Lessons from Paris / by Hannah Harley

As most of you know, I studied in Paris, France during the fall semester of my junior year. In those short four months, I forged the closest friendships, looked at more art than I thought possible, and fell in love with the little things. I spent hours in cafes, roaming those cobblestone streets, growing from the terrified individual who feared the simplest task to someone who had learned to revel in the difficulties of each day. 

My first day involved hours and hours of hesitantly analyzing the restaurant seating protocol while trying to gather the courage to enter an establishment. Intense hunger forced me to overcome my fears, and I finally forced myself inside of a small cafe situated on the Butte Montmartre. The waitress asked me many questions, to which I smiled. I fumbled over some sad attempt at pronunciation, ordering a crepe and an espresso. She smiled with soft sympathy, beholding the pathetic little American seated in front of her. 

I knew, sitting in solitude and terror in that little cafe, that this journey was going to teach me. 

Lesson 1: Swallow your pride. 

You will spend the better part of your time abroad making a complete fool of yourself. You will accidentally order a chocolate cat when you meant to ask for a hot chocolate. You might make mistakes that have legal consequences, so learn to beg a little bit. When swallowing your pride, note that America, while it may be your home country, is not necessarily the best country nor is it well liked or particularly good at anything. Typically, the French do not drink coffee on the go. At first, I was quite horrified. Um, excuse you. The metro seems like the perfect place to sip on that joe. No, no. The French take their time with their coffee, often nursing a cup of espresso for hours. Over time, sitting in a cafe for far too long became one of my favorite things, particularly since it only had to cost the price of an espresso. C'est parfait. 


Lesson 2Be open. 

I wish I could pretend that I went abroad with an open mind. I thought I was open minded. I was ready for new experiences and new art, but I was shut off. I didn't want new friends. I liked my old ones just fine. I didn't want to be burdened with the embarrassing task of practicing French. I wanted baguettes and Impressionist art without the difficulties of making it happen. 

I'll be honest. I was so bitter to be alone when I arrived that I was stand offish and rude to nearly every American I met. These people could not be more different than me. Ugh, who needs these know it alls? I DID. I was terrified that they would reject me. I was so terrified, in fact, that I rejected them before they could get a chance to reject me. And that, my friends, is the stupidest thing you could do when you're in desperate need of friends. So I swallowed my pride (eyyy, lesson 1!) and opened myself up to the vulnerabilities that come with friendship. 

(Sorry you had to go to London for the weekend, Anastasia...)

(Sorry you had to go to London for the weekend, Anastasia...)

Those beautiful humans gave me a second chance and I could not be more grateful. After all, I had no one in Paris. I knew no one on the continent. My nearest friend was thousands of miles away. How was I to survive without these people? 

They became my family. We celebrated Thanksgiving together. We traveled through Italy, Spain, Belgium, and Switzerland together. We saw thousands of works of art (and cried about it) together. We got into trouble with the police in Lille, talked philosophy in Florence, experienced an 100x life size uterus in Bern, and danced until 6:00 am in Barcelona... Together. And I love each one of them so dearly. 

So be open to loving, to living, to accepting all of the bad parts of others and to overcoming the bad parts of you. 

It's grainy and blurry and it's the last picture my phone took before it died that night. And it's the only photo of this little family. 

It's grainy and blurry and it's the last picture my phone took before it died that night.
And it's the only photo of this little family. 

Lesson 3Go on adventures. 

When you're sitting in your apartment, looking out at the Eiffel Tower, you automatically think that adventure will come to you. But the reality is that finding adventure is a task, even when you're abroad. So make a list of everything you want to do and everything you want to see and everywhere you want to eat. And make a plan to see as much as you can. 

I knew I wanted to see the museums in Paris. Paris has 153 museums situated within the city limits, and from that list, I made my selections. With almost religious regularity, three times a week, I would travel to a museum, spending time with art work and historical artifacts. By the end of the semester, I had gone on over 100 museum trips. (It also helped that they were almost all free thanks to my student pass and that my friend, Rachel, delighted in the trips as much as I did.) 

Lesson 4: It's okay to stay in. 

When you're expected to go on adventures everyday, you often get caught up in the chaos of it all and get burnt out. (But don't forget to post your #wanderlust picture on Instagram everyday! Everyday!! - But seriously. Do you follow me on Instagram?) If you are abroad for more than two weeks and are not a superhuman, I'd recommend throwing away the guilt that comes with staying in the great indoors and allowing yourself to relax. 

Take some time for you, even when the view looks like this..

