Beyond the Bobble-Head by Elizabeth Tippett

After months of anticipation, two plane rides, navigating the Parisian metro, and a couple hours on one of Europe’s marvelous trains, I made it to Avignon, France. The city is gorgeous. It’s easy to look past the abundant graffiti to see all sparkling stone, terra cotta roofs, and windows framed by brightly colored shutters.

After spending a day in a hotel, surrounded by twenty other people with whom I could safely communicate in a concoction of English and French (franglais), the time came to settle in with our host families. I have to confess, I was terrified. Questions raced through my head, echoing my family’s questions months before. “What if I couldn’t understand them at all? What if I offended them? What if they didn’t like me?” As superficial as these concerns seem, they were substantial enough to turn me into a bobble head who only knew one word of French. “Oui.”

My host mom (Joelle) greeted Kim, the other Ohio University student living with me, and I with an enormous smile which was unexpected and refreshing considering the stereotype that the French are aloof with everyone but their closest friends. On the way to her house, she talked to us about the theater company she helps to run and pointed out different aspects of the city. She might as well have been speaking in Latin. All I could do was employ my bobble head strategy and gape at the ancient city wall and centuries old architecture.

But, happily, jetlag and culture shock eventually subsided and I am now able to communicate in more than blank stares and nods. Our host parents took Kim and I to see a play, an adaption of the story Blanche Neige (Snow White). Although I already knew the story and despite the fact that I knew the play was for children, I felt a sense of accomplishment upon realizing I could understand the entire thing. While yes, normal French conversation sometimes baffles me and my verb tense skills could be surpassed by a ten year old here, I can confidently say that I have a base.

The dream-like vacation sensation that I’d been basking in subsided upon the first day of classes. Unlike Ohio University, universities in France are contained in one giant building and that, fortunately for me, means that there’s less opportunity to get lost. I think I’ll enjoy my classes, especially one about the French Resistance during World War II.

These first weeks have been filled with highs and lows, a medley of victories and defeats. Honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. After much gentle mocking and botched attempts at the dinner table, I’ve learned how to properly say “mayo-nezze.” I’ve already learned so much about the language, the culture, and myself through the mistakes I’ve made and the way I’ve reacted to them.

Of course there are days where I feel like my French has improved by leaps and bounds and other days when I wonder if the whole country conspires to jumble up their French just to confuse me. But I have already learned that the key to surviving culture shock and discourage is persistence and to remember that every experience is a learning one. 

For more head-swirling stories visit Elizabeth’s full-time blog at


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