It is definitely a breathtaking sight, Fall in Europe. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of when thinking about what the season is supposed to be like – leaves changing into the most beautiful reds, oranges, and golds, then eventually falling to the ground and giving your daily walks an extra crunch to your step, the days are cool and crisp, the streets are festive with holiday decorations, and the people are all out enjoying every part of what the season has to offer. We don’t get this in Texas. At most we get a few fallen leaves, but summer just seems to blur into winter one day after some kind of cold front in mid-November.
Actually, there are a lot of things that I’ve observed this past month that make Strasbourg and College Station/Houston seem like they are worlds apart. Here are some examples to illustrate:
- Having cash on hand is a MUST because a lot of restaurants or food stands only accept cash. Back in Texas, I would rarely ever have cash on me and just pay for everything with my debit card. Here, the only places you can really count on to have a card machine are American food chains, nicer, “sit-down” restaurants, most bars, and grocery stores.
- Everyone smokes cigarettes. And when I mean everyone, I genuinely mean that most, if not all, of the people I’ve met smoke daily or on occasion, depending on the social setting.
- The language barrier isn’t as much of an obstacle as I thought it would be. Strasbourg is actually a very “English-friendly” city. And if I come across someone who doesn’t speak any English, I have some wonderful friends who are always there to help me out or there is always someone within distance who speaks even a little bit of English who can help translate. For the most part, the French here are open to practicing their English with you. They may be a bit shy or self conscious about it, like how I feel when I try to speak in French, but with a welcoming attitude and some reassurance, we’ve always found a way to communicate and have interesting conversations!
- In the U.S., it’s pretty much mandatory to keep dogs on their leashes at all times when they’re in public. So many of the dogs here are so trusted by their owners, that they are constantly off their leashes! Being an extreme dog-lover, it always warms my heart to see them walk so freely and loyally next to their owners. 🙂
- Bicyclists and bicycle lanes are immensely respected. So much of every sidewalk is dedicated to bicyclists, sometimes leaving small, narrow walkways for other pedestrians. Also, both pedestrians and bicyclists are given priority when crossing the street, 99% of the time. Being from a country where everyone just wants to get to where they’re going as fast as possible at whatever the cost, it’s so unusual to see practically every driver give the right of way to a pedestrian, even if the pedestrian is in the wrong and it’s the driver’s turn to go.
- The cars here, judging by what I’m used to seeing in Houston and College Station, seem to be stuck in the 90s/early 2000s, with the majority of them still being manual and using stick shift.
- Air conditioning is basically non-existent throughout Europe, but radiators are everywhere. When I arrived in London and then in Strasbourg a week later at the end of August, this was my biggest issue to deal with because temperatures had reached record highs at that point, meaning that it was as hot here as it was in Texas. In August. With no A/C. When I was so used to having it every single day to cool off from the scorching summer heat back in TX. This was a huge adjustment, but luckily I bought my own fan and it got cooler soon after arriving, so I didn’t have to suffer for too long!
- Baguettes are definitely everywhere. The French love their baguettes!!
- Meals are seen as a social event, meaning that the French like to sit down, take their time, and really enjoy their food with the people around them. Meals can sometimes take hours, especially depending how much wine there is to drink!! So all of this basically implies that eating on-the-go is typically frowned upon and people can give you some judgmental looks. Trust me, I’ve learned from experience. But at the same time, if I am really in a hurry, really hungry, or really don’t care (which is most of the time), I will still occasionally eat my food while I’m walking around Strasbourg! Maybe it’s the American in me, maybe it’s because I love food too much. Either way, I’ve definitely learned to embrace this concept of meals being social events and I appreciate now the importance of taking your time to sincerely enjoy a meal and the company you’re with.
- Obesity is rare. The French are considerably more active and eat healthier in comparison to the United States. Despite having a lot of bread and pastries incorporated into their diets, the opportunities for the French to gain a lot of weight is also extremely low here. With all of the bicycle lanes, lack of drive-thrus, limited options for fast food, and short distances between businesses, homes, etc., the French eat healthier foods, have healthier meal options, and walk/bike on a daily basis.