Take some time for you, even when the view looks like this..

You have to give yourself these little personal days. You are, after all, adjusting to immense differences in culture, language, and food. These are not all easy matters. Some days, the struggle of getting a seat in a little cafe seems overwhelmingly daunting. Especially knowing that they'll probably forget about you and leave you there for three hours patiently awaiting a check. Do not make a habit of going to Subway or McDonald's or Starbucks, but allow yourself the small comforts of home when you're getting frazzled. You need to do some things for your mental health and sometimes, that means you stay in your little apartment with an American latte and a Disney movie instead of exploring the nooks and crannies of the Louvre. 

Lesson 5: It's not perfect. And that's what makes it awesome. 

My one friend, Anastasia, described her journal entries to me one night as we were getting drinks. When she first arrived, her journal was filled with joyous descriptions of the cobblestones and the baguettes. But as time wore on, she became bitter that Paris failed to be the ideal city that it has been heralded as. After all, Audrey Hepburn said, "Paris is always a good idea." 

But was Audrey Hepburn's Paris covered in urine? Did the French scoff at her when she fumbled with Euros (or in her case -- Francs)? Was it just because Audrey Hepburn had so much money and could afford the fancy water?? Where is the Paris for the people who can only afford tap water? Is it always a good idea? ALWAYS?

In Perception of Perfect, the photo series that stemmed from my four months in Paris and the subsequent book, I analyzed this experience. This phenomenon, high expectations for a travel destination, is often referred to as Jerusalem Syndrome. People go on these grand trips to experience the picturesque scenery, but what the postcards aren't telling you is that there is still trash on the street, urine on the walls, and overwhelming poverty. But in this work, I wanted to explore the simple truth that the 'bad' elements of any place make it real. I published the book in France with NegatifPlus, and alas, they only print in France. I am currently working on making it available in the United States.  So stay tuned! 

Lesson 6: Re-entry shock is real and it is painful.

When I got back to the states, I was elated with the outpouring of love. My parents and my sister greeted me at Pittsburgh International Airport on Christmas day with an enormous sign that read, "Beinvenue a la maison, (H)anna(h)!!!!" And what a reunion it was. We were hugging, celebrating, snuggling. It was Christmas and it was beautiful. 

Merry Christmas, indeed!!

Merry Christmas, indeed!!

But as time wore on, I struggled with the adjustments. I returned to Pittsburgh to start my spring semester. My friends, who were so kind to me, listened to me recall tales of Paris... Hours and hours of it, I'm sure. But when their patience had dissipated, I realized that no matter how many hours I spent audibly day dreaming about the experience, I could never fully explain it to them. 

I reached out to my Paris friends, who were struggling with their own adjustments as well. I lamented about the way the toilet flushes and the handles on doors. How was I supposed to get anything done when the nearest bakery was a bus ride away? Where was the fast metro and the chèvre?? 

It was worse than the original culture shock. This was my home. These were my people. This is my culture. And I felt like a foreigner. How do you explain that to people? I busied myself with photography and softball, hopeful that I would feel a sense of belonging again. After all, I had missed four months from these people's lives. Where did I fit in now that it was evident that they were fully capable of enjoying themselves without me? 

It sounds awfully depressing, and it was. I wasn't terribly sad or upset, but I felt like an outsider. I considered going to the counselor at school and begging her to make me a full blooded American again. But over time, my friends surrounded me in love and gave me vibrancy again. 

Lesson 7: You will be changed. Constantly

What I originally failed to understand directly following my return to the United States was that I had changed. I thought that America had gotten more confusing, weirder, scarier. I blamed people and this generation (why, I don't know... I'm part of this generation..?). There was new language that I didn't understand (n fleek??), new dances I couldn't comprehend. I scrambled for a scapegoat. I wanted to pin it on one specific thing that had changed the America I had known and morphed it into this unrecognizable beast. 

But I, foolishly thinking I was nearly the exact same person as I was 6 months ago, needed to come to terms with my own change. 

And that was terrifying and beautiful and I'm still figuring out what it all means. 

To France, 
Thank you for the oppurtunities to make a few thousand mistakes on your turf and for introducing me to amazing people. You forced me to be a better human, and I miss you everyday. 
Much love, as always. 

Photo by Rachel Rioles

Photo by Rachel Rioles

*To work with the relaxed nature of this blog post, all images are iPhone photos. (Did you know that National Geographic is sending out photographers with iPhones to capture specific photo series for them?? See Jim Richardson's photo series on the Scottish Highlands here.)