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Looking Back on My First Year in Paris

by Cynthia Valdez Mar 5, 2010
An expat looks back on her first year abroad.

In Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black,” the heroic (but mostly tragic) Julien is the petty bourgeois son of a carpenter who, through a mixture of luck and intelligence, obtains a promising job that under normal circumstances would be beyond his reach. During a period of illness Julien’s boss, the Marquis de la Mole, suggests that Julien come visit him wearing a blue suit as opposed to his usual black cleric’s garb.

To Julien’s surprise, the day he shows up wearing the blue suit the Marquis treats him like a totally different person. Suddenly, he finds himself being spoken to respectfully, thoughtfully, as a friend. Class boundaries and other social delimiters suddenly dissipate.

I think that on an subconscious level, my decision to leave Los Angeles for Paris came very much from a desire to shed my cleric’s robe and try on a different personality, in a place where no one would be able to pick out, like, the Southern Californian inflection in my speech, spot my Mexican-American background, or judge me by my (suburban) area code.

Consciously, I had quite simply decided to go abroad to become fluent in French. My imagination having been piqued by years of fervently watching Mais Oui instructional videos and practically every film by Truffaut, the obvious choice was Paris. I would have none of Aix-en-Provence or some other Francophone country.

It had to be Paris. And so Paris it was.

Since I’d waited until my senior year of university to study abroad, I was slightly older than most of the other international students I met upon arriving. This became obvious through my choices to live alone instead of with a roommate, to not get together with “everyone” at the American Bar once a week, to take regular courses at the University of Paris instead of special classes for American students. The unexpected byproduct of my independent spirit was that suddenly I found myself completely isolated; which, as it turned out, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

There was probably nothing more exhilarating during those first few months in Paris than flinging open the windows to my first floor apartment and smelling the fresh bread and coffee wafting upstairs from the shop just underneath. From my perch I could witness all sorts of Parisian action on the flagstones of my quaint street. My neighbor and her musician boyfriend would be playing the piano and laughing.

Soon I learned how to navigate the metro, how to proudly boast that I lived in the Bastille for a scandalously low price, how to keep away from certain clingy streetwalker types who didn’t care if you had a boyfriend (invented or otherwise).

I realized I would have to drop my West Coast ways after repeatedly misjudging the weather (for me a sunny day meant I could go out without a jacket). I learned how to ask for a baguette in the bakery without undergoing too much anxiety.

But winter inevitably came. My classes were spent oscillating between confused frustration and overexcited reverie ―I was lucky to be able to understand enough to get a paragraph of notes out of a two-hour class session.

I spent a week in the middle of winter without electricity or hot water, because of an Electricité de France website error. My landlord was forgetful and flippant, and suffered from what appeared to me to be bipolar disorder. Also, I was inconsolably lonely.

The silence of winter in Paris when you live alone and have only a few friends and no family is unnerving.

I began to drink alone. But I also watched films, wrote in my journal, got to know myself better. I started to frequent the panoply of museums and galleries that Paris offers. My Louvre was the Centre Pompidou; I spent every spare minute I had in the temporary exhibitions and film screenings. I went to concerts on the outskirts of the city by myself via the infamous suburban trains, called RER. I discovered the maddening meaning of the word grève, or strike, when all my classes were canceled for a month and a half straight. Just to remind anyone who might be too academically motivated, the entrance to the university was blocked by a 6-foot-tall barricade of chairs and tables.

I repeated phrases I overheard in the metro to myself in my empty apartment. Every day I carried a notebook with me and, stealing glances at my fellow passengers, jotted down phrases from the books they read on their commute to work or school or gilded lives I would never know anything about. I convinced myself that this was the only way I could ever know what they were thinking.

It never occurred to me to actually try to speak to people, much less in French. It seemed that the new personality I’d been looking forward to trying on was that of a misanthropic loner, who had to hype herself up for 10 minutes before working up the courage to make a simple phone call.

Needless to say, my French skills weren’t exactly improving that winter in Paris.

My expenses, although minimal in comparison with some decadent semester abroad students I knew, were also adding up to more than what I’d expected. So, I thought, that’s what roommates are for.

