Finding myself in France

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My name is Nisha and I did a biomedical research master’s program in Paris, France through the Fulbright program from Sept 2016 to June 2017. I was born in Bangalore, India and grew up in suburban Canton, MI for most of my life. I went to school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and spent a summer in LA. But none of those cities, each with their unique qualities and atmospheres, could have prepared me for what I would encounter in the home I’ve assumed this past year – beautiful, romantic, charming, (and smelly, crowded, polluted) Paris.

Finding myself in a new language

 “Everyone speaks English in Paris, don’t worry…” – everyone who’s never lived in Paris.

The first thing I did in the city was walk into the phone company to sign up for a cell phone plan. I went up to the counter and asked politely, “parlez-vous anglais?” and the nice lady said “non”. Simple. I thought to myself, alright Nisha, this is it, three discontinuous years of high school and college French classes are about to serve me in this very moment, let’s do this. “Je vais essayer en français, mais je ne suis pas trop forte” I said to her (I will try to speak in French but I’m not very good). She was very patient and kind, and I spent the next two hours talking with her, using a lot of hand gestures, drawing on a piece of paper, and recalling every bit of French I had in my head, and successfully walked out of there with a phone plan. That’s when I knew, alright, maybe I can do this.

But it only got harder from there. My place of work was at the Institute of biological and physical chemistry (IBPC) in the middle of the 5th arrondissement in Paris. I joined a lab full of welcoming and inclusive colleagues that embraced a long held culture of eating lunch together every day, something we don’t necessarily do in the US. While I loved their company, and was consistently intrigued and inspired by them, I often found myself lost and even invisible in group conversations. It was like there was a wall between me and everyone else, I was meant to listen and observe, but I couldn’t contribute or participate – at least not in the beginning. Suddenly I was this quiet girl who didn’t say much, which is not who I feel like I am at all. Jokes made in French would be thrown around often and I would pretend to laugh along with them even if I didn’t understand; discussions about politics, food, culture and more would flow in and out of the cafeteria and I felt as if I could only grasp every fifth word. I would nod my head every now and then, and sometimes quietly excuse myself from the room to escape a feeling of complete uselessness. Some days I had the strength to try and engage and laugh off the silly misunderstandings, and other days I missed home a lot and could not handle feeling invisible, so I would go off to eat alone. I believe I tried the best I could to get through those beginning months of battling the language barrier, it was humbling, and required me to be more patient with myself than I have ever been. The hardest part was feeling like I could not express my personality and sense of humor in French, I was not able to be myself, since so much of who I am is tied to speaking my thoughts and feelings.

 

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Lab party

In January I participated in a 5 week biochemistry course at the reputable Pasteur Institute. It was an intense course which took place from 9AM to 6 or 7PM each day and jumped between lectures and lab work with minimal breaks in between. It was conducted 100% in French. Many science words are pretty similar between English and French, so comprehension of content was not even the biggest problem I had during this course, I usually knew what people were talking about. The problem was how much brain power and physical and emotional energy it to me to pay attention to someone speaking French for an hour straight, let alone 9 or 10 hours straight, for five days a week. For this reason I struggled immensely to demonstrate my intelligence and scientific curiosity. Meaning, I felt pretty damn stupid the whole time. I would walk home on the busy boulevard Montparnasse from class each evening completely depleted of all energy and resentful of the people and city around me. I struggled to get myself out of bed in the morning to make it to each class and hated the idea of spending another long day lost in the midst of my motivated classmates who I was sure thought poorly of me. I often felt like if I tried speaking up or asking questions, I was holding the class back, and I was always afraid that if I stayed quiet, I would be perceived as stupid or lazy. Encounters with rude professors didn’t help either, and I often doubted my abilities and questioned whether I was in over my head. For those five weeks, I really hated Paris.

