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What They Don’t Tell You about France

I hesitantly step into the salle de bain and stare for a moment at the shower. Okay, so the French seem to have an aversion to shower curtains. I can live with that. Making sure the door is locked securely behind me, I step into the tub and gawk at the long hose coming out of the floor. I grab hold of the nozzle and turn on the water slowly, pressing down on what I hope is the button to make the spout work. Without warning, droplets of water spray furiously from the shower head. I try to quickly duck my head under the stream, but the hose is too short. Despite feeling absurd, I squat down in a half-crouch in an attempt to douse my long hair with water. Trust me, it looks ridiculous – I would know, as I can see myself in the reflection of the mirror placed right across from the curtain-less shower. Okay, this could be worse. While trying to maneuver the shampoo in one hand and the hose in the other, I manage to send water flying towards the mirror and onto the floor beside me. I immediately give up my juggling act and turn off the water to lather my hair. It takes me another ten minutes or so to finally finish my shower. “How am I ever going to get used to this? Why didn’t anyone mention how confusing the showers are here?” I think to myself.

My next task before my first class starts is to have breakfast. In a brief moment of nostalgia, I think back to my summer breakfasts back home. Each morning, I’d have my one piece of toasted wheat bread and a fried egg with the occasional piece of fruit on the side. Fortunately, I’ve been forewarned about this one: the French don’t eat eggs for breakfast. This isn’t the end of the world, of course; breakfast is nearly impossible to mess up. I decide that I can’t go wrong with a bowl of cereal. I pour a hefty amount of some mystery cereal into my bowl and pull open the fridge to find the milk. Water, orange juice, a few bottles of wine…and that’s it. Puzzled, I take a step back and start to look around. On the wooden shelf in the corner, my eye catches a white plastic bottle with a label reading Lait. Wait, what? I’ve studied enough French to know that lait is, in fact, milk. But why isn’t it refrigerated? Stomach growling and minutes ticking away before it’s time for class, I do a quick search on the internet to determine whether or not it’s safe to drink the milk. Luckily, I’m not the first to come across this predicament. After a few clicks on various sites, I determine that I can probably drink the milk without getting sick.

Impossible shower and strange milk behind me, I finish getting ready and head off to school. With a city map of Aix-en-Provence in hand, I carefully plot my path to school. While I’m slightly nervous about my French Literature class, I feel comforted for the first time this morning. After fifteen years, I’ve gotten the basics of going to school down pat. I can practically recite what every teacher says at the start of the year. I know how to take notes in an organized way with a variety of arrows, bullet points, and dashes. I love looking over each new syllabus and marking assignments in my agenda with little boxes that I can check off when I’ve completed them. I’ll even admit that I relish in the experience of opening new textbooks for the first time. I continue walking up an enormous hill past a hospital, dodging several piles of dog poop, before I finally turn onto a street and catch a glimpse of my school. I push on the regal green door and end up walking straight into it, surprised that it doesn’t open. I stand awkwardly for a moment, my face beet red and probably giving off heat, and I wonder how I’m supposed to get in. Thankfully, I see another American approaching and I pretend like I know how to text on my little French phone, desperate to look casual. He punches in a code next to the door and pushes it open with ease as I follow behind him. It’s humbling, really, to realize how clueless I am. Just when I thought I had something under control, France throws another twist at me.

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