A Semester Abroad

“This is the best way to learn a language,” my French professor said. “It’s total immersion.”

Therefore, in the spring of 2007, I spent an undergraduate semester abroad in Paris.  I lived with a host family in a suburban town northwest of the city called Colombes. I left the comfort of college life, of the 24-hour Wal-Mart and gas stations that carried cases of beer, of late-night dance parties in the living room of my apartment with my roommates, of lunchtime kickboxing classes and all-you-can-eat meals at the dining hall, and of classes taught in English. I left it all for a chance to learn French.

As I had expected, it was challenging. I lived with a family that had 5 children whose ages ranged from 2 to 15. My host mother was a 36-year-old strict Catholic with little patience for me, let alone for her own children. She’d hired a live-in nanny, but when I arrived he had only arrived just days earlier, and only spoke Macedonian. My host mother would shout instructions at him in French, even though he didn’t understand. In the best and worst way, living in that house was total chaos.

The house was a three-story pink stucco with high ceilings and hardwood floors that creaked when you walked. I had my own room on the second floor, where I shared a bathroom with the 5-year-old girl, Raphaelle, and the baby, Nathanael, whose room was across the hall. My host parents’ room, with its own bathroom, was next to the childrens’ on that floor. I’d come to find comfort in my 12×13 room, as it was the only part of the house that was truly my own.

The Host Student

Though I found comfort in my room, it wasn’t the same as the comfort I found with my American classmates. There were 20 of us placed across Paris and its suburbs, each with a different host family. Host families could be two-parent households, single-parent households, empty nesters, or retirees. They were, basically, anyone willing to host a foreign exchange student for a semester for the return of a stipend and a little cross-cultural education.

Per the program, I was given breakfast every day and two additional meals a week, usually one weeknight dinner or lunch. I figured out quickly that my presence at a meal was at my host mother’s discretion, usually dictated as she passed me in the second-floor hallway or leaned over me to grab the jam in the kitchen at breakfast. “Tu dines avec nous ce soir, Sarah?” she’d say, an abbreviated way of saying, “Are you eating with us tonight, Sarah?”

Though my American classmates and I lived in different households, one of them, Jess, also lived in Colombes, and we were walking distance of each other. We’d often meet to take the train into Paris, where our classes were held, or we’d meet for dinner in the town when we weren’t eating with our host families, or we’d meet for some company as we shopped for snacks and groceries at the Franprix, the local grocery store.

French McFlurries

McDonalds France

One evening as we were finishing our dinner in town, Jess blurted out, “You know, I’d really kill for a McFlurry right now.”

“Hah, seriously?” I said.

“There’s a McDonald’s on Rue de Bournard,” she said.

She can’t be serious, I thought. We’d flown more than 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean where we lived near some of the most distinguished food in the world – French food. We were living the dream – the dream of fresh baguettes, of oeey, gooey, chocolate-hazelnutty Nutella, of really good 5-dollar wine, and of all the French foods we were still learning how to pronounce and bravely trying (like Foie Gras). How could we honestly eat at McDonald’s, the epitome of American convenience culture, the opposite of refinement, the cookie-cutter, is-this-even-chicken, heart-attack-on-a-plate, guilty pleasure American staple that is Mickey D’s?

mcdonalds colombes

The thing was, the French, especially the younger generations, loved McDonald’s. And it wasn’t their guilty pleasure. It was their regular, popular hangout and lunch destination. These generations followed American pop culture like adorning fans, idolizing American music, fashion, and even food.

Affectionally known as “Mac Do” (pronounced mack-doe), with the same golden arches and white logo on a bright red background, McDonald’s was a hit in France.

And I was kind of curious. Though I’d never set foot in a McDonald’s in France, I’d heard from classmates who’d taken the brave step that things were a little different: it was McDonald’s, but a little classier, a little smaller, and albeit, a little more refined.

20 minutes later, Jess pulled open the door to 41 Rue de Bournard, and there it was, the order and pickup counter, the vinyl booths, the red and yellow digital menus. This is OK, I found myself saying internally. We’ll just do this once.

Jess was already at the order counter. I hesitantly stepped up behind her, glancing at the menu in French. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the exact same items as there were in the United States, simply translated into French. There were items like “Recette au bleu” (a burger with blue cheese?!), and “Recette au chevre” (a burger with goat cheese?!). There was, of course, the Grand Mac (Big Mac), and there were combo meals that included the sandwich, Le Frites (fries), and a drink, but the largest size of those meals was the Grand. There was no “Supersize” option. Given that this was 2007, it seems France was ahead of the United States, who just recently eliminated that option from its McDonald’s chains.

A Chance to Breathe

As Jess and I sat across from each other in a window booth with a view of the busy Rue de Bournard, the fluorescent lights of McDonald’s contrasted against the glowing lights of businesses, Jess stirred her M&M’s into vanilla soft serve and said, “I needed this.” She put down her plastic spoon, opened her laptop bag, and retrieved her laptop and battery pack. She motioned behind us and said, “Let’s move to the table back there. It has an outlet.”

And there we sat, catching up on emails, listening to music, sending IMs to friends from home. Hours went by, and we forgot. We forgot we were in France. We forgot we were living with families we’d just met. We forgot about having to translate from English to French in our heads when we heard a French word we didn’t recognize. We forgot about having to pause before saying something because we had to think about saying it in French. For those few hours, it felt like we were back home. It was a chance to breathe, a chance to relax.

Throughout that semester abroad in Paris, when Jess or I needed that same chance to breathe, we’d meet at the Mac Do on Rue Bernard. It was friendship, it was therapy, it was laughter, and it was American convenience in a plastic cup.