- When travelling on French highways, traffic is nonexistent and the views are beautiful because of all the French countryside between major cities. The highways are also not bombarded by businesses, billboards, and lights right next to them, so at night, all you see is darkness around you, with the only lights coming from the few passing cars, distant light poles, and the stars above.
- Besides being a paying customer at a restaurant or gas station, sometimes you have to pay to use public toilets… very annoying and inconvenient at times when you don’t have 50 or 70 cents and really have to go to the bathroom.
- Class attendance is mandatory for all of my classes, all of which have a sign in sheet for the 20-30 students enrolled in the class – very different from the classes with 100+ students that I’ve taken at A&M, which are obviously very easy to skip if you’re not feeling up to going to class that day.
- EVERYONE WANTS TO KNOW MY OPINION ON THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION AND WHO I VOTED FOR. They all are so in-the-know of everything that’s going on in the States, and a lot of them held watch parties for the presidential debates!! Also, very important note, every European I’ve come across hates Trump and breathes a sigh of relief when they find out that I did not vote for him… Interesting.
- And last but not least, my very favorite: DOUBLE CHEEK KISSES. Being a Hispanic American, I’m used to a kiss on the cheek to greet other Spanish speakers. But for some reason, the double cheek kiss is so much more fun! 🙂 Any time I meet someone new, greet, or say goodbye to my friends (guys and girls), I always do the double cheek kiss and I secretly hope to bring this back with me to the U.S. after I’m done here. A girl can dream!!
Despite all of these differences, Strasbourg has finally started feeling like home. I don’t feel like a visitor anymore. I’ve claimed Strasbourg for my own and genuinely feel as though it is my city. Crosswalks and public transportation have become so familiar to me, getting around Strasbourg has become second nature. The people I see every day are so ingrained into my daily routine and life, I feel as though I’ve known them for years and that I will seem them every day for years to come. But, of course, this isn’t true – I have about a month and a half left in Europe and every day that goes by, this reality starts to hit me harder and harder. As much as I don’t want to leave and am trying to make the absolute most out of rest of my exchange, I can’t help but think about how excited I am to go home and see my family again. October has definitely been my homesick month. For some people, they are homesick for a couple of days, for a week, or maybe even less or more. But for me, it’s been this whole month. It was more prominent at the beginning of October, but each day that goes by, I keep thinking, “I’m one day closer to seeing my family and friends back home.” I feel pretty guilty about this on some days, just because I know that once I’m back to my “normal” routine in Texas, I’m just going to want to be here and I’ll miss France constantly. That’s why although I’m excited to see all of my loved ones back in Texas, I’ve been trying extra hard to enjoy the rest of my days here and continue to enrich my time/life in France with all of what Strasbourg has to offer. So, I’ve decided that November will be my “Strasbourg” month. I’m not travelling anywhere outside of France until after exams are over, so I’m looking forward to learning as much as I can about my city in the time I have left.
October has been a roller coaster month for me. It’s been unbelievable how much I’ve learned about myself in the face of adversity, frustration, and longing, especially in such a short period of time adjusting to a new home. It may seem as though I’m not enjoying myself, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I am truly happy. I’m happy with who I am, who I’m becoming, who I’ve surrounded myself with, what I’m learning, and how I’ve been spending my days here. Life just happens, you know? Adjusting to a new home takes a lot of time, effort, stress, worry, and improvisation. This “frustration stage” is typical of a lot of people who study abroad (we were warned about it in one of our pre-departure meetings before leaving). But I’m glad to say that this stage of my exchange (not the exchange itself!!) is coming to an end.
The phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side” keeps popping into my head these days. But so does the phrase “It’s greener where you water it.” I know right now I might want to be back in Texas, but I know once I’m there I’ll just want to be in France. So I’ve come to the decision that I’m going to make the most of my days here, however I decide to do that, and take in every moment I have with my friends so that I can leave with no regrets, only the fond memories of everything I’ve had the opportunity to do and the lasting relationships with the people I’ve had the honor of meeting here in France.
So, here’s to the last 2 months in Strasbourg, they’ve challenged me more than I can put into words, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything! And here’s to the next month and half, let’s see what happens next! 🙂
– Carmen Pilarte
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