Finding a Niche by Elizabeth Tippett

Much to my amazement, I have been in France for over a month. Culture shock has, at last, subsided, meaning that I can finally hold meaningful conversations in French and I can now find the university without getting lost. Although I must confess, I do miss ice cubes.

This past month has been one consumed with exploration, with attempting to find a way to fit in this foreign country. Part of my quest to find my niche has been to attempt to dress like the locals. So I bought a pair of black tights and a dress with the black and white horizontal stripe pattern that I see worn in at least ten different styles every day. I put on my new “ventiments” and admired myself in the mirror. Satisfied with my perceived level of “frenchness” in my appearance, I turned around and promptly snagged my tights on some Velcro. This happened not once, but twice. The French look: Under construction.

I decided to further attempt to integrate myself into French culture by going grocery shopping at Les Halles, a French market conveniently right next to my house. As soon as I opened the door I realized that I was going to have a tough time preventing myself from buying more food than I could carry.  I saw booths covered with fresh produce and others buried under fragrant mounds of flowers. There were counters filled with every imaginable type or cut of meat, stands piled high with wheels of cheese and honeycomb-like shelves spotted with the dark circles of the bottoms of wine bottles. After staring longingly at the tantalizing contents of a pastry stall, I finally settled on buying a fresh baguette and a bag full of olives. However I can’t count the pointing and saying “two euro” that I did to get the olives as evidence of fluent shopping skills. French grocery shopping: success pending.

Aside from appearance and culture, fluency in the native language is obviously the most important tool to possess when attempting to find a place in a foreign culture.  Every day my language skills are judged or tested. At first, my attempts to speak French when buying ice cream or attempting to divine how to mail a post card were met with humoring smiles and responses in English. But I find that now, more often, people don’t immediately dismiss my French. I’ve given directions, have discussed rising clothing costs, and have had heavy philosophical conversations with Joelle, all in French. However, I also have my days where I say things like “I’m going to the war” rather than the train station. Language: A work in progress.

Attempting to fit in does not involve sacrificing my identity or trying to fit as many French stereotypes as I can. (I have so far resisted the temptation to buy a beret) It means seeing if I myself can be a part of the French culture; it means learning. Today, I went to a chain grocery store and before scanning my crepes and carbonated water, the cashier asked me if I had a frequent shoppers card, assuming that I belonged in Avignon. I shook my head and smiled as I pocketed my change.

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