Post-trip reflection

My French experience was not a culture shock. This is an important takeaway. I am European, and I have been to France before many times, so I was not shocked or too surprised by the things I saw or experienced.

Yet, I discovered that behind a shallow surface, there are so many things I didn’t expect or didn’t understand before. The French culture was not as clear and obvious as it seemed from the start, and I loved that I was able to learn that from the inside.

I feel like with every extra word and new phrase, I learned more about the way people think and reflect. The words highlighted the logic of the French people, their ways of looking at things, and their overall perceptions of the world. It felt like with the language, I was able to get a new identity for myself, a French version of my personality that could think and see the world through the prism of the French language and culture. It made me richer and happier.

Bye, France!

The first time I had a dream in French was very memorable. The dream was very funny, and the French in it was not too advanced, but it was a French conversation anyways, and I dreamed in it. I dreamed about the mustard, or la moutarde, and the French fighting over it because I remembered my professor’s joke over how French people would obsess and complain if there was no mustard.

I don’t like mustard, but I liked the French and France, and I am happy I got to experience what I experienced. The world gets tiny and welcoming when you know how to communicate with it.

Representation in France

A fellow classmate, an Italian girl, and I had a conversation on representation in politics in our respective countries. I told her that Ukraine had a very high representation of people of different ethnicities and origins in our parliament, and it was common to see people with non-Ukrainian last names as important public figures. It was also true for people coming from diverse religious backgrounds.

In Italy, Clara said, the situation was different. Parties mostly consisted of white Italians, and it was rare to see an immigrant or a person who is not an ethnic Italian in national politics. Clara herself comes from the German-speaking part of Italy as she is a part of the Austrian community. She told me she didn’t feel particularly represented in Italy on the national scale.

How diverse is Europe and France in particular?

We asked our professor about representation in France. Was it easy to be non-French born and yet, become an influential political figure? Are there many immigrants who, after obtaining citizenship, became visible and recognized?

Our professor was skeptical.

Yes, there was representation, he said, and yes, there were people of diverse origins in France who made it really big. There were lots of French politicians of Algerian, Senegalese or other origins, and the same was true for arts, education, and other spheres.

The problem was, however, that to get to their current point, they had to work three times as hard as white French people born and raised in France. Their success happened in spite of things, and not because they received a lot of encouragement. Some French complained that there was positive discrimination in the country, and the reason that some immigrant-born people got successful was because they were unjustly favored. So there was stigma, prejudice, and misunderstanding.

That was the reason that far right radicals were getting so much power in the country recently. Antisemitism and anti-immigration became very big talking points which aim to discredit the achievements made by diverse communities. Cultural pluralism is viewed as a sin by some of these right wing groups as they believe that only ethnic French people should live in France, hence they can only speak French at home and follow what they consider traditional French values.

I noticed the racial problems in France early on my arrival here. There are lots of issues when it comes to equality and representation of the African French community, for example, and these issues are translated into politics. I worry about what lies ahead for France and the rest of Europe. It is a beautiful experience to learn the French language, but it also uncovers lots of deeper challenges within French society.

Traveling by train

I didn’t budget train trips in my summer experience. I didn’t think I’d do a lot of traveling as I would not have time, but then, I am too restless to stay in one place. Weekend trips and short getaways became very common.

In France, it is easy to travel as long as you have money. Foreigners can easily rent a car, which is a bit pricey, but provides more flexibility. Then, there are buses (like FlixBus, Europe’s biggest bus operator), and trains. The trains are especially efficient because they are faster than buses (super speedy), have lots of direct routes with shortest connections, and provide wonderful comfort.

The problem is that trains are expensive. Very expensive. A trip in a high-speed train that covers around 300 kilometers costs around 100 Euros. Smaller trains are cheaper, but expect to pay something around 50 Euros for a one-way ticket. There are also short-distance trains, where cost would vary from around 5 to 10 euros.

Working on an empty-ish train

Sometimes train workers go on strike. So be aware of that, too. An expensive ticket does not guarantee that the train will show up. The train workers are efficient and transparent, so they inform about strikes in advance – and you can play your journey in-between train interruptions.

Ukrainian citizens are allowed to travel on some trains for free. This is because of Russian invasion into Ukraine, and the help that the French government is providing to Ukrainian citizens. Not every municipality or a community is aware of that, but it is possible to get free tickets when you know your rights.

