9 Things I Didn’t Expect When I Came to France

I had studied French during all four years of high school and learned a decent bit about their culture, so I figured I had a decent idea of how France would be like before I studied there. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. Here are nine of the things that I wasn’t really expecting before coming to France and some tips to help you overcome them!

1. Clothes: Everyone wears jeans and only jeans. And if you’re a girl, its high-waisted jeans. I tried this for the first few days, then I realized I hated being so dang hot 24/7. I really don’t know how they do it. What’s even crazier is the fact that they are usually wearing jackets too. Absolute madness!!! Now, I just wear my nice shorts and welcome the stares from everyone(may or may not be because the shorts).

Tip: Bring at least two different pairs of jeans if you want to fit in and not get the endless stares like me!

2. Appearance: I really stick out in a crowd. Everywhere I go, I always get many people staring at me. It could be the shorts, could be the fact I’m about a foot taller than everyone else or that I look like I’m from the USA(some have thought Netherlands). I didn’t expect that everywhere I went, I would constantly get stared at because of my appearance.

Tip: Don’t be tall or wear colored, pastel shorts like me.

3. Driving: The drivers here are CRAZY!! They weave in and out of lanes, dodge motorcycles that seem to have no rules and do it all while staying calm, cool and collected. Not to mention, they actually let drivers over when they have their signal on, and they do all of this without undercover cops patrolling the streets to hand out tickets(they use cameras). The best way to describe their driving is organized chaos. It is 10x worse than anything in the USA, trust me.

Tip: Don’t drive yourself unless necessary. Take the metro or walk and burn off those calories from the cheese and bread!

4. Food: Before I came to France, I assumed I’d be eating a lot of French food. Crazy right? But everything in Paris and the major cities has been Westernized and it was like eating back at home, except not as good. Even when we wouldn’t be in residential areas it seemed like all you could find were burger shops and Italian restaurants. Of course, you can go get an amazing crepe at just about any place you go, but you’re hard pressed to find restaurants with truly French cuisine. Don’t fret though, you can still find great food(like the fish and chips above) you’ll just have to search a little harder.

The main thing I didn’t expect when it came to food, was the fact that the seafood tastes could be so different in France than the USA. When I stayed at Mont St-Michel, I ordered a Fruit de Mer(fruits of the sea). I was looking forward to eating some scallops, shrimp, fish, mussels and crab. I was in for quite the surprise when they brought me out a plate with only one of those. My first reaction was to literally throw the plate across the room. Yeah, a little over the top, but it was warranted. It was one of the most unappetizing dishes I had ever seen. I gave it the ol’ college try and had some of these alien snails, prawns that had their insides explode on my hands and much, much more. If you’re like my brothers right now, you’re thinking I’m just a picky eater. That might be true, but even my parents couldn’t choke down this food. Needless to say, it was the worst food experience of my life and it still gives me the heeby-geezies thinking about it. Don’t worry too much though, I had fantastic lamb after that and the best vanilla ice cream I have ever had for dessert.

Tip: Try and ask locals where the best restaurants are and try and eat outside of the touristy areas. Also, try and clarify what exactly you will be getting and don’t assume it is the same as at home.

5. Language: They. Talk. So. Fast. When I listen to them speak it is like one long word that never stops. Add in the fact that they are speaking a foreign language and you’re completely toast figuring out what they are asking/telling you. And before you say, “Well why did you go to a country you don’t speak the language”, I DO!!! I am not fluent, but I know enough to be dangerous. Hopefully by the end of the summer I will be proficient enough to understand everyone and communicate much easier.

