CEA Paris: Expectations v. Reality

My first six weeks in Paris have been a transformative and rewarding experience, but they were not exactly what I had expected.

Monet’s Garden in Giverny


Before going to Paris, I had lived in Rome for a short period of time in high school and frequently visited my family in Romania. Because I had spent so much time in Europe, I thought I would not be surprised by Parisian culture. I did, however, expect a completely different academic system. I knew that France had different grading scales, but everything else was a mystery to me. I also expected to make French friends and practice my French with them. Additionally, I expected to travel a lot and to see parts of Europe that I had never seen before. Finally, I expected to never run out of things to explore and see in the large, cosmopolitan city that I was going to be living in: Paris.


I have now studied abroad for six weeks, and I have, for the most part, been surprised by the reality of living in Paris. The first surprise was Parisian culture. Paris is very different from the rest of France and even more different from the United States; it has its own distinct cultural norms and expectations that I did not expect. For example, in Paris you have to dress nicely. It is very rare to see someone in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, and it is abnormally common to see people showing off their Balenciaga shoes and Prada bags. It is also very rare to see someone smile at you in the same manner that Americans do, and it’s even considered rude to smile at other people’s kids or pets. Finally, people tend to stick to themselves or their close friends in most public settings like a café or the metro. Not all of France is as extreme as Paris and each region has its own cultural norms, but Paris specifically personifies a cosmopolitan, introverted, and fashionable persona. Sometimes, this is a great thing, but other times I just want to go shopping in basketball shorts and crocs.

The second surprise is that it is abnormally hard to make French friends. It is difficult to speak to a group of French people my age, because it is hard to understand the slang and subtleties of young Parisian French even if people are willing to leave their social circles and talk to you. That being said, the international French language program at my school has helped me make friends from all over the world who speak French at a very advanced level. I have made friends from Sweden, Mexico, the Netherlands, Columbia, Morocco, and Lithuania all with whom I speak French with. Because I speak with them I am able to pick up on certain subtleties that regular French people include in their everyday lexicon, and I am gradually gaining the confidence to speak to more and more French people.

Regarding academics, my semester at Institut Catholique de Paris is very similar to a semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I study at the international French language institute of ICP, which means that I am a student at ICP, but I do not have the same classic French university experience as those who are working towards their undergraduate degree. Classes are three hours long, but they only take place once a week and there is not as much homework assigned to students. Instead, classes are graded on participation and major assignments like tests, presentations, and projects. All in all, my international program is very similar to the United States system with the exceptions of the grading scales and the length of classes.

Regarding traveling, I have learned that it is easier to stay in France and explore the country than to go to other countries. This is partially due to Covid uncertainties and restrictions as well as prices of traveling to other countries. Traveling to other parts of France is relatively cheap, and the train system is extremely reliable and efficient. CEA Paris also offers various one-day excursions around France every few weeks. Although I have not traveled to another country and do not plan on traveling outside of France, I have already visited Honfleur, Giverny, Chantilly, and Bordeaux.

One thing that I correctly predicted is that I am not bored of Paris at all. In fact, it can all seem a little overbearing. Paris is a smaller city relative to other metropolitan giants like Los Angeles or Tokyo, but it is extremely dense. There is so much to see, to eat, and to do that there is never a dull moment. But although Paris is extremely exciting, it can get overstimulating and it is very nice to go to the smaller towns and cities of France to breathe fresh air and see a completely different part of French culture.

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