I got myself two free train tickets this way. I didn’t care about the destination too much as long as I got to enjoy the view as I went. I figured that as long as I get to see something new, I can go anywhere.

I visited Nantes, Paris, and Strasbourg this way. For some tickets, I decided to pay (I felt awkward getting free tickets) – but I was happy  I saved up some money on the two tickets I got with my passport.

There are lots of train discounts for students in France. If you are younger than 26, you pay only a small fraction of the price, which makes travels much more affordable. For people who plan to stay in France for a very long time, there is an option to purchase a long-term train ticket which allows you to travel on a certain route for less money. Overall, there are many options.

I encourage people to do small or longer trips if they can. There is something about the train, its typical noise and movements that makes the experience so memorable.

Stories over French brunch

Food is key to the French culture. This may sound cliché, and it is, but it is also the truth. Some of my most memorable moments in France are related to food. Even if you’re not big on trying out new things or don’t pay much attention to your diet, France can change that easily. Food connects people here. Literally.

Here’s how.

Learning a language can get dull sometimes, especially if that’s your only activity in a foreign land. I am one of those people who desperately needs a change of scenery. New people, new stories, new experiences. It gets dull to connect with the same students all the time, too, so I seek out strangers from the outside. And I found some.

I decided to crush an event that seemed really cool in the local youth center, a very beautiful culture house where there are books, comfy chairs, and lots of company. The event was on Europe, European solidarity, and youth involvement. Hence, the audience was young, active, and French.

The event was open to the public, but it seemed like everyone knew everyone. Well, except for me. People were chatting over wine which I don’t drink, and having a good time, and I, on the other hand, had a hard time to strike a conversation with anyone. So instead, I grabbed a book that was nearby and tried to read it in the middle of the networking/party thing.

Now, a kind soul, a nice local French man, started talking to me. He and his friend were kind enough to ask me about the book, and when they heard my accent, they even tried to switch to English – a nice effort which I immediately rejected. So we chatted in French. Soon, their friends joined us, and we were having a nice conversation in French of how good/bad Macron is, and whether fascists will gain even more momentum in Europe (scary reality we’re seeing across many places).

As we were chatting, I complained a bit that I don’t know a lot of French people, and I would love to experience France in a way that’s different from the classroom.

Delicious French bread by Alan Rodriguez.

Maybe it was my voice, or just the sad look on my face, but I got an invite to a brunch that was happening the same week, on Saturday. And obviously, I went.

Now, when I was coming to brunch, I didn’t expect that there’d be so many bread-things. I am from Ukraine, and we are quite famous for our grains (bread is great), but we would not offer so many different types of bread and cookies in one event. There would normally be a variety of foods, so you’d choose some veggies, fruit, cheese, or else.

But the French brunch to which I went definitely had bread as its main course. There were obviously croissants and baguettes, but then, there was a gigantic variety of majestic breads with different colors, structure, and shapes. They tasted differently, too. Then, there were cookies and non-sweet pastries that were something in between a piece of bread and a biscuit.

Now, turns out that my host’s father is a baker. They have a farm with lots of grain fields, so they grow and produce everything altogether. This is a family business, which is quite profitable and joyful – or so it seemed.

I was fascinated. In my home in Ukraine, we used to bake bread for some years (I also grew up on a farm), but then, we stopped as the bread production got more expensive – so it was cheaper to buy mass produced bread than to make your own.

This is the same in France, so many smaller producers are forced out of business because of the trend. Nils’ father, however, still gets by and even makes profits.

“We know that the agricultural business in Ukraine is very competitive, and we are ready to welcome you in Europe,” Paul (the father) told me during the brunch, “French farmers have accepted that Ukrainian farmers may crush us, but that’s because you’re very good at what you do.”

I was flattered to hear that, but even more, I was happy to hear that the guy knew and welcomed Ukrainian businesses coming to France even if it meant more challenges for him. To this man – as well as many people I have meet here – Europe was about being open and welcoming.

Nils’ parents, Paul and Lillie, got married thanks to their love for bread, by the way. So the food literally connected this fun family.

I had a wonderful time there, and I realized that during brunch, I communicated in French completely at ease. Proud moment.