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Last day of class at Institut Pasteur

But I got through it. I probably learned more French than protein biochemistry, but I got through it. The pleasant encounters with kind and caring professors and wonderful classmates helped me get through it. Every moment when a classmate asked me, “ça va? T’as bien compris?” (are you okay, are you understanding everything?), or when a professor told me “n’hésite pas à m’arrêter si je parle trop vite, n’hésite pas à poser des questions” (don’t hesitate to stop me if I’m speaking too fast and ask as many questions as you need), I felt a little bit validated and supported enough to get through.

It is always hard to identify progress as it is happening, but now I can look back and know that I have come a long, long way in the French language since September. Now I can walk down the street and understand people’s conversations, I can engage well in group settings (maybe even crack some jokes), and I even presented a poster at a local conference where I talked about my project mostly in French. I can be myself. While at first I felt like I couldn’t properly express myself in French, I now feel that French has given me a new and incredibly special method of expressing myself in a way that is not possible for me to do in English. By being forced to live my life in French, I’ve discovered new parts of myself. But there is still a long way to go, and I know that my French journey is far from over.

Making new friendships and redefining old ones.

 I was lucky because I made friends almost immediately. I was welcomed into a group of young people in my institute and invited to happy hours and running Wednesdays and weekend outings regularly. My closest colleague, Nathalie, a PhD student working with the same PI as me, constantly included me in plans and activities and told me often that I could go to her if I needed anything. In fact I recall her telling me once, only a couple of weeks into my stay in Paris, “Nisha même si tu es perdue dans la rue pendant la nuit, tu peux m’appeler, d’accord?” (Nisha if you need anything, even if you’re lost in the middle of the night somewhere, you can call me). She barely knew anything about me at the time but she completely embraced this opportunity to build a relationship me without hesitating. The people of my lab are kind and compassionate, they joined me in celebrating Friendsgiving in November, and we went on weekend trips together, we hunted down the best burgers in Paris, and they always made sure I was not alone for lunch if I didn’t want to be. I’m honored to know them and to have been invited into their lives. Because of them I feel partly rooted in Paris, and because of that, Paris will forever be one of my homes.

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Elise and Maïté are fellow Fulbrighters in Paris who were also doing Masters programs and working in research labs. We bonded immediately upon our arrivals in the city and I found their stories of travel and courage very compelling. We got through this crazy journey together and they pushed me to be a better person every time I was with them. Being with them was like being at home away from home. We shared our struggles of adapting to this new culture and we supported each other through unique challenges and depended on each other’s unique strengths. In the future we will probably see Elise as the president of Doctors without Borders and Maïté will be revolutionizing the American health care system. Their passion and dedication to the world is endless and I will always find inspiration in the moments we shared together on the banks of the Seine or at cafés on rue Mouffetard drinking hot chocolate.

My biggest fear before coming to France was of losing old friendships. I worried, how will I ever find friends as good as I have them right now? I had been told that college friends were your friends for life – almost as if we aren’t allowed to make new friends after college. I am pleased to have learned that this completely untrue. Nonetheless, I learned tough lessons about what it means to have “long distance friendships”. When college is the only thing in common you have with college friends, and suddenly you don’t have that in common anymore, what is the remaining foundation for those friendships? It turns out that a few of those relationships were meant to last beyond the borders of Ann Arbor and I am so grateful. There’s something so special and familiar about talking to an old friend on the phone and knowing that what we had before was strong enough to let us continue to grow together despite the oceans between us or the busy new lives which engulf us.

An Indian-American in Paris.

 I have always made big and small decisions in pursuit of personal growth; I have always embarked on unfamiliar paths and inserted myself into communities where I didn’t fit in. Paris was no different, I met zero Indian people in here. That’s right, zero. One really good friend of mine is from Sri Lanka, but born and raised in Paris, though we could still connect a little bit over culture. But otherwise, I did not meet any others in my workplace or social circles or anywhere else. Of course there are Indian people here…specifically in the Gare du Nord area where you can find a lot of Indian restaurants and grocery stores…but I didn’t know any of them. This was very culturally isolating. I was lucky to have grown up in Canton, Michigan where I had the best of both worlds. There I never felt detached from Indian culture or cuisine as long as Canton Crew was around, and I simultaneously never felt sheltered from exploring new things. Paris, however, opened my eyes to what life would be like if I did not have daily interaction with my heritage. I did not love it, but it taught me something about what I want in term of community moving forward.