When a group of the semester abroad students who’d been working at a technical school as English teachers were getting ready to fly back home, leaving a number of job openings, I saw my opportunity and seized it.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, teaching English was also going to be my best opportunity to speak French.

Arriving at the technical school, which I’ll call “Omnitech” I realized the job, deceptively simple on the surface, was much more complex when seen up close. In the entire school, which was located on the outskirts of the city, there were only a handful of girls.

The whole student body, it seemed, was made up of socially hesitant post-pubescent techies, whose genius for programming was surpassed only by their reluctance to speak English. We, the English teachers, or “Suzies” (incidentally all attractive young women) were expected not only to bring them out of their shells, but to get them ready for the English test they would be taking in the spring.

In order to facilitate the process we Suzies were required to take the students, who signed up for classes voluntarily, on excursions into the “real world.” This could be anywhere from a movie to a museum or even a bar. The only requirement was that the class had to be held in 100% English, 100% of the time.

Responsible for reinforcing this was our patriarch, who I’ll call “Ed,” a vociferous Santa Claus-esque character with an affinity for innocently hitting on any Suzie who bothered to pay the slightest attention, in a “fatherly” way, of course. I avoided Ed at all costs, and was appalled at how many of my fellow Suzies were willing to bestow their charms on him.

Also surprising were the stories I started to hear about the high turnover at Omnitech due to teachers allegedly going against the rules. I also heard about Suzies who took things farther with some of their pupils, and would hold all their class sessions in bars, totally wasted.

Certain girls had reputations, and their class enrollment reflected this ―Omnitechies signed up by the dozens. To me it seemed so simple to just insist that everyone speak English, to be firm and offer interesting dialogue.

For my first class outing, I decided to take my class to a Dada exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. I uploaded my carefully worded class description, expecting a handful of art-loving students to sign up, eager to discuss the merits of Dada and the impact they would eventually have on the Surrealists.

To my surprise, arriving at my appointment at Rambuteau station about 15 nervous-looking guys were waiting patiently to peruse the exhibition that I’d already fanatically devoured about three times. After introducing myself and asking if anyone had any questions, I realized that everything I’d just said had been lost on my students, who were staring at me rather blankly.

“I think you have to speak more slowly,” a tall, lanky blond student with a very pronounced accent told me. “They didn’t understand anything. Most of them don’t even speak a word of English.”

I had, of course, labeled my Dada class “Advanced.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, I found myself lapsing into French more and more frequently during my classes. Some of my class sessions even included the consumption of alcoholic beverages. I found that this social lubricant could actually completely transform some painfully awkward students who just needed to relax a bit.

Luckily Francis, the tall blond student from the first day, and his best friend Romain — both of whom had excellent English skills — became my dedicated students, never missing a class and almost never asking me to speak French.

They began to fill me in on the workings of Omnitech and the dangers of getting on Ed the English department head’s bad side. Despite my rare encounters with Ed, I began to get the feeling he really didn’t care for me. Since I was a good teacher who got along well with my students, however I felt I didn’t have anything to fear.

One day, I witnessed for myself Ed’s explosive temper when he publicly berated one of the English teachers, who wouldn’t have any of it. She promptly told him to fuck off, and said she was quitting. But it seemed like the more disrespectful she was towards him the more facile he became. He asked her not to leave, and told her how valuable she was to him, words I knew I would never hear from Ed. I quietly resolved that I would leave Omnitech as soon as possible.

That time would come sooner than I thought, since right at the beginning of spring I met an engaging non-Parisian who was willing to discuss the implications of Dada in French. We met in a museum, and at first he thought I was Italian.

That first year was singular in that it permitted me to actually live in the moment. Although I ended up leaving Paris two years later my first year there was probably the most interesting; there was that certain immediacy that you can only experience when you know what you’re feeling won’t last.

In a way, it didn’t. Although there would be more Paris moments, never again would I step so completely outside of myself for the first time, feel so disoriented while learning a new language, learn how to overcome a fear of the Other by reaching out in a foreign language.

For that brief couple of semesters in Paris, I personified that other, blue suit-wearing person I had envisioned from the start: adventurous, independent, a hazy past…possibly Italian? And then, as the years went by, I became more and more Parisian.

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