How grocery shopping in Paris helped me to rethink racism

“Bonjour mademoiselle,” said the cashier.

“14.50 Euros s’il vous plait.”

“Par carte, s’il vous plait,” I said.

As soon as I said I wanted to pay with a card, he asked me for ID. He justified it by saying it was standard procedure to have picture ID for all credit card transactions – for security reasons.

How racist! I bet he doesn’t ask white people for ID when they want to pay with a credit card.

Then I gave him my passport and he exclaimed great surprise at my having a Bank of America credit card, but a Zimbabwean passport. As the credit card reader was processing my card, he talked about how he wanted to travel and how he thought it was great that I had the courage to travel so far from home.

After I signed the receipt and bagged my groceries (they don’t do it for you here!), he said, “bon journée” and I went on my way

I wondered if he was racist in asking for my ID as I walked back home. But the man was so nice and chatty after, he couldn’t possibly be a racist. He was also quite polite when he asked me for ID. Maybe it really was routine to do that? Maybe I am over-reacting? What is a racist anyways?

That was a question I had never asked, “What is a racist anyway?”

I realized that I had no idea what the word “racist” meant. None at all. I had used it several times when I felt there was an injustice towards people of color, but have never really thought about what it meant.

I got home, arranged my groceries and started to do some research, starting with the Oxford English Dictionary. A “racist” is:

“An advocate or supporter of racism; a person whose words or actions display prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of race. Also in extended use: a person who is prejudiced against people of other nationalities.”

Well, that doesn’t tell me anything. I guess I have to look up, “racism”.

“A belief that one’s own racial or ethnic group is superior, or that other such groups represent a threat to one’s cultural identity, racial integrity, or economic well-being; (also) a belief that the members of different racial or ethnic groups possess specific characteristics, abilities, or qualities, which can be compared and evaluated. Hence: prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against people of other racial or ethnic groups (or, more widely, of other nationalities), esp. based on such beliefs”

If I use this definition: can I truly say that when the cashier asked me for ID, he was thinking that white people are superior to me or that I was a threat to him? Could he have had a preconceived opinion of black people being more likely to be credit card thieves? Sure. Does that make him racist? I have no idea.

The “study” in study abroad

Although it may not always feel that way, an important part of “studying abroad” is the STUDYING part. I have been taking amazing classes: a class on African and Middle Eastern film, one on the economic and political history of the EU, another an introduction to law and an independent study for my honors thesis. The course load has been manageable, although taking these classes in French has proven to be challenging. Here is what I have learned about studying in France:

1. What’s a syllabus?

French professors do not provide syllabi. Some will give you a “bibliographie” – a list of all the books you have to read. Others will just have you write these books down on the first day of class. I have had to become more responsible as a student because I have to put in a lot more effort to know what’s going – I don’t have the easy reference of a syllabus.

2. Office Hours?

One thing I really miss about Cornell is office hours, which do not exist in France. If you want to talk to your professor, you do it after class. Professors aren’t even required to give you their email address, so if you wish to talk to them, after class is the perfect time.

However, I did have the courage to introduce myself to my professors at the end of the first day of class and this has turned out to be beneficial. They always encourage me to interrupt them if i don’t understand or if they are speaking too fast. Occasionally, they look at me in class almost as if to reassure me – “I know you are here.”

3. Surprise tests and grade privacy?

I survived my first surprise test, one of three exercises being used to make up the final grade in my film class. In class two weeks ago, the professor screened a film and then just said, “write an essay on one of the themes in the film.”

However, what was shocking was not so much the test itself, but the way the professor distributed the results after grading the essays. Firstly, she picked out four or five essays that got the highest grades and read them out, mentioning the best students by name. Then she stood in the front passing out everyone’s tests back. This has never happened in any of my classes at Cornell: your test result is private and handed back discreetly, whether you have an A+ or an F.

4. Student competitiveness?

Despite the manner in which test results are distributed, French students are very accommodating in class – offering notes and to study together. They are not only this way with each other, but also with international students.

Unfortunately, they also tend to not want to speak to international students in French – they often prefer to practise their English with you, not have you practise your French with them.


Went to the Louvre, didn’t see The Mona Lisa

I went to the Louvre today with a few friends and as soon as we got into the museum, we – predictably – made a beeline for Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. How could we not? THE MONA LISA! We found her pretty easily: there are many signs directing you to the painting and if all else fails, just follow the crowd, you’ll find her.

There were a lot of people crowded around and in front of the painting. I had expected there to be many people, it is after all THE Mona Lisa. However, I hadn’t expected to find none of these people actually LOOKING at the painting. What were these people doing? They were taking pictures of her, or taking selfies, or pictures of their friends and families.It seemed to me that it was more important for them to document that they had visited the Louvre and seen the Mona Lisa, instead of looking at the painting. I don’t know much about art, but I really did want to LOOK at the Mona Lisa and hopefully, SEE for myself why our society finds this one painting so important.

