Reverse Culture Shock: Truth or Myth?

During my flight back to New Orleans, there was no doubt that I was returning to the U.S. People were louder. People wore less conservative attire. People smiled at me for no reason. And, to be completely honest, it felt like I had never left. It felt like I pressed play on the remote after being on pause for four months. That’s exactly how it felt. I resumed normal American life with no issues. I returned home to my family, and it just like I had returned home from a regular semester at Cornell. Not much had changed.

While I didn’t detect any major differences in my personal life at home, I am now even more cognizant of the differences between European and American life. Aside from the faster pace of life in the States, I am aware that we are not as conservative of our resources, whether that is water, energy, waste, gas, etc. I find that, as a country, we are less worried about conserving and more focused on getting what we need in this moment right now. While this mindset might get things done quicker, it is not always the best option for the environment. Europeans utilize public transportation on a much higher level than Americans. We love our cars and the convenience of them, but there is no doubt that our abundance of cars has a negative impact on the earth. But, on a smaller scale, even when it comes to the amount of time we spend in the shower in the States, it seems excessive.  After living in France, anything more than a 10 minute shower seems so wrong. What do you really need all that water for?

There are a lot of other things I could rant about, but there are also some positives that I missed about the American way. In America, at least some parts of the country, we greet strangers with a small and sometimes even make small talk. I didn’t experience that as much in Europe, and in France, you definitely don’t say “Bonjour” to a random person walking by. The only time that really occurs is when you’re entering a store or a restaurant. I also appreciate how we tend to eat dinner earlier in the day, giving it time to digest before going to bed. Lastly, I appreciate the diversity I witness on a daily basis in America. There were some places in Europe where the people were very homogenous, and I could feel the lack of diverse peoples.

But, if I could have one call to action to Americans, it would be to look up from your phones and enjoy the company of those around you. I noticed a drastic difference between phone usage in Europe versus in the United States. In Europe, when people are out with their friends, they are looking at each other, sharing laughs, food, and drinks. As soon as I returned to the States, the first thing I noticed was everyone attached to their screens, children, teenagers, parents, grandparents. It saddened me to see something so small as a screen intrude on the time we spend with our loved ones. It gave me hope to see this problem is not a universal one, however. I plan to start with myself as the change, reminding my friends and family to take a break from technology and go outside or spend time with each other.

I’d like thank Cornell and my family for making these realizations possible. Without either of them, I would not have been able to have my abroad experience. I’d like to thank France for being my home away from home for 5 months and introducing me to one of the sweetest families I’ve ever met. Lastly, I’d like to thank Europe for opening my eyes to the beauty of affordable travel and endless opportunities. Because of all of these things, I have a fresh perspective on life and an insatiable hunger for adventure.

The End of the Beginning

As I sit here writing my last entry in Aix-en-Provence, I compare the person I was when I came abroad to the person I am now. I am still in shock that I completed a semester abroad. I am amazed at the opportunity that many students have and how fortunate we are to have such options. I am happy with myself for accepting the challenge of living in a home-stay with a family who speaks no English, pushing me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to use the language I’ve practiced since kindergarten. I am proud of the friendships I developed. I am proud of the autonomy I gained from taking matters into my own hands, whether it came to traveling, budgeting, or anything else that required decision making.

Living in France required me to relearn my way of life, and it wasn’t always easy. Public libraries closed at 7 pm each day and weren’t open on weekends. People don’t smile or wave at each other on the street like I was used to. People were always wore pants unless it was above 80 degrees F. Temperatures were given in Celsius. They used the 24-hour clock. There was a very methodic routine of saying “Bonjour/Bonsoir” when you enter a store and “Bonne journée/Bonne soirée” when you exit. If you didn’t do that, it was considered rude and strange. My host mother loved pork and cooked it at least 5 times a week, which I was not accustomed to (it was quite delicious though). When the French were off of work, they were really off of work. Holidays and strikes were taken seriously and carried out accordingly. Showers were short. Life moved slower. Dinners were later. It is true that the French buy baguettes daily, and you will see them carrying them with them home after picking their children up from school or leaving work.