What a bliss it is to be French

To be honest, I find it a bit frustrating to talk to the French. I try my best, and I am not shy despite a very strong accent. Yet, whenever people hear me, they try to be accommodating and switch to English. I noticed this the most around young people. They are most likely to know English, and they are normally the most interested in speaking it. While I appreciate the kind gesture, I wish they would stop. After all, I want to practice, especially in situations that are unpredictable.

The dislike for English language is nothing but a stereotype in France. People do like to speak English; it’s just a lot of them (and this is great for me, actually) don’t know any foreign language. The lack of other language skills among the locals is perfect for those who want to be in situations where it’s French or nothing.

A beautiful green creature in a park in Nantes, which I visited for a short trip (Northwestern France).

French people talk extremely fast. They use slang a lot, too, and they “eat” some words sometimes, so it is tricky to understand them. News, podcasts, and official announcements are much easier than the spoken language that I hear on the streets because locals don’t care that much about grammar, perfect pacing, and other standards. I feel like if I can master a long conversation with a perfect stranger on a variety of topics ranging from Macron to Ukraine, then it is when I can say that I made it in my language learning.

A thing that’s a little bit unique to me is the fact that I am Ukrainian. Therefore, a lot of French people ask me about Ukraine, how things are back home, and so on. It is quite kind and logical given the Russian war; therefore, I get to educate and explain a lot of things about Ukraine while practicing my French. I found this to be rewarding and challenging at the same time, and I am happy to see that my French is getting to the level where I can actually express whatever it is that I want to convey on this difficult and important topic. I learned such words as imperialism, colonialism, European responsibility, values, and so on. Great!

Overall, I like the French. Interactions are interesting. People are straightforward and have a good sense of humor (for the most part!). They are content with their lives, and this is contagious.

Getting ready for France: Thinking of languages

Language is fascinating. It has always excited and interested me. It is not only about different sounds and melodies we make with our words, but also about the way we think and see the world.

When I, as an adult, started learning foreign languages, I realized how many things different native speakers have in common. For example, there are phrases which are very difficult to translate from one language to another. However, sometimes languages which lave little in common share the same phrases and follow the same logic. I experienced this as I was mastering Spanish a few years ago, and I am seeing this now as I am working on my French.

My experience is limited to the languages which originated in Europe. My mother tongue is Ukrainian, and I speak English, Spanish, and, somewhat flawed, French. The languages I speak are quite close geographically, but they are not that similar. They show me how diverse my home region is, and how diverse the world is as humanity managed to produce such different and rich ways of communication.

When I started learning French, I could not help but notice that even though it was a Romance language with a heavy connection to Latin, it still made a lot of sense to me as someone with a Slavic language background. But then, very often, it didn’t make any sense. I understood why the French had different “you-s” when speaking to different people, but I couldn’t understand the logic behind many of their tenses. So, language learning was always a culture learning for me; it made me see how studying foreign words helps you understand the reasoning behind them and fill the gaps that were missing.

France as I remember it. Central Paris. Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

I have been to France many times before, but I have always used English to communicate with people. This time, I hope to use my French despite the many mistakes I am certain I will make. The good thing about me as a language learner is that I am never shy to speak the language however wrong I may sound.

I hope to be corrected by the French, and I hope to be able to pick up some of the sounds and phrases from them as well as get insights into their culture, local life, and society not as a mere foreigner, but as someone who is genuinely curious and invested in digging deeper. My previous experience in France – and the fact that I am from Europe – gives me confidence and comfort about my time there. But I am ready to shatter a lot of stereotypes that I may unconsciously have, and I hope to pick up some street conversations and other things that can only be appreciated when interacting with people in the comfort of their native land and language.

I want to take my time in France to learn the language not only via school, but also through going to community events, movie theaters, social gatherings, and other experiences which make you feel like you belong – to the language, and to the culture, too. I am already watching French movies and listening to French podcasts, and they give me a lot of insights into France as its own universe. The movies and podcasts are made for the French, so sometimes, I don’t only lack the vocabulary to understand the words, but also the cultural context. My goal with this summer experience is to see whether I can fill in some of the missing gaps, and whether my cultural knowledge will improve as much as my vocabulary – or even more.

I hope this will be a fun yet challenging experience because I know that languages are not easy. They require our time, love, and care so we can fully appreciate the power of communication that they give us – and the power to open new universes.