Saturday morning musings on life abroad

Saturday morning musings on life abroad

It’s a Saturday morning in Paris. The sunlight hits early here; I’m usually awakened by it at 7:00 am at the latest. This morning I covered my face with pillows and made it until 8:15 before caving in to the day and getting up. I watch some TV and finish up writing an abstract I didn’t get done yesterday, then throw some clothes in to wash at the laundromat and settle in to my favorite coffee shop for a ristrettto and some writing.

(I’ve got 45 minutes until my clothes are done: a good amount of time to ponder life.)

It’s beginning to hit me how few weekends I have left in Paris, right as I’m starting to feel like my life here is just life, and not a prolonged vacation. I’ve been waiting to feel this way since I got here, without knowing or having any idea of how to know how long it might take. Unlike any other move I’ve made in my life, this one didn’t come with a built-in cohort of immediate friends, like marching band did for me in college and my graduate program did when I moved to Pittsburgh. For the first time, it was up to me to figure out how I could make the most of my time.

I can summarize my time in Paris so far in 4 stages. One, the excited phase: I’m in Paris! This has been a dream of mine for 12 years, and it’s finally happening! Two, the settling in phase: I’m not on vacation, but everything is great, and I need to enjoy every minute because I realize it’ll go by too fast, anyway. Three, the homesick phase: crap, I’m missing out on a lot at home, and things are moving along without me. Should I really be here instead of there? Did I make the right decision? (Lots of crying and existential crises.) Four, the life is life phase: 5 months in, realizing that it doesn’t make sense to regret choosing one path over another, that life is full of decisions to be made and there are pros and cons to every situation. Taking more initiative to be a part of things and meet people, leading to some really supportive and enlightening conversations with new and old connections. Realizing that even on a highly anticipated adventure like this is for me, it is reasonable – and okay – to have highs and lows, because life is life no matter where in the world you are. (Special shout out to the friend who I talked this out with, after we both had people challenge us on feeling this way.)

If anything, I’m learning here to take every new experience first as a learning experience, and to not judge things because of their differences. I read a quote somewhere once that said that just because things are different doesn’t mean they are weird. This runs through my head here every day, whenever I encounter a new situation, or a discussion among friends on a topic I hadn’t considered from their perspective. These scenarios are not exclusive to living abroad, but being completely separated from everything you’re familiar with has a way of teaching you lessons in a blatant way that’s much harder to experience when you have your comfort zone to fall back onto.

I’m also learning to accept that there will be things I don’t get to do or see in Paris, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t done and seen a lot. My threshold has become that as long as I’m doing something I enjoy, I shouldn’t regret not doing something else that I also might enjoy. That’s also given me permission to stop doing things I’m not having fun with, whether that be leaving a museum without seeing the entire exhibit or not cooking because I’d rather try the plethora of restaurants near my apartment. Life is about choices, and moment-to-moment I’d rather choose the one that will make me the most satisfied with how I’m spending all of my time.

Surprisingly to some, this also means that I likely won’t travel to as many different countries around Europe as I initially thought; I decided early on that I want to get the most out of Paris while I’m living here, even if that means spending from my travel fund to be able to do more. It’s a decision I continue to be happy with for two reasons: one, because living somewhere and visiting somewhere are two very different experiences, and I don’t want to feel the need to come back to Paris as a tourist to do “life” things that I skipped out on while living here; and two, anywhere else I travel to will be as a tourist, whether I go this year or in the future; I know this won’t be the last time I am in Europe.

With a bit under two months left to go on my time here, I’ve finally been able to make peace with the multitude of emotions that I’ve felt at various times over the past 4.5 months in Paris. It’s been just recently that I’ve begun to wonder if I should have applied for a longer fellowship (would I feel more integrated into French daily life if I had more time to get accustomed to it?). At the same time, I wonder if now I’d feel as content with the life I do have here if I didn’t know that I’d get to see my friends back home by the fall. If I’d miss them for longer, would I still want to be here? The truth is, I don’t know. I like adventure and novelty, but I also like to share it with the people who know me, and even with all the technology that permits that from afar, it’s not quite the same experience as face-to-face communication.

What I do know for sure is that this experience has opened my eyes to so many new paths for what the future can hold; it’s only from talking with people – especially scientists – who have done things differently from people I know back home that I even could have conceived of some of the possibilities. It’s exciting and hard at once to have challenged time and time again things you thought were certain about life and your future.
So I think this experience abroad is meant to be just as it is. There are things I’ll be happy to settle back into back in Pittsburgh just as there are things I know I’ll miss from Paris when I go. But such is life: beginnings and ends; middles that change you.

My laundry is done now – more musings to follow on another morning, I’m sure.

Germany travels

Germany travels

May was such a busy month that I’m still playing catch-up! (With blogging and everything else!) At the beginning of the month, I headed to Germany (Berlin-Mainz-Berlin) for a combo vacation and work trip.

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is…big. After spending the equivalent of a week there, that’s still my takeaway.

Berlin?

I had always been interested in visiting Berlin because of all the World War II history there, and for the first 3 days of my trip, that’s what I filled my days with. I visited Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust memorial, the Berlin Wall, and numerous monuments around the city, including the plaza where books were burned on Kristallnacht. While it was interesting to see first-hand where all sorts of historical events took place, all of the memorials have a distinctive German perspective to them that makes them different, from an emotional perspective, from how the same events are treated elsewhere in the world. Purely from my view visiting these locations as a tourist, there seemed to consistently be a level of trying to de-emphasize Germany’s role in WWII, by (too) starkly contrasting modern Germany from Germany in the 1930s-40s. I understand the perspective but disagree with how it was portrayed.