In the beginning, all of these things were foreign to me, but these were the same things that I knew I’d miss most. I’d miss the quite humming of French murmurs as I walked through the streets of Aix at the busiest part of the day. I’d miss coming home to a home-cooked meal by a Catalonian/French host mother who loved her pork and chocolate mousse. I’d miss my new life–the bad and the good. As I write this, I feel like I am mourning the loss of a part of me, but I am also excited by the new person I am leaving this country as. I look forward to applying all of my revelations to my life back home and to never forgetting how simultaneously big and small the world is. During the times where I feel myself reverting back to my old ways of stressing over small matters, I will look back at my time here and remind myself that I can get through anything. If I can get through changing my entire lifestyle for four months, I can navigate any environment.

Although my time here has ended, I am ready to continue this path of self-discovery in the States. So, au revoir for now, Aix. But we shall meet again.

 

Final Countdown (Literally)

Finals are in a week, so it only makes sense to destress with multiple picnics, including one in one of the Calanques with my host family. The fact that we leave in a week seems to be hitting everyone at the same time. Everyone is trying to pack a semester’s worth of picnics, dinners, and random adventures in Aix into one week. Not to mention that final exams start in a few days. There is just a lot going on.

But, la vie est belle. It means “life is beautiful.” That’s what I have lived by during my time in Aix. France has taught me that leisure time is not a luxury but a necessity. Living in the U.S., we are constantly moving in a high stress, high pressure environment. People work on holidays, are constantly monitoring their phones, even if they are off the clock, students pull all-nighters, etc. In France, these things are less common. Living here, I realized that life is too short to constantly live in worry. It’s okay to take time off to enjoy your friends’ company or even just to enjoy time to yourself.

Life’s pauses are the times where you can truly get the most out of your experience, but, most of the time, you must create these pauses. They don’t just come to you. In a world where we are constantly connected through technology, it is up to you to take a break and look around. I did just that this weekend with my friends and my host family. During our picnics, we disconnected from our phones and enjoyed eating with each other. We utilized the surprisingly hot Aix weather and went to parks and the beach. It was great. It made us forget about our upcoming exams and the usual way we would have been preparing for them: locking ourselves in libraries for hours on end. Our new way of preparing was much more enjoyable: giving yourself a break and realizing that there’s more to life than just stressing over grades

 

Enjoying the world around us and taking a pause from life’s stresses allowed us to better prepare for our exams. Instead of being stressed, we were relaxed and conscious of the work we had done throughout the semester and what we needed to do to succeed on our exams.

Paris, Je T’aime

These are the final weeks of study abroad, so I decided to spend the remainder of my time in France. Of course, I cannot study abroad in France without visiting Paris. Although I had gone 6 years before with my family, it was still just as magical the second time around. Perhaps, even better. With the newfound independence and confidence with solo travel, I was able to navigate the streets of Paris without a second thought or the confusing navigation that I endured with my family years prior.

My trip to Paris was meant to be a personal one since it was my last official planned trip. I used it as a time to reflect and explore parts of the city that I had not explored before. I spent two hours in the Anne Frank park in the Marais reading a book. I watched children play boomerang with their parents, dogs roam free with no leashes, and pigeons search for baguette crumbs on the streets. I went to a mall in the area where I met two French teenagers who were interested in my French skills and also a bit confused as to why I was in France in the first place. But, nonetheless, still greeted me with enthusiasm and complimented me on my French that I know was mediocre.

There is something about Paris that gives me an endless feeling of comfort. It feels like my place. While I was there, I wondered what life would have been like had I chosen to study there instead of Aix. Then, I thought about my wonderful host family, my daily walk to class, the warm Aixoise weather, and the ability to get around most of Aix without public transportation, and I was reassured by my decision. However, I don’t believe there is a right or wrong choice when choosing where to study abroad. It’s all about what you do after you’ve made your choice. Do you explore your city? Do you try local restaurants? Do you try out the nightlife?