Whenever we went out my parents would typically ask them right away if they spoke English and typically the waitress/waiter did. We were at a nice fish and chips place(Poissonpare, highly recommended) on the Loire River in Nantes and my parents went through the usual routine and found out our waitress didn’t speak English and really didn’t seem very interested in having us eat there. So I stepped in and starting using my French skills to ask questions and order all the food for us. Everything changed after that. Our waitress was peppy and sweet, and no longer looked like she wanted to throw us into the Loire. When I went to pay, she was very sweet and was trying to tell me something in French, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying because she was speaking a million miles an hour. After, having her repeat it multiple times, she ended up telling me in broken English “congrats on your French, it’s very good”. HA! I didn’t even understand her complimenting me on my French. So much for being very good… In all seriousness though, it made my day. Let this be a reminder to always try your best to use the local language when visiting a foreign country because you never know what can come from it.

Tip: Know some French before coming. Also, make an effort to show you are trying and they will typically be helpful and speak in English.

6. Beaches: France has some amazing beaches… and they’re not even on the Mediterranean. I usually associated Italy, Thailand and Fiji with having nice beaches, but France definitely had a surprise in store for me!

For my parents last day in Nantes, we drove 1.5 hours outside of Nantes to Ile de Noirmoutier on the Atlantic Coast. What I thought would be an okay day trip turned into us discovering the most beautiful beach I’ve ever been to. It had nice sand, a great town around it, nice blue-green water and many trails that led to semi-private, picturesque beaches. I may not have been able to get into the water because it was still too chilly, I can say with confidence it is one of the best beaches in France and everyone should go soak up the sun on the beautiful Les Dames beach of Noirmoutier.

Tip: Don’t skip out on the Atlantic Coast beaches. They may not be as famed as the Riviera, but they are just as beautiful.

7. Smoking: I had no idea how many people smoked in France. I am used to seeing a few people a day back at home, but when we were going through France about 50% of people smoked. No, I’m not exaggerating. It was absolutely mindboggling for me, because I now see more people smoking in 5 minutes than I would in an entire day at home. Basically the only place they can’t smoke is inside the restaurants and hotels. If you have issues with smoke, COME PREPARED!!

Tip: Eat inside restaurants if the smoke bothers you.

8. Tourists: I hate being ‘that tourist’, but there are just too many of them out there. We came when it isn’t even peak season, and I completely hated some of the places(Palace of Versailles) that I knew I would like, simply because there were 10x too many people there. I couldn’t enjoy the palace, the Musee Orsay and many other places because you would be packed in like sardines with people who don’t care that you’re trying to enjoy the moment.

At one point in the palace, some short little kid was bumping into me and I had mumbled something like “Watch out little guy”. Turns out it really was just that! An extremely short man, twice my age.

Tip: Visit main tourist attractions during the middle of the week. Also, plan your visits outside of the peak season of June, July and August.

9. Markets: Before I came here, I assumed everyone did their shopping like we do in the USA. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. First off, everyone here has to have their own reusable bags or a cart and if you don’t they will make you buy one. Secondly, most people walk to the market just about every day. They’ll get their fruits and veggies, protein for the day and a delicious baguette. When I realized this, I was thinking, “You mean they don’t hoard away 17 years of food in their basement fridge? Weird.” After going shopping a few times, I realized I definitely like this better. You always have fresh food. You get to exercise and burn off all those calories from the cheeses and baguettes. You just feel healthier.

Tip: Buy a few reusable bags and enjoy the daily ritual of walking to the market for fresh produce.

This list is by no means all inclusive of everything that I didn’t expect, but it highlights the main topics. Be sure to follow the tips to help make your time in France easier and more fun!

P.S. Most of this is applicable to every country I visited in Europe, so be prepared regardless of where you go!

5 Reasons You Should Study in Bordeaux, France

I am Morgan a senior economics major here at the University of Louisville. In Spring 2016 I had the chance to study abroad in Bordeaux, France and had the time of my life. I will save you the ‘my entire life changed’ story because that’s not what happened. I will say that it was a blast and being in Europe for 5 months before starting my senior year, and was one of the greatest experiences in my college career. So here are the top five reasons that you need should seriously consider studying in Bordeaux for the semester.

