Simran P. Gupta, our newest Barista and a student at Simmons College in Boston, is doing her study abroad semester in Paris. For her, it’s Literary Paris, and we’re delighted to share her impressions, feelings, and experiences with you.
Stumbling Through Paris: On Settling In During My First Five Weeks
As I write this, I am sitting in Shakespeare and Company’s bookstore café, situated right on Rue de la Bûcherie with a view of the Seine and the Notre Dame de Paris. The winter weather is temperate, which means I can often sit at the tables outside this and other cafes, under a heated terrace with a blanket over my lap while I sip my chocolat chaud or café au lait. I often joke that I have “moved in” to Shakespeare and Co. It’s my favorite. Aside from all bookstores being a universal place of comfort, the coffee shop has quickly become a retreat for me. It’s a little pocket of English that offers the comforts of home: a warm mug of mocha, American or English snacks, and a break from having to mentally convert everything to and from French.
In the five weeks I’ve been in Paris, the best lesson I’ve learned is to find a balance between retreating into a place of comfort and forcing myself out of my comfort zone. In my first few days here, when I was still jet-lagged, lonely, and overwhelmed, the best way to combat my unease was to commit to doing one a new thing every day. This could be as simple as trying a new café or going to the grocery store, and oftentimes, it was. Weekends I assigned to visiting at least one monument or sightseeing location; thanks to this tactic, I’ve made fast friends and have also seen in person so many pieces of history that I’d only ever seen in textbooks. My camera is full of pictures of the Notre Dame de Paris, the Hall of Mirrors in the infamous Chateau de Versailles, and various museums (my favorite by far is the Musée d’Orsay).
I’ll be in Paris until the beginning of May, doing a semester abroad, studying the culture and gaining fluency in the French language. My first five weeks have been full of tears, laughter, disillusionment, and missteps. Through it all, one aspect of French culture has always been there to catch me: the numerous librairies, or bookstores. Thanks to France’s love for books and independent businesses, I can run into a quiet bookstore and hide among the shelves. If I do interact with people, it’s about a topic I already know a lot about, giving me some much needed confidence in my language skills; a little pick-me-up.
Most of the connections I’ve made with the City of Lights have been through books. My favorite moment to date was meeting author Abdellah Taïa at another of my favorite bookstores, L’écume des pages. Taïa is a Moroccan writer whose works I had studied in my Francophone literature class this past semester back at Simmons College. My hands were shaking and my French was choppy, but he was gracious and nice; he gave me a hug, signed my books, and told me my name was beautiful. That moment reinforced everything I’ve been told about putting myself out there while I’m here in France, because the most rewarding part of this experience has been making connections between people and places I’ve studied in the classroom and real life.
Of course, this is not to say that my time here hasn’t been marked by missteps either. Anyone familiar with the Fictional Café knows that the baristas have headshots of themselves wearing the official FC cap on the website. Wanting to take advantage of my picturesque surroundings, I decided I would ask a friend to take my picture at the top of the Sacre-Coeur, one of my favorite French monuments in one of my favorite neighborhoods. Once I picked a corner and positioned myself, however, the wind blew the hat right off my head. I think I scared half the tourists in the area when I screeched and tried to run after it as it blew away.
I have mispronounced French, used the wrong words, inadvertently offended people through my lack of knowledge of social codes. The upside? This is the best way to learn the correct pronunciation, the correct vocabulary, and the various social codes. Through it all, the tiny rue de la Bûcherie has always been there for me. How fitting that my personal haven is an old English language bookstore, with its comforting coffee and winding bookshelves.
Jusqu’à la prochaine fois,