Paris was beautiful, and so is Aix. They are both unique cities that hold a special place in my heart. However, Paris did have more gluten free options for me, including multiple gluten free bakeries that I, of course, had to visit before my return to Aix.

Tick Tock

The time has flown, and I am starting realize the truth in everything that everyone who has been abroad has told me.

  1. Be frugal with your money
  2. Practice the language any chance you can
  3. Appreciate your time because time flies by!
And oh boy, did it. I remember the first day I arrived in Aix like it was yesterday. I was severely jet-lagged, dehydrated, and arrived a day later than intended due to flight cancellations. To go to the orientation meeting, my housemate and I had to use Google maps because we had no idea how to navigate our new home. Now, we have multiple routes we take depending on which scenery we wish to see that day. It’s amazing how we’ve adjusted over the past few months. This is our life now.

Views of my first night in Aix

My housemate and I would spend the days we used Google maps to get to and from school discussing how we were going to stay in shape this semester. We had ideas of joining the local gym, taking yoga classes, or joining some other fitness course. Slowly, we realized how unrealistic that would be if we truly wanted to make the most of our time in Aix. We decided that walking would be our primary form of exercise and left it at that.
Fast forward to three months later, we pass the same yoga advertisement that we passed in our first week. A sense of nostalgia came over us, realizing that our time in this wonderful place had passed at the speed of light. We reminisced on our nativity of relying on GPS navigation to get from place to place and believing that we would ever drop 200 euros on a gym membership that we would barely use between school and weekend travel.
Each day, my housemate insists that she needs one more month here. Just one more. But I am content with my time here. Abroad has been everything and more for me, and I can’t wait to apply all that I’ve learned to my life back in the States. After all, we only have a month left. I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun.

Tiresome Travels

Something no one ever tells you about traveling while abroad is how tiring it can be. Yes, it looks wonderful in the select Instagram and Facebook photos that you choose to upload, but there is a lot of walking, flying, training, busing, and Ubering involved. All of which are not accompanied by a lot of sleeping. The motto for the typical abroad weekend adventure is we’re here for a “good time, not a long time.” In other words, you can sleep when you’re dead, and what is important is seeing as much of your destination as you can.

In these past two weekends, I traveled to Amsterdam and London. I visited Amsterdam for

Dam Square in Amsterdam

Easter break, so my weekend was extended to Tuesday instead of Sunday. My flights to Amsterdam were overshadowed by an organized grève, or strike in English. My flight to Amsterdam was combined with two other flights from separate airline companies, and my flight back to Aix was completely cancelled. Needless to say, it was a stressful  time, but it taught me to be proactive and contact the airline to make other arrangements. Usually, I’d accept my fate and wallow around until my rescheduled flight, which would have caused me to miss an additional day of class. Luckily, I chose to call AirFrance and get it sorted out.

Fortunately, I did not run into the same issues when flying to London through Ryanair. Aside from a few delays, I arrived there safely. As I awaited my friend who was flying in from Denmark, I even met a guy from Portugal who now lives in London. He warned me that the city was boring and rainy. Even after hearing that, I was still excited for my weekend. There was something intriguing about being in a country where my lack of foreign language fluency was not an issue. Not to mention that British accents are phonetically intriguing.

Tower Bridge in London

At the end of the day, those were both amazing trips. Despite the overpriced Amsterdam 3-day travel passes, the 7 miles a day I walked in London along with the total 10 hours of sleep we got in 72 hours, my travels were amazing. My body now faces the repercussions of my on-the-go lifestyle, but this is the price you may if you live by the motto. Just a good time. 

That [Food] is Poison

Before coming abroad, many of my friends asked me where I will be traveling on the weekends. I had no answer for them. When I decided to study abroad, the last thing I was thinking about was where I wanted to travel once I got there. I never understood the rush to leave the city in which you study. Why choose a place if you’re going to run from it each weekend? Not only does it interrupt cultural immersion, but constant traveling is both physically, mentally, and financially draining.

