When I first received the notification that I was accepted into the GTL program to not only study in France but also have the opportunity to learn the language, I can distinctly remember the wave of emotions that overwhelmed me as I sat stunned at my kitchen table. The feeling was a combination of excitement, uncertainty, and shock, but there was also a feeling that I had not expected: fear.
Going to France for me was indeed a last-minute decision. While my plans to study abroad in Korea fell through at the last minute due to COVID regulations, it put an end to any ambitions I could have there. France offered the best alternative to spending my time abroad this Spring semester. While grateful for the opportunity, I felt my stomach clench at the thought of spending almost five months in a foreign country where I do not know the language. Not only that, with no prior experience or interest in French culture, I found it difficult to imagine what life would be like in this unfamiliar country.
Some may wonder, what is it like traveling internationally during a pandemic? The simple answer is: it’s complicated. With Europe bouldering through the massive spike of Omicron cases, traveling to France required months of pre-planning. The time leading up to my departure was spent double checking all my required documents, including but not limited to: Passport, Vaccination Cards including the booster, Negative PCR Covid Test, GTL Enrollment Certificates, Sworn Entry Statements, and most importantly the Passe Sanitaire—the golden ticket into any public space across Europe.
After securing what I needed to enter the country, the trek to Paris was not only mentally draining, but also physically exhausting. Lugging one duffle, one backpack, and almost two full sized suitcases, I had to meander through the maze of kiosks, security checks, and terminals to finally reach the gate. As I heaved a sigh of relief after dropping my things to the ground and taking a short break at the gate before takeoff, it finally dawned on me that I was heading to Paris, a place romanticized in movies and prided for their posh culture and lifestyle. Even so, I still felt a tinge of regret and hesitation at my decision to study in France.
However, as I boarded the plane and settled into my seat, which happened to be the very last row on the plane, with generous legroom and privacy, I couldn’t help but think, “Claire, don’t regret it. You’re going to have the best time of your life.” Then, as if the gods had sent a sign of affirmation, the sun began to rise over France.
Arrival to Metz: 01/07/2022
After almost a grueling 24 hours of traveling, I finally stepped foot into Metz, my new home. While I was expecting a beautiful sunset over cobblestone alleys and accordion music outside cafes, I was greeted with gloomy skies, blistering cold weather, and silent streets. Not to mention, the rain that seemed to continue for hours became the bane of my existence for the next few days. Although the winter weather in Metz was a shift from the usual sunny winters in Georgia, the cultural immersion that I experienced within the first few days was enough to offset my freezing fingers and toes. Metz was much quieter than I expected, and the bakeries, restaurants, and even grocery stores seemed traditionally French with almost no English speakers. Even as I looked around at the cars passing on the street, the French students in my dorm, and the fashion styles that people wore, I started to notice interesting subtle cultural norms among French society–foreign to the States.
Being downtown during the first Saturday of the semester opened my eyes to an entire world of French traditions. It was as if my Youtube Screen had come to life. The architecture featured huge stone structures, quaint city stores, and bustling alleyways that became home to people drinking coffee, chatting, and listening to ‘Bella Ciao’ as the sun began to dip below the horizon. Castles and stores along the river became a beautiful blend of modern and ancient France, a reminder of the rich history within Metz. The food offered an even greater variety. The streets were lined with dozens of pastry stores featuring chocolate dipped croissants, king cake, and even powdered buns while the heart of downtown Metz boasted a mix of Italian, Turkish, and even Chinese food. Finally, the people who frequented the town upheld strong French values, sticking to their language and cultural norms. The sleek, chic style of long coats, scarves, and leather shoes were common defenses against the cold. For those working in restaurants, they always greeted us with a “Bonjour” and a smile on their faces.
While the first week in Metz was one to remember, there are still endless places to visit, things to see, and great experiences to check off my bucket list. My journey to understanding French culture is long. Nonetheless, I can’t wait to see what else Europe has in store.