Before studying abroad in Paris, France with CEA, I had never traveled alone, been to Europe, or lived anywhere but small towns in Michigan. I had never ridden on a subway, interacted in a foreign language, or been so far away from friends and family. After this experience, if I can offer you any advice for your first time living alone abroad, it would be this:
Try new things, lots of them. Don’t be afraid to go out alone, or feel silly sometimes, and say "bonjour" to everyone.
I could give you a list of books to read, ones I enjoyed abroad, but this is my summary of them all: Soak in the wonders of Europe, do not be afraid to be independent or feel alone, use the public space, you might feel like a fool sometimes, and be sure to say hello to everyone. For example, "bonjour" is key to unlocking almost all conversations in France. Even confronted with language barriers that feel massive, a genuine effort to say hello, or admitting you are a student of the language, can make all the difference. Put yourself out there! Do not let fear or uncertainty dictate your time abroad. It is okay to feel silly for pronouncing something wrong in French, and it is even better to try again, or ask for correction.
Take it from me; I accidentally asked for a ‘drunk croissant’ instead of a ‘butter croissant’ my first time in a French bakery. In the moment, I learned that pronunciation is important! But, it also provided everyone involved with a nice chuckle. Experience being abroad fully, and in times like these, realize how independent you truly are but also take notice of your strengths and weaknesses. This allows you to stay safe, have fun experiences, and most importantly, learn and grow while you are abroad.
During my first days in Paris, I was confronted with the challenges of not speaking French, being lost in the city, tripping and falling loudly in the busy metro, and experiencing hundreds of years of history and culture completely unlike that of my home. It was wonderful. Although there was a learning curve, I found resilience, humor, and the most exciting memories in those moments. I learned that I was never alone, even when I felt like I might be. The people of Europe have the same goals as you and me: to be happy and live a good life. This is something we can all get behind. Moving through Europe with immense respect, awe, and willingness to learn about people, places, history, and culture will lead you to amazing moments that seem almost impossible. For example, taking a walk from your new apartment and finding a wonderful view of the Eiffel Tower, or a café that feels like home away from home and is perfect to study in.
This means that sometimes I walked, explored, or ate alone. Paris waits for nobody! It allowed me to feel extra independent, take myself on dates, and go check out whatever my heart desired. Going out alone is liberating, and a wonderful time to be reflective or make new friends. During these times it’s okay to relax or read alone, and it’s okay to say hello to those around you. While alone in Paris I wrote in my journal at cafés, and sat and read along the Seine. I even went to a large concert alone when I first arrived in Paris. These experiences provided me the opportunity to learn about myself and the city around me. They allowed me to find local connections and friendships by being open to spontaneous conversation -- each of which started with, "bonjour." By the end of the semester, I looked and felt more Parisian, more international, and I knew my way around the city and culture. I even gave good directions in bad French! These are moments I cherish most now that I am home. It is also where I learned the most important lessons about how I handle situations independently, and how much agency I have to create the perfect day whether I am abroad or at home.
Now, if I were to give a list of books to read in preparation to go abroad, it would look like this:
1. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
2. The Bonjour Effect, Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau
3. Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, Alice Kaplan
4. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway
Each of these focuses greatly on France and Paris, but contain important notes on what it is like for Americans abroad in Europe, and what each author learned from their experiences of individuality and independence abroad.
Alexandra Isabell is the Spring, 2018 Alumni Insider in Paris, France, and is currently studying at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.