After my week long trip to Belgium, Prague, and Copenhagen, I was exhausted. Between always having to be alert and waking up at odd hours to catch my next flight, my brain was fried. By the end of the week, all I wanted to do was to climb in my bed in my homestay. Coming back to Aix after traveling felt like coming home. I couldn’t wait to have a home cooked meal by my host mother. The only problem was I was too tired to appreciate being back. The next week, I struggled to keep my eyes open in class, took a nap as soon as I came home from school, and dragged my feet nearly everywhere I went.

That Tuesday night, my week went from bad to worse. For dinner, my host mother’s daughter, my housemate and I had chickpeas in a tomato sauce with chorizo. Everything was fine until a few hours later when I started to feel nauseous. One thing I take pride in is the fact that I never puke, no matter how sick I am. But, that pride flew out the window that night. A few hours later, I hear my housemate in her room suffering in the same way I was. Unsure whether it was the chickpeas or the chorizo, there was one thing we were certain of: we had food poisoning. I had never had it as severely as I had it that night. I can confidently say that was one of the worst nights of my life. Perhaps, it was to humble me as I always bragged about how great my host mother’s food is to other students in my program.

I never expected to have food poisoning while abroad, especially not while in France. That was

One of the better meals made by my lovely host mother

the first time in this experience thus far where I felt completely helpless. It was the first time that I thought, “Wow, it would be great if I was home right now.” You don’t realize how nice being home can be until you are sick, when all you want is your mom’s attention or your grandma’s soup. Throughout my food poisoning episode, I texted all of my family members. I hoped that by talking to them in my time of need, it would feel like they were with me. Their advice and concern was enough to get me through it, but it was a rough night to say the least.

The next day, I stayed in bed and didn’t eat until 8 pm. I took it easy over the next few days, cancelling my weekend trip to Paris to give my body a break. When abroad, it’s important that you don’t overexert yourself. No matter how fun that weekend trip may sound, if you feel tired or drained, it’s okay to say no. Enjoy the city you are in. Take that weekend as an opportunity to explore places you haven’t been. I surely did, and I have no regrets. Your health matters most because, without it, you have nothing.

Traveling and “Third Culture”

Ghent, Belgium

For the week of my birthday, I traveled to Ghent and Brugge in Belgium, Prague, and Copenhagen. I absolutely adored Belgium. The people were incredibly friendly and willing to talk. I was so impressed by their ability to speak Flemish, English, French, and other languages that I could not identify. To top it off, the cities were unique with their distinguishable architecture, and the food was delicious although I was only able to really enjoy Belgium fries and chocolate (I could not find any gluten free waffles.) Despite the cold and wet weather, I happily walked through the streets of Ghent and Brugge, amazed at my surroundings. There was something unexplainable about Ghent especially that made it hold a special place in my heart.

Prague, Czech Republic

In Prague, I stayed with my best friend in high school who is studying abroad there. For the first time in my study abroad experience, I believe I was racially profiled, and to be honest, I was not surprised that it was in the Czech Republic. Public transportation there is based on an honor system where they expect you to not use it if you do not have a pass. Of course, I had a pass for the time I would be there, but I was sought out by the ticket inspector who asked me but not my friend for my ticket. Even when she asked him if he’d like to see hers as well. I was annoyed but not shocked. In fact, I was surprised that I lasted a month into my abroad experience without encountering any discrimination.

While visiting my friend at her study abroad program, I was able to recognize the different dynamics that different programs offer. She explained the concept of “third culture” to me, which describes her abroad experience. As an American, it refers to when you surround yourself with other Americans while staying in a foreign country. Even if you are exploring the country, the fact that you are doing it solely with Americans makes it “third culture.” It was an interesting concept as I had never heard it before, and it was much more prevalent in her study abroad program due to their living situation, compared to mine. In her program, all students live in a dorm together. In my program, all students are required to stay in a home-stay with a French family.