  1. The business school in Bordeaux is ideally built for juniors or seniors to get masters classes while still in undergraduate studies; it gives a very intriguing perspective on classes that you may see in an MBA setting. That does not necessarily mean that the classes are infinite times harder, but they can be challenging. The class schedule is also unique for the masters program because each class is a month long, meaning you can focus on one or two studies at a time. One last note on the classes are unlike anything you can take at UofL including sustainable marketing, economics of real estate, and my personal favorite wine marketing.
  2. City living was honestly one of the best parts of being in Bordeaux and the housing options were beautiful. While the school doesn’t have the traditional on-campus housing options and you can still do the homestay with a French family. However, what I did, and what I would do again, was find someone in the program to live with (via Facebook) and stay more in the city center. This not only gave me a good chance to get to know people that I was studying abroad with, but I also got to actually fulfill my dreams of living in a city by myself and exploring something new everyday; my new experiences were endless including restaurants, wine bars, coffee shops, boutiques, the new neighborhoods, and the different public gardens. This was a unique experience to studying in Bordeaux because most programs require some kind of homestay or on-campus housing.
  3. The French lifestyle is THE best honestly on any given day you will see everyone outside enjoying the beautiful waterfront area and all the indoor/outdoor restaurants. Especially in Bordeaux you can see how leisurely life in France is. Even on days that you seem to have run out of entertainment or items to keep you occupied, or you just want a day without stress; you can embark on ‘getting cultured’ and soaking up the ease of the French lifestyle.
  4. The access to travel not only in France but also to other countries is super easy. Bordeaux has there own train station and airport, and they are working on an even faster train to Paris (seriously less than three hours) for even more accessible and cheaper travel! Some of my favorite places to go were Marseille, Nice, Paris, Dublin, Ireland, and Marrakech, Morocco.
  5. You didn’t think I wouldn’t mention wine, did you? Part of the French leisurely lifestyle is enjoying all of the culture that Bordeaux has to offer. Bordeaux is one of the largest wine exports in France and its largest economic product surrounds so much of the culture. You will see people enjoying glasses of red during lunch and people carrying bottles of wine around the city. I would definitely suggest visiting chateaus and vineyards to really soak up the experience.

A Survival Guide to Paris Public Transit

Hey there! Before I start with this post, my first in a series of survival guides for life here in France, I thought I’d introduce myself. I’m Ariel, a junior marketing major studying at ESSEC, a business university in Cergy, a suburb about 40 minutes north of Paris.

That being said, I take public transport all the time. I use it to get to and from class, get down into Paris, and travel around France. I’ve used probably every form of transport available here, from buses to the RER to the Metro. I’ve also had the *lovely* opportunity to get to deal with maintenance being done on the train tracks, resulting in a partial shutdown of the RER, which is how I get home.

So yeah, I consider myself a bit of an expert on navigating Paris’s public transit system. Since Louisville doesn’t really have public transport, the system in Paris can be a bit confusing at first, especially if you don’t speak French. I thought I’d help clear up a few things. Here are my top 5 tips when riding Paris public transport.

1. Vianavigo is your BFF

Vianavigo is an app that helps you navigate the Paris public transit system. You put in your destination and the app uses your location to figure out the best route for you to get from Point A to Point B. There’s also a map of the entire train system and timetables, both of which have proved quite useful for me.

My favorite thing about it is that it lets you know if there’s any kind of issues with the transit you’re going to be taking. That’s how I found out about the work being done on the RER.

2. Follow the crowd

If you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, watch everybody else first. For example, when coming home from Paris one night, the train I was on suddenly stopped and everyone got off. I had no idea what was going on, but I followed the crowd to a group of buses that were apparently set up to get us to various train stops. I use the “monkey see, monkey do” rule a lot when I’m traveling, especially if I don’t speak the language of that country.

Note: you’ll see a lot of people jumping over turnstiles or sneaking in behind people. This is because they don’t have tickets. This is illegal and you will be punished if caught. Always have a valid ticket or Metro pass.

