France Changed Me: How 6 Months in Paris Transformed My Life

France changed me.

After six months in France, I returned to the States as an entirely different person with new appreciation for art, fine food, and myself. From taste in clothes to relationship status, Paris molded me into a stronger, more cultured, and more mature woman.

Elevating My Culinary Palette

Fondue in France at La Cave des Fondues

Fondue in France at La Cave des Fondues

France expanded my culinary palette. In Paris, my taste buds upgraded from PB&J, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and chicken fingers. I discovered escargot, pâté, caviar, squid and a splendid sandwich called a Croque-Madame that is sometimes unfairly compared to the American grilled cheese sandwich.

Paris taught me about bakeries. Crusty baguettes fresh from the local boulangerie constantly taunted me with wafting scents of Pavlovian capabilities. I learned to resist a rainbow of macaroons as light as feathers and bursting with flavors as far reaching as any Baskin-Robbins, but twice as good.

I ate crepes of every variety, from Grand Marnier to ham and cheese. I gained a certain snobbiness for wine, cheese and french onion soup. I tried raw steak fondly called steak tartare, served cold and expensive.

I drank Champagne in Champagne and Bordeaux in Bordeaux. I savored cheese aged by monks and jam jarred by nuns. I ate frites, not french fries. I eschewed ketchup for flavored mayonnaise. I disregarded McDonald’s, microwaves and budgets in favor of French cuisine. I discovered créme fraîche.

I became a culinary adult.

Transforming My Understanding of Transportation and Travel

Traveling via EuroPass with 1 backpack each for 2 weeks

Traveling via EuroPass with 1 backpack each for 2 weeks

France taught me to travel. I took the RER, the metro, the Chunnel and the bus. I went from an SUV-driving American to card-carrying Parisian metro rider in less than 24 hours.

I could give directions to any major monument in Paris — but only in terms of metro lines. I learned to read a map — something Google maps had saved me from ever having to do in the great state of Virginia.

The metro forced me to work on my math skills but eventually I calculated fares precisely. I learned to recognize the sound of an approaching metro car, make it down the steps and inside the closing doors as fast as a Parisian teen could jump a turnstile.

France showed me how to travel to another country in less than 3 hours. It taught me to pack for a week in a single backpack, and I learned to sleep in the space between train cars when my EuroPass didn’t specify a seat number.

I stayed in a hostel in a single room with 12 other student on a bunk bed manufactured by Ikea. I slept through snoring, drunken fights and sex. France introduced me to the importance of a solid pair of leather boots, the sunrise over the Alps and the sunset over the Atlantic.

I became an experienced adventurer.

Breaking Up a Bad Romance 

Sacre Couer de Montmartre

A perfect day to enjoy La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre rather than a worthless Skype conversation

France ended my relationship. I started my trip with an emotionally manipulative cheating boyfriend back home that I could not imagine as less than perfect.

I met strong women of 35 who smoked elegantly, dressed impeccably and nonchalantly addressed men, marriage and the idea of the nuclear family with veiled cynicism. I met French men who treated women with respect and romance.

I scoured every city for internet cafes to enable brief Skype conversations with a boyfriend whom I loved more than I loved myself. I coveted a brief but expensive phone conversation until France reminded me where I was.

Eventually, I visited cathedrals rather than sad-looking, smoky computer coves. I stopped caring about daily emails rehashing personal history and focused instead on medieval architecture and post-Impressionist paintings. I let go of a boy in order to fully let France find me. 

I became a single feminist.

Imposing a New View on the American Way of Life

View from Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris

View from Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris and a new point of view of the USA

France changed the way I saw the US. I forgot about SUVs, gym memberships and Fox News. As I acclimated to Paris, I began to find American tourists absurdly loud. I learned to appreciate a living wage for waiters, a place where tips were not expected but always appreciated. France showed me the arrogance of assuming the world speaks English.

On two occasions when asked directions by Americans without even a hint of attempting the French language, I faked incomprehension and responded swiftly in my best French accent. When necessary among European acquaintances, I snubbed the US and instead claimed Australian or Canadian heritage.

I completely missed the Democratic primary where a black man beat a white female for a national bid to the White House. I watched predictable Hollywood blockbusters dubbed in French and liked them all the more for it. Paris inverted my ideas of the suburbs, where, unlike in the US, the poor congregate and the rich avoid. I bought expensive clothes but only a select few pieces. I

learned to hate the throw-away society of H&M, Forever 21 and Old Navy. I saw Americans as bullies forcing their ideologies on the rest of the world and laughed at their assumption that renaming anything “Freedom Fries” could offend.

I became a world citizen.

Evolving a Sense of Style and Self Identity

ParisEiffelTowerShoes

Expanding my wardrobe with leopard print ballet flats and skinny jeans.

France changed the way I saw myself. France showed the right way to take a fashion risk. Without fear of repercussion, I could test styles that I’d never attempt on a small college campus. In the anonymity of the city, I wore vintage dresses and unusual costume jewelry. I put on one too many accessories. I tested red lipstick and jet black eyeliner.

I never forgot my body issues. Tissue-thin French woman constantly reminded me that I struggle with my weight. It didn’t rework my entire inner psyche; it did let me learn to at least dress my body if not to love it. France forced me to be stronger. Paris tested my will, my independence and my sense of direction.

It pushed me to make a new network of support – one that wasn’t pre-constructed safely by my family, school or sorority. It asked me to make individual decisions about nearly everyone I met. Is this person trustworthy? Does she really have family on the coast with an extra room?

I changed how I assessed risk. I left things to chance. I used my best judgement and forgot about second, third, or fourth guessing.  I let go and found something I never sought. I became a different person than I was — more refined, more worldly, more interesting.

I became a self-assured individual.

5 Months, 18 Days, A New Self

I cannot possibly explain how much Paris means to me, how much France changed me for the better. France shaped my life from my taste buds to my personality.

It defines me in a way that is most likely unhealthy. Someone is reading this and saying, “Kristin, you know you shouldn’t let one moment define you.” But it was never a moment, never a single day in history. It was a string of singular instances that worked together to affect me in a way that is nearly impossible to nail down.

France shifted the tectonic plates of my being. Not neatly in a well packaged, easily blogged manner, but in a messy way that prevents a storyline — a way that is smokey, aloof and hard to pronounce.

A French way.

Kristin is a francophile, project manager at Eric Mower + Associates, and UNC grad student. She studied abroad in Paris for almost 6 months in 2008. While living in the 12th arrondissement, she enjoyed shopping for vintage leather boots in Le Marais, lounging at the Louvre and perfecting her wine tasting skills across the city. In her spare time, she studied international marketing, French literature and art history. She’s never been the same. 

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