Study Abroad - Walk to Metro - Part 3 of 7

After landing in Paris, meeting my host family, suffering through my first French cheese plate and falling asleep on the opposite side of the world from the bed I last slept in, I was so over stimulated by the next morning that I hardly considered it daunting to attempt to find my way to school by myself.

My host mother had a map out and was highlighting the path I should follow from their apartment to the nearest metro stop. From there, it was expected that I was intelligent enough to read a metro map and just figure it out. My host mother, who actually enjoyed opening her home to exchange students, knew to speak slowly as she described street names, landmarks, angles of intersections. Despite all of her careful instructions, I, of course, got lost. This will come of no surprise to anyone who knows me.

As I walked briskly down the sidewalks, trying to feign a look that said, “Don’t mess  with me. I know where I’m going and I’m going there quickly. And oh yeah, I’m definitely not American,” I suspect I looked more like a lost American nevertheless. While my heart beat a mile a minute and my palms grew sweaty, I remember being calmed by the notion that I couldn’t truly get lost. Paris, like many metropolitan cities, is a labyrinth of underground metro lines. I knew I’d eventually stumble across an entrance and find my way from there. And that’s exactly what I did.

Nothing quite compares to that first day when everything looks new and unfamiliar. You don’t recognize street names or restaurants or storefronts. You have no idea how many blocks it is to the nearest grocery store or which way is north. Yet you recognize that you’ll learn to know these locations like the back of your hand. You’ll only have that experience of feeling truly lost around your new home once (alright, maybe twice in my case).

After returning from my semester abroad, I watched a film directed by Cédric Klapisch called “L’Auberge Espagnole,” a film I would encourage anyone considering study abroad to watch. The protagonist Xavier (played by Romain Duris), a French student, moves from Paris to Barcelona for a year to learn Spanish. He rents a room in an apartment with 6 flatmates from all over Europe. The film becomes a study of communicating and cultivating friendships that cross cultural lines, building a relationship with a new culture and a new city, and the process of self-discovery along the way.

As Xavier’s year abroad comes to a close and he’s evaluating his experience, several lines of dialogue speak very clearly to those of us who have moved to another city far from home. Xavier contemplates how “when you first arrive in a new city, nothing makes sense. Everythings unknown, virgin... After you've lived here, walked these streets, you'll know them inside out. You'll know these people. Once you've lived here, crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times... it'll belong to you because you've lived there. That was about to happen to me, but I didn't know it yet.

My last weeks in Paris in 2005, I remember thinking the same thing. Everything was so familiar that I almost couldn’t remember the feeling of panic that first day when I couldn’t find my way to the metro. The street signs were familiar, comforting and carried memories with them. I could walk the path from the metro stop to what I considered “my apartment” with my eyes closed.  I didn’t need a metro map anymore. Paris was no longer an exotic tourist destination. It had been mine, a city I lived in for one semester of my life. And I was no longer a tourist.