Even within Europe, Paris often seems like it’s in a bubble of its own – but only when viewed from the outside. In Paris, life goes on as usual. It’s not until I’m visiting other big European cities that I realize how different life in Paris is from other Western cities.
For example, in both Amsterdam and Berlin, you can find many American chain stores, such as KFC, TJ Maxx, and Dunkin’ Donuts. Convenience stores sell Kit Kats and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Not so in Paris.
And – as many of the French people I’ve met readily admit – outside of France, people indeed tend to speak better English than do French people.
And yet, within that Parisian bubble, I feel like I fit in better into day to day life than I do while traveling, and I think it has to do with the language. There’s a level of comfort that’s associated with walking down the street and understanding the signs, even with understanding fragments of conversations as you pass by other people. Even without any of the other familiarities, I’ve found that language is, for me, the first thread I need to feel connected to a place. For example, Germany, where I’ve been for the past 10 days, I’ve found in fact to be an exceptionally challenging country to travel around, knowing no German.
Yes, as hard as it can be to sometimes struggle in holding a conversation in French, I will always prefer being able to understand over being able to communicate. Both are frustrating problems to encounter, but I realize the immense value in the ability to have a deep understanding of your surroundings, even – especially? – if they are dissimilar to what you are accustomed to.
And English, as much as its thought of as being the language of science, isn’t always the optimal language to use in daily science-related interactions, whether in the lab with local staff or even when traveling elsewhere for scientific meetings. I believe there is value in scientists learning the local language if they move abroad, or anticipating that there may be challenges in communication if expecting 100 percent English all the time. I can say that while I was prepared to speak French at the lab and in day-to-day life in Paris, I still expected that I could switch into English as necessary and be understood. It hasn’t always been the case there, nor while traveling, at the same time challenging my preconceptions about life here and opening my eyes to the challenges that language barriers impart on our ability to connect and share with others. I think this lesson is incredibly hard to come by for native English speakers like myself due to the conception that everyone will speak our first language, so our being able to speak another language is just a bonus for everyone around us.
There are many factors that influence how connected we each feel to a place, and living in Paris and being constantly at the edge of my comfort zone has opened my eyes to what I personally need in order to form that connection. Language is not something to take for granted; it impacts every aspect of daily life and has a huge part in feeling comfortable existing somewhere. It’s the main thread connecting each of us to the world around us.