At first I told myself I was being ridiculous. After all, my friends always say I am prone to these righteous rages about the plight of the human condition. So I decided to “people watch” and see if there was a general trend in how people acted when they got to the painting. Almost every new person who came to see the Mona Lisa didn’t even look at it.


Almost like a reflex, as soon as they got there, they would try to squeeze their way to the front, take out their cellphones and take pictures and move on.


All the while, I hadn’t found an opportunity to look at the Mona Lisa because there were so many people in front of me and I wasn’t going to push my way to the front. I eventually managed to take a glimpse of her and took a picture of the stranger who was taking a picture of The Mona Lisa.


After a few more minutes of watching people taking selfies, I decided to find my friends and carry on with them to the next section. I didn’t really get to see the Mona Lisa today, but neither did most people. But, I am not sure they realise that.

In another language, I have friends

Someone told me that people who speak more than one language are schizophrenic. I thought this was absurd, until they explained themselves. They said that bilingual people have different personalities, depending on the language they are using.

“You see, each language has a different culture and specificity and we change when we speak different languages. We are completely different people.”

I didn’t completely agree at the time, but I have been thinking more and more about this logic and have become more convinced by it. I have been lonely in Paris, I have not made a single French friend and I don’t get to see my American friends often because our schedules don’t usually align.

Why haven’t I been able to make friends in Paris? I didn’t have trouble at Cornell, even though I am a foreign student. Could it be my comfort with English? At Cornell – in English – I am a campus tour guide, an ambassador for International Students, I have been involved in acting – I am outspoken, social and confident. In French, I am timid and insecure. In French, I stutter. I forget words. I get so frustrated I prefer to keep quiet. I am continually afraid of being judged. I am unable to make friends because I am unable to express myself in this language. I write and read it pretty well, but “book French” cannot get you through an everyday conversation.

I have to look up very simple words – collard greens, peanut butter. The fact that I have read Voltaire cannot save me when I want to talk about how collard greens with peanut butter is a common dish in Zimbabwe. When I realize I don’t know what “collard greens” is in French, I have to WordReference. By the time I get my data to work, get on Google and finally the translation, the moment is gone.

But while I get lonely, I do not despair. Because I know that in another language, I am liked and missed. I received an email a few days ago that reminded me of that. I will brave Paris because in another language, I have friends.


Redefining the “City of Love”

Paris has long been touted as the “city of love” such that it has become something of a cliché. I had reached the stage where I would roll my eyes each time some character in a movie or some pop song talked about “falling in love in Pa..ree”. Yet, there is something incredibly real about this perception of Paris that I experienced today.

I went to the famous “Le Mur des je t’aime” (the wall of love) in Montmartre, Paris. It is a love-themed wall stretching aver 400 square feet composed of 612 tiles on which the phrase “i love you” is written 311 times in 250 languages. The wall was created in 2000 by a calligraphist named Fédéric Baron and mural artist Claire Kito.


So it’s a wall that says “i love you” – what’s so deep about that? I was able to find the words “i love you” in the two main languages spoken in my home country, Zimbabwe – Shona and Ndebele! I thought to myself, “how is that possible that I could even spot them?”

“ndinokuda” – in my mother tongue Shona
“ngiyakuthanda” – in Ndebele

It was an unexpectedly emotional moment for me and I can’t really explain why. I suppose I had assumed that the wall would not include languages spoken by only about 20 million people in a world filled with billions. Perhaps it was because those words are more personal to me than their equivalence in French or English. Either way, I think that the Wall of Love managed to cure me of my cynicism at the perception of Paris as the City of Love.

Stop and Frisk – à la Paris

When I arrived in France three weeks ago, I felt like I hadn’t left America (except for the language of course). There was a McDonald’s, a KFC, a Subway and a Starbucks right next to my hotel. In a strange way, I found these places to be comforting. Even though I am an international student at Cornell, for now, America is home and anything “American” is familiar and comforting. It felt like I never left America until a guard at the supermarket stopped me and my newfound friends to search our bags.

We had gone into the supermarket after having lunch at our program orientation – with no particular goal in mind – just aimlessly looking around for school supplies. As we left the store, the guard stopped us and said,

“You didn’t buy anything?”


“Well, let me search your bags.”

Incoherent French and protestations from us ensued – we hadn’t stolen anything!

Unfortunately for us – and fortunately for me – one girl in our party had an unopened bottled water from our orientation lunch. The guard – ever so friendly – started asking why she had that bottle and if I were the guard, I probably would have thought she was guilty simply because it is very hard to communicate in a foreign language when one is panicking. As he rummaged through her bag, the guard found a piece of paper written “EDUCO: Cornell, Duke, Emory, Tulane” and he immediately smiled and returned her bag and said, “Vas-y!”

He let us go because we were American students.

I was so relieved that he didn’t arrive to search my bag. If he had, he would have found a candy bar and yoghurt – also from the orientation lunch. How was I going to explain that? I had no handy, loose pieces of paper from the program floating around in my bag!

I’ve never had to think about my bag being searched in the USA and in France, I am to expect it to happen a few more times before I leave. Lesson learned: when in Paris, be careful what you put in your backpack!