An Interview after a Semester in Paris
4 months, 3 seasons, 2 languages, and 1 accomplished traveler.
After spending the fall semester studying in one of the most desirable cities of the world, I had the chance to sit down with a friend, Rachel Franco, and ask her all about her time in Paris. Read her responses and hopefully you’ll be inspired to discover all the magic for yourself!
Kristin Naujok (KN): Did you know French before getting on the international flight? How much do you know now?
Rachel Franco (RF): I tried to study the basics, specifically food because I have a specialized diet and I didn’t want to eat steak accidentally. I was enrolled in an elementary-level intensive French course for 1.5 hours / 4 days a week. I learned a lot from not knowing any beforehand. I know how to communicate now and I know more than I would’ve learned if I had studied in class in the states. I spoke French with my host mom 70% of the time and I spoke it when I visited museums, whether it was asking questions to workers or buying tickets.
KN: What were your initial thoughts and feelings once you settled in?
RF: I was ready to leave. The first 2.5 weeks I called my parents 8 times a day (homesickness/I didn’t know anyone/my host family situation wasn’t what I had hoped it would be). Initially I felt like I struggled to meet people and maintain relationships within the first few weeks.
I overcame that feeling and began to feel comfortable come the third week on a school sponsored weekend trip to Nantes. I knew people on the trip, and traveling together and hanging out allowed me to solidify and deepen relationships. I had a blast on the trip and that’s when I started to meet people and branch out.
KN: Give an example of your daily interaction with the locals.
RF: I don’t even like striking up conversations with people in English so it would be at a restaurant or ordering food. There’s a crepe place right by school I frequented and they asked if I was a student. They asked how much longer I was staying, where I came from, and would say “I bet they don’t have crepes like this in Texas!” and I would say “You’re right, they don’t!” Literally everyday me ordering food.
KN: Is there any place you went to regularly where you came to feel like a local?
RF: Disneyland. Annual passes are cheaper than in the US(!!!). It was one place I appreciated because people are traveling from all over the world and if they could tell I wanted to speak French they would speak French to me. It became an interesting place to practice French because the parades and shows and singing were all in French and English, both. Like, the Royal Christmas Welcome: one character would speak in French and the other would respond in English and vice versa. You could fill in what each were saying and could pick up easier all whilst watching your favorite Disney characters!
KN: Best meal…
RF: I had an incredible crepe in Nantes, a city just south of the Brittany region which is where the crepe originated, at La Creperie du Chateau. Inside it had sliced pears, almond cream, and chocolate and it was topped with vanilla ice cream. It was beautiful, and it was weirdly crisp yet soft and warm. It was the best crepe I’ve ever had.
KN: How many crepes did you consume?
RF: 15 or less, but pain au chocolat, that’s where it’s dangerous. I don’t even know how many days I was there, 120? I probably had them 80 of those days. I was eating them more frequently at the end of the semester; during finals week it became 2 at a time.
KN: Choice of French wine?
RF: Gewürztraminer from the Alsace region, a sweet white.
KN: What non-touristy attractions do you recommend exploring?
RF: Non-touristy galleries and museums.
1) The Musée Marmottan Monet on the 16th arr. was my favorite museum in all of Paris honestly because there’s a huge variety of Monet pieces. It’s not heavily trafficked at all and you really could spend hours sitting in the Monet room, the basement of the museum. It’s small, but well worth trip.
2) Musée Jacquemart-André which is just a very fancy and architecturally interesting house that belonged to a couple who had an extensive art collection. There’s no single piece that would draw you to the museum, no iconic piece, but just being in the house and hearing about the history of Parisian aristocrats and seeing the fascinating art pieces they have from all over the world is a hidden gem I stumbled upon.
Also, the Sainte-Chapelle church. It’s located on the same island as the Notre Dame, but tucked away between government buildings.
KN: To where did you take day trips?