There were, though, some things I did like about Germany. I had a great Sunday touring around with a friend who used to live there, and who traveled over for the weekend to visit! It’s great to get the local perspective on a new city. Besides visiting some popular locations like the Berlin Wall and the Reichstag building (German parlaiment), we created a bus tour around the city using public transit routes, and we went to an outdoor food/flea market/festival at a local park.

On top of the Reichstag building

And while most of the food in Germany wasn’t super, I did eat a LOT of wurst, especially currywurst; and sampled doner kebab as recommended by numerous friends; and after Googling “best schnitzel Berlin,” ate a delicious schnitzel with a side of beers! I also found real bagels! I knew they were notoriously impossible to find in Paris, and apparently that is no different anywhere in Europe. Whatever Europeans call bagels, it’s nothing like the chewy, soft things that exist back home. At Shakespeare and Sons in Berlin, I found the closest-to -home tasting bagel that I’ve eaten in 5 months! A simple egg bagel with chive cream cheese made my day.

Following my Berlin vacation, I took a 6 hour train ride to Mainz via Frankfurt to go to the first of three conferences in a row (!), this one called CIMT, all about cancer immunotherapy.

Elves!

Mainz is the cutest little town ever! The buildings are a lovely shade of pink that matched the tree blossoms, and around around the town’s main square are all these little statues of elves! It’s capped off with a magical fountain comprised of figures of mythical creatures that somehow fits perfectly into its quaint backdrop.

There even was a rainbow when I visited…kind of perfect.

In the extra one day I had in Mainz and between sessions at the conference, I really loved getting to explore this little town. For example, on my first morning, I enjoyed a brunch buffet outdoors, overlooking the fountain and town square. 

At the edge of the town is a well-manicured waterfront along the Rhine, with walking paths, benches, and gardens. If you turn 180 degrees, you’re greeted with more pink houses or sleek modern architecture. You can’t lose with the views there!

And the food…well, still nothing special compared to what I am used to in France, or even Pittsburgh. Plus, the conference served us meals for the two days, which were nice because they were free, but they weren’t amazing either. What I did find and live was a little frozen yogurt bar called Mia Gelateria, that besides having yummy frozen yogurt had the option of topping your dessert with shots! Vanilla and Bailey’s for the win!  😉

After two nights in Mainz, I took the train back to Berlin for another conference. Neither the conference (on women in science – a topic for another post) nor the area of Berlin in which it was located were that great, unfortunately; I spent a lot of time skipping conference sessions after I realized that I fundamentally disagreed with the conference organizers on many issues, and instead enjoyed the fresh air around Freie Universitat Berlin, where the conference was located (and since there was nothing else to do nearby). On my last afternoon there, I did enjoy a walk around Alexanderplatz (back near the center of the city) for one last currywurst before heading back to Paris (for another conference)!

So, takeaways from this trip? One, don’t go to Germany for the food. Two, get a taste of both city and small-town life; they’re very different. Visit the cities for the history and towns for the old-world charm. And three, appreciate every travel experience for what it is – a new experience to take something away from; every new location won’t necessarily be a new favorite.

Languages & connecting to the world

Languages & connecting to the world

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.

An introvert in Paris

An introvert in Paris

Is Paris for introverts? If so, certainly not in the way a U.S. city is. Blending in here takes a whole different set of tools than across the pond.

Despite the reputation that Paris has for being unfriendly, there’s actually a cultural framework that seems to dictate otherwise. Saying “bonjour” when you enter a shop or restaurant and “bonne journée” or “au revoir” when you leave, or greeting all your coworkers as you walk by in the morning, or wishing “bon appetit” when you walk through the kitchen area at lunch time, is all expected – unlike the attitude that is typical in the U.S. in these situations. In fact, it draws more attention to you if you miss out on these standard greetings. As an introvert and as an American, this may have been the biggest adjustment I had to make upon coming here. Blending in – something introvert me was happy to attempt – actually dictated speaking up more!

The American standard of looking at your cell phone to avoid engaging with people doesn’t fly here either! On the contrary, since most French people don’t walk around with their phones out, doing this pegs you as a tourist under the assumption that you’re looking at your phone for directions – and draws (unwanted) attention. Instead, keep your phone in your pocket and use headphones if you need to hear directions (a tip I got once I arrived here; it’s served me well!). Walking with your head up and with an air of confidence in your step will help you look more like a Parisian than an outsider and avoid having to engage in small talk with well-meaning restaurant owners and others trying to help you get on your way.

These are the two biggest situations that I would normally handle differently as an introverted American. Being aware of these cultural differences will help you to fit into a new social fabric and feel comfortable during your visit to the amazing city of Paris!

Paris – One Month

Paris – One Month

That went quickly! It’s now been more than a month since I touched down in Paris on January 25th. (I drafted this post on February 27th…so this is truly only about my first month!) It flew by! In fact, I almost let the one month anniversary pass without even realizing it – though once I did, I treated myself to (French) onion soup and a cocktail as I was walking home 🙂

If we’re friends on Facebook, you can find all my pictures from the past month (and ongoing) at this link. If not, enjoy the photos at the end of the post!

But back to the main topic – this month. What an adventure it’s been!

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