I will be living in the home of a wonderful French woman for the next four months, eating her amazing food and sleeping in a comfortable bed that is many times better than my dorm bed back at Syracuse. Based on those factors alone, adjusting to life in Strasbourg ought to be easy, liking slipping into a romantic movie. However, under the thin veneer of both cultures being of the “Western”, one quickly discovers that there are simply some factors that are harder to adjust to.
First is the shower. Americans love showers. We stand under the hot spray and think, we luxuriously rub in the shampoo, and we are like the steam. Some of us spend up to twenty minutes in there! The French don’t necessarily dislike showers… but they see it as a much more utilitarian point in the day. They clean themselves quickly and get out. They do not invest in fancy bathrooms because they simply do not spend much time in there. My host mother made sure I knew on the very first night that Europeans are very concerned with not wasting anything, especially electricity and water. Therefore, the next morning when my alarm blared, I felt my way toward the bathroom through a pitch black hallway, wanting only to use a light for the room I was presently using, and then took the fastest shower of my life. Perhaps I took things to the extreme of her expectation, but I didn’t want to act too American!
And yet… I’m sure I stand out. My French is passable at best, so although I order in French at the restaurants, I quickly slip into English if I need to ask further questions and even when I speak French I must have a heavy foreigner accent! I even wonder suspiciously if somebody just looking at me in the street knows that there isn’t a drop of French blood in my body. Clearly they’ll know when the map comes out… but when I’m walking… Do I greet people with a nod, a smile? Do I ignore them altogether? How obvious will my American status be if I just want to wear my running shoes one day because they’re comfortable?! Would they find it silly that I’m highly bent on buying myself a chocolate eclair tomorrow?
Perhaps I shouldn’t care so much about these details, but to me a big component of studying abroad is attempting to assimilate into the surrounding culture. It’s the best way to see life from their point of view. For that reason, dinner with my host mother is one of the best parts of my day. Talking to her can be eye opening in small ways.
Hopefully, at the end of four months, I won’t be asking these questions anymore. Perhaps at the end of four months I’ll be happy to answer these questions for future study abroad students.