 

Copenhagen, Denmark

Visiting her study abroad program made me grateful to have the opportunity to experience France at such a personal level. Not to mention, it would be much more difficult to practice my French if I only lived with other Americans. While I am not completely excluded from “Third Culture,” it is less obvious living in a small French city where most of everything is in French and where you live with a French family. Without these elements, however, I could see how attending an American university in a foreign city would not be enough to immerse in a culture. Thankfully, I was placed with a great host family and housemate with whom I practice my French and continue to learn things about the French language and France each day.

Find a Balance

Coming abroad, I had no idea what to expect academically. Cornell only requires that you take 15-credits worth of classes, and to receive credit, they cannot overlap with a course I have already taken. Aside from these restrictions, everything else is fair game. I decided to take a few courses outside of my major that interested me, such as creative writing, human development, a history course, a language course, and an international relations course. While all of these classes offer me something I might not otherwise learn, I struggled to focus on my studies.

Living in a new country, one of the last things you want to do is sit in a classroom for most of your day–you can do that at your home university. I love to learn and go to school, but I also love to explore the city in which I will be living for the next 4 months. Of course, it is called studying abroad, but there are so many lessons that can be learned through living in a foreign place in itself. Finding the motivation to do my work in the beginning of the semester was difficult.

While I’m sure this is not unique to my experience, it is unusual for me to not want to do my work. At Cornell, I look forward to the evenings where I can sit in the library with my work. I thrive off of structure and routine, which are two things that are thrown off when living in a new place. I was able to push through this funk and make progress on my assignments. I found a routine that worked for me that allowed me to do my work…and workouts! Most days after class, I take a break from academics and go for a run or do one of my at-home workouts. That way, my mind is clear and ready to focus on more coursework.

Even this early in my experience, I was able to discover what works best for me. Finding a balance between work and play is important in any setting. For me, I work best under pressure but not too much. So far, this approach to my studies in France has worked best, and I’m sure I will continue learning what else works best for me during my time here.

Barcelona and Friends

I never realized how much I appreciated studying in a country where I knew the language until my trip to Barcelona. To make matters more difficult, they speak Catalan there, which differs a bit from Spanish. Even my friends who had basic Spanish knowledge struggled to communicate with the locals.

Going to Barcelona was never on my itinerary when I thought about places to travel, but I accepted the invitation when a few friends decided to go. I was able to experience authentic tapas, paella, and even discovered yuca bread balls, which is made from cassava root and is, most importantly, gluten free, so I can eat it. I walked more than I have in any other city I have visited so far, but it was the best way to explore what the city has to offer.

Of course, we visited the typical tourist attractions like Park Güell, La Sagrada Famillia, the Arc de Triomf (no, not the one in Paris), the Picasso museum, and the Columbus monument. We went as a group of 10, so fulfilling everyone’s wishes was nearly impossible, but we did our best. On our last night in Barcelona, we made a reservation at a high rated tapas restaurant. Despite the various tourist destinations we visited, that dinner was by far the best memory of the trip.

There, we ordered a mélange of tapas that we shared with one another. As Americans, of course we booked our reservation for a much earlier time than the locals would have. At 8 pm, we were the only ones in the restaurant as many Europeans eat dinner closer to 9 pm. However, it was nice to have the restaurant to ourselves as to not disturb anyone around us. The food was great, the atmosphere was open, and our waitress was incredibly friendly.

All in all, it was a great weekend that I will remember as a key part of my study abroad experience. Besides making me appreciate my knowledge of the French language, I also realized the importance of the people around you in shaping your experience. Luckily, I was surrounded by a great group who helped me appreciate the beauty of the city of Barcelona. Although we weren’t able to see even close to all it has to offer, I was able to get a small taste of its rich culture and history.

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Class Blog: Voices from Cornell Abroad

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