RF: I took a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel, an island abbey fortress. I took a train and bus combination to get there, it’s a fascinating little medieval city. Another day trip was on a guided tour bus of the Loire Valley, 2 hours south of Paris. That one region has over 300 castles and chateaus.
KN: What are feasible weekend trip destinations?
RF: I really like the Alsace region along the German border. You could easily get there by train and easily spend several days there going through many towns. The larger cities are Strasbourg and Colmar and a lot of tiny towns in between that are surrounded by miles of vineyards. It’s just a very charming region. All of Alsace, Strasbourg specifically, are famous for Christmas markets. During warmer months it’s a cool biking regions through vineyards, but in winter it’s fascinating because of their elaborate, beautiful, and charming markets they’re famous for.
Getting outside of France, Brussels and Bruges in Belgium are very easy to get to by train (1 hour and 15 minutes to go from Paris to Brussels). It’s an easy weekend trip: make sure to buy the chocolate and the lace!
My favorite weekend trip was a 3 day bus tour of Ireland. I took a tour of the southern and western coasts through a company called Shamrocker Adventure Tours. It’s a great way to see a lot of the country that included bus transport through the country, plus overnight accommodations, and admission to Blarney Castle and the Cliffs of Moher. I’d move to Ireland tomorrow.
KN: Tell me about what Paris was like after the November attacks.
RF: At the time of the Paris attacks, I was visiting a friend in London. Even though I was glad to be safe and away from all the chaos, I just really desperately wanted to get back to Paris. I wanted to know about things that were happening as they were happening, I wanted to be with my friends, I wanted to stand with the rest of the city.
The attacks were on a Friday, and I came back early Monday morning by train, and from Gare du Nord I commuted by metro. Things were quiet, but people had already started going back to work. But you could still feel the tension so strongly. Everyone was a little bit on edge. Our classes were cancelled that day, but NYU (my school program) came together as a community of students and faculty to sing and talk and watch Hollande’s address and comfort one another. There were events around the city, peaceful gatherings, and improvised memorials at the major attack sites. It was comforting how the city came together. A lot of students just went home, but I’m glad that I stayed to finish the semester. Even though I initially lost so much drive to continue discovering Paris, I think I learned from its citizens that everyone still deserved the opportunity to enjoy Paris.
Though bad things had happened, the city still held high the fundamental principles of culture and love and life that makes Paris continue to be a magical place. I’m grateful that through watching the city persevere like that, I was able to see a little bit more of that magic. Read more from College Tourist Jonathan about the Terror attacks here
KN: What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Paris?
KN: What bucket list items did you check off?
RF: I wanted to visit Ireland and wanted to visit some locations that inspired Disney sets and castles (Mont Saint-Michel inspired the castle for Tangled and the Chateau de Chambord inspired the Beauty and the Beast castle).
KN: Give an example of an occasion in which you were gratefully overwhelmed with being abroad.
RF: I took a weekend trip to Switzerland. I was staying in the Jungfrau region and decided one morning I would take the cable cars to the top of Schilthorn, a summit in the Bernese Alps that has full 360 degree views of the surrounding Swiss Alp peaks. I went at sunrise, and it was so quiet and so still walking through the mountain villages leading up to the summit with barely any light and no other people awake yet. I was traveling alone, and I felt alone, but in the best way possible. Just being surrounded by so much breathtaking beauty, and being able to take it all in alone and undisturbed, it was incredibly overwhelming. I realized how lucky I was to be abroad and be able to experience things that people dream of doing their entire lives.
KN: Any secret/insider advice to give to fellow college tourists?
RF: Don’t spend all your money on pan au chocolat. Spend the majority of your money on traveling rather than high end things. For Paris in general: you just have to walk. It’s a city that was made and is easily accessible for walking. The more time you spend out in the city, the more you’ll start to be surprised by it and start to love it.
All photos, takeaways, thoughts, and insights about a semester in Paris are thanks to Rachel Franco.