3. Know how to pronounce the name of your stop or have it written down

If you need help, go to the ticket window or look for someone wearing an SNCF uniform. However, they won’t be able to help you if you can’t tell them were you need to go. If you’re afraid of butchering the name, have it written down or pull up your handy Vianavigo app and show that to them. They’ll quickly be able to tell that you don’t speak French, so they’ll use hand gestures and, in some cases, a bit of English to get the point across.

4. There will be armed police/soldiers and baggage check points everywhere

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, the country has been in a state of emergency. This means that at major train stations and tourist attractions, there will be mandatory bag checks. Just have your bag open, don’t act suspicious, and you’ll be fine.

You’ll also see armed soldiers a lot, at train stations, tourist attractions, and even just in the street. I would freak out if I saw this at home, but here in Paris, it’s totally normal. I’ve even walked to the train station near my apartment and found soldiers randomly walking around. The only time I ever get bothered by the heightened security is when “suspicious bags” are found and the trains are halted until the police have checked it out. Aside from that, I’ve actually grown to like it. It makes me feel safe, especially when I’m walking by myself at night, after class or down in Paris.

5. Public transit is easy to use

When there’s not work being done on the rails and workers aren’t on strike, the public transit system here in Paris is very user-friendly. There’s maps in all the Metro stations, so you can easily find out what train you need (if you haven’t downloaded Vianavigo). There are plenty of signs. And to figure out if the train coming up to the platform is yours, just look at the helpful screens on the platform. You’ll either see the terminus station for your direction or, at some of the larger Metro stations, your stop will be lit up. Easy peasy.

There you have it. My top 5 tips for surviving the Paris public transit system. It might seem unfamiliar, but as long as you have a valid ticket, you observe the people around you, and you know how to read a sign, you’re good to go. Just don’t freak out when you see a bunch of armed soldiers strolling by.

Louisville ~ Nantes

France was never at the top of my bucket list but when I was told that UPS would pay for me to go, I was all about it. I wouldn’t be near Paris, instead I would be studying in a smaller town in Brittany called Nantes. I decided I wanted to stay with a host family so I could get a real, authentic feel of what life in France was like. The closer my departure got, the more excited I got. I have wanted to travel for a long, long time and knowing that we would have 3-day weekends off, I started planning my trips immediately. There were so many places I wanted to visit while I was in Europe and had the chance- Rome, Barcelona, London, Venice, Munich, and most of all Prague. I decided not to plan anything in advance though so I could make plans with other people wanting to travel. I got the time off I needed from UPS, booked my ticket, emailed my host family and was ready to go. My adventure began when I left Louisville and it has been nothing but ups and downs since I’ve been here. First was the flight; Wow, 12 hours on a plane will really get you beat. I landed in my small city of Nantes and took a taxi to my host family’s house. That was my first taxi ride and I was terrified. It was raining and the driver was driving like a maniac and almost ran over a biker and then took the time to yell at the biker when we passed him. We finally got to the house and I was so relieved. Then I walked up to door, rang the bell and nothing happened. I rang a few more times and then started to panic. They knew I was coming right? so where were they? I walked around up and down the street emailing and texting the hosts and my advisors from both schools. I was terrified I would be stuck in this strange city with no place to stay and nowhere to go. Finally, the host mum text me back saying she would be home in two hours, apparently they were expecting me two days later and were just as confused as I was. I don’t know where the miscommunication occurred but I felt like such an imposition and was put on the futon until my room was ready but I was happy just to have a roof over my head.
The next few days were great. I got to explore the city and relax and even take a trip to the beach! Then school started. It was great to meet all these new people and it helped that the class I was in was so fun and had a great teacher. My first free weekend I decided to go to Paris. I booked a train ticket and a hostel and went on my way. When I finally arrived I was so excited to see everything that I decided to walk to my hostel… and hour and a half later I arrived at this small, hole-in-the-wall, home in the middle of china town to a room I shared with 5 other girls. Paris was crazy for me. It’s massive and there’s new things to see and do every time you turn around. I got lucky with beautiful weather and enough time to see all the main spots even though my trips got cut short because of a weird situation with my ride home. Then it was back to Nantes and school and planning for the next adventure!
More to come…