjustment to a year abroad can be a struggle, but can also teach you about yourself, as Samantha O’Brien O’Reilly finds out in her first week in Paris
So as things currently stand, I have been in Paris for 8 days, 6 hours and 10 minutes. No matter how many Erasmus guides or blogs I perused prior to coming here, nothing could have prepared me for the various adventures I have had in the past week. My Parisian experience started early last Monday, when the denizens of UCD were still asleep, dreaming of finally crushing Pearse Street I.T. (Trinity) and adding further lakes to their campus in celebration. Ryanair had won the perpetual struggle between my sanity and their low-priced, inconveniently timed flights and so there I was, in an airport only a ‘short bus ride’ from the centre of Paris, at 7:30am.
Since it was early in the day, I decided it was the perfect time for a morning workout, otherwise known as a game of how many metro staircases crammed with commuters can I pathetically drag my suitcase up and down before one of the wheels breaks (four). My suitcase had a short life – I wish I could say it were a happy one, but about an hour before it broke I was buying tickets from a machine when a lady started kicking it for reasons that were not immediately apparent to me. As I stared at her in abject horror, it appeared it had fallen beside her while she was queuing, so rather than verbally giving out to me, she decided to physically take out her aggressions on all my worldly possessions – Bienvenue à Paris I guess.
That aside, the metro/RER ticket machines have certainly proven to be of the more complicated aspects of my new life. There are tickets that will only work in Paris, tickets that will only work outside of Paris, tickets that will only work if it’s Tuesday and you are wearing a beret and carrying a baguette; the list goes on.
My home for the next year will be the Irish College or the Centre Culturel Irlandais as it is better known, just beside the Luxembourg Gardens. This beautiful building was previously home to both French and American soldiers during various wars, which the Irish Government took as conclusive evidence the building could withstand 30 Irish students on their Erasmus year and so turned a section of it into dormitories.
However, my room was not ready until today, a full week after I started classes, so after weighing up the pros and cons of sleeping on the streets of Paris (Pro – Great dinner party anecdote. Con – Absolutely everything else.), a friend put me in contact with a friend of her’s who spent his Erasmus in her college. One week and a few tentative Facebook conversations later, I was in the spare room in his parents’ apartment.
Despite the uncertainty, I could not have had better lodgings. Despite not knowing me from Pierre, this unbelievably welcoming French family took me in, cooked me traditional French meals, taught me French slang and made plans to take me to Normandy later in the year. The only downside was that their chic apartment was about an hour’s metro journey from Paris. Pas de problème, you might say, after all Meath is much further than that from UCD. However, mon ami, if you said that, you would be displaying a remarkable lack of knowledge of the anarchist underground state that is the Paris Metro system. The laws of mere mortals hold no sway in this subterranean transport scheme. Word is, the phrase laissez-faire was actually coined to describe how one should regulate one’s behaviour on the Parisian metro. Ticket-hopping is commonplace and being relieved of one’s belongings on the metro is so clichéd, it’s embarrassing.
Case in point, last Thursday, on my fourth day in Paris, a kind soul decided to eject some excitement into my daily commute by claiming my wallet for his own. I imagine he got a nice surprise when he discovered that the pale, slightly lost looking girl he robbed was actually on her way to open a bank account at the time and just so happened to naively have all the cash she brought to France on her. It’s ok though, I definitely got some benefits out of forcibly being made penniless in Paris. There really is no better opportunity to hone your language skills than a conversation with your friendly local police officer, after all.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my cash, bankcards and much loved UCDConnect card the thief stole. He also managed to dent my sense of independence and taint my perception of the city that was to be my new home. It was extremely unsettling to become a statistic. Indulging my wanderlust depends upon my being able to take care of myself, or for my own sake of mind, at least being able to create the illusion that I can. With one swift move, a faceless guy managed to remind me of my own vulnerability. There was nothing I could do to stop being pick-pocketed. I could have minimised my losses by not having all my money in the same place, but regardless of how much money was inside, this guy was taking my wallet and I was powerless to stop it.
I don’t know what the next year will bring for me. I don’t know if I’ll get used to living in another country, if I’ll become comfortable speaking French on a daily basis or if I’ll ever get sick of crepes (unlikely). Perhaps one of the most liberating things about undertaking an exchange abroad is it’s ok not to know the answers to these questions. A year abroad means a change, it means uncertainty, it means learning things about yourself you might never find out otherwise. A year abroad is a chance to throw out the rulebook, to try things you might never have the opportunity to at home. A year abroad is a story waiting to be written, and I for one can’t wait to see how mine will turn out.