Knickers, nodding and nicotine: a french student’s summer in Paris.


Wine, cheese and the Eiffel tower- what more could a girl need, I thought as I sat, plastic cup in hand, lump of brie in the other and tower in full view, on my first night in the world’s most romantic city.

Wine, cheese and the Eiffel tower may have been an excellent start, but I had a feeling they would not see me through. A few days into my 8-week trip, I revised this list. I figured it was time to make some additions. I would need an apartment, a job; and finally, some friends. For I knew that first night, as I sat among the other English tourists, with no apartment, no job and no friends whatsoever, that the only things I did have were a dodgy French accent and some very good Brie.

Yet, this seemed daunting and left me with the question; why bother? I already had all of these things plus my mum’s cooking at home. The aim of all this was to improve my French, as grammar books and subtitled films had failed to do throughout my first year at university.

Now safely back in Cornwall, I can honestly say it worked and would recommend it to anyone. But I have scraped together a few hints and tips based on my own ridiculous errors and embarrassing moments to help anyone thinking of going to Paris for more than a crepe and a key-ring.

While in Paris I did my very best to speak as much French as I could. I had survived the first 3 days without being kidnapped, I’d even gone sightseeing and sorted out my hostel. I did all of this without having a single satisfying conversation in French.

Every time I initiated one they would revert immediately to English- sometimes it was out of necessity- i.e.- “madam, please leave ze bank, we do not stand for zis behaviour.” (Not as bad as it sounds, I promise.) Sometimes they were just trying to be nice. Sometimes they were just smug and obnoxious, “Zis girl cannot speak French, she eez eenglish what do we expect?” All of this dented my confidence somewhat. Especially when they asked me (in english of course) what I studied at university. Cringe.

It didn’t get any better when they initiated conversations. Whether it was nutters on the street, or potential friends, for the first few days, I understood nothing. So, I began using the wellknown nod and smile technique. Advantages include, seeming friendly, positive, and generally not like someone from England.

Yep, amongst the beautiful women and charming, (but extremely oversexed men) its inevitable you will fall further down the line of cool when in Paris. As someone not particularly high up this line in my own country, there was never much hope for me. Looking back, it’s the moments where I didn’t catch what somebody had said to me that made me look stupid. Asking them to repeat it for a third time is embarrassing, but it doesn’t compare to replying with something completely irrelevant.

I learnt this lesson from my French friends in the flat I shared. Hostels are expensive in Paris so I had always planned to find a flat with some nice French girls. It was in a typical Parisian building; beautiful from the outside, overcrowded and a tad dark on the inside. Nevertheless, I had succeeded.

Once settled in, I was constantly meeting friends and habing a good time, however it’s in these situations when one tries to seem as least idiotic as possible. So at a relaxed get together, when asked by a particularly cool French girl if I wanted my seat back, I probably should have just gone with the nod and smile technique. Instead, thinking I’d heard her say “can I borrow some mascara?” I bounded off to my bedroom and returned, to her utter bemusement, with my makeup set and a mirror.

After a long hard summer of awkward language barriers and the like I’ve discovered the French you learn in class won’t save you from looking an idiot to Parisians. But fret not; they will love you for it- by generously giving them another reason to be even ruder than normal. The solution? Suck it up and smile. Confused, they will shrug and saunter off.


Leave A Reply