The language that I was born into is called Kannada, and since moving to the US as a little girl, I progressively got worse at speaking it. I was often embarrassed and hesitant when talking to relatives over the phone, and I hated making mistakes and feared being laughed at. What my French speaking journey taught me though, was how to start to let go of that fear. I had to learn French quickly here, and I learned early on that mistakes are inevitable and I had to be okay with making them if I wanted to improve. In a way, that experience gave me some confidence about Kannada too. In a way, I’m less scared to try to speak it, I’m less scared to make mistakes, and I’m more focused on fostering relationships I have with my family. In a way, even though I did not meet any Indians here, France has brought me a little closer to India.

To be completely honest, what I missed most about America was 24 hour convenience stores. I didn’t miss the toxic and pervasive sense of “individualism” that made it so difficult to ask for help without feeling guilty, or the unhealthy imbalance between work and life, or the way life just happened so fast without any time to just stop and take a break. I did miss the American hospitality though (which has not been so well captured in the news these days). When I came home for grad school interviews and went to the store to buy chapstick, the lady at the counter smiled and asked me how I was doing that day and I was just overwhelmed – that doesn’t happen here in Paris. I missed the way strangers would smile at you and the way people made the effort to make you feel welcome in their environment, be it a store or restaurant or whatever. This might seem trivial, but for me it truly affected my sense of security and belonging in the city. Taking the metro home at night in Paris is not at all unsafe, but often I felt so disconnected from the people around me because of those subtle differences in social interactions, that it became hard for me to trust any bystanders to care to intervene in case anything unsafe happened. Oh Paris.

People I met here usually somehow knew that I was American, maybe because of how I dressed or my accent in French or something like that. In the U.S. when people would ask me where I’m from, I would say often that I was born in India and grew up in the U.S. I had always felt more Indian than American – whatever that meant. But as soon as I got here, when people would assume where I’m from, I was suddenly American first and Indian second. Often I would explain that my social values are primarily American but my cultural values – especially the culinary ones – are Indian. What does it mean to be one or the other anyway? And which French values will follow me to the next home I seek? Stay tuned folks, I guess we’ll find out together.

Falling in love…with membrane proteins

 It’s true, Paris is the city of love (although the Parisians don’t necessarily

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Shopping with Daniel for experiments

think that), just take my word for it. It is also a city of history and science. I got to study and learn in the same institution where Louis Pasteur made groundbreaking scientific discoveries. I went to a university named for the greats Pierre and Marie Curie (in fact their grandson, Pierre Joliot, who is also a brilliant scientist literally works a floor below me in the institute where my lab is…). I attended an historical school of physics in the French Alps that has educated over 26 Nobel laureates, including Wolfgang Pauli and Peter Higgs. But the most influential scientist from my time in Paris has been my boss, Daniel.

The way I met him was through his former PhD student who was doing a postdoc at UCLA in the same lab where I did a summer internship. She connected me with him through email and he asked me if I wanted to come to Paris and work with him in his lab. I wanted to learn how to do x-ray crystallography of membrane proteins (doesn’t everyone??) and he was most certainly the best person to learn this skill from. Through a crazy coincidence, I found out he was also great friends with my all-time favorite role-model/advisor/superstar/professor from UMich (Dr. Nolta), (like he was the best man at her wedding kind of friendship), and my mind was blown. I don’t know how I got this opportunity or why, but working with him and in this lab has truly sparked my passion for this field of research. So I’m still en route to becoming a scientist, and a little over-excited about membrane proteins.

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Even in France, the language of science is English, there’s no debating that. I struggled a lot during those five weeks to learn biochemistry in French, but it was just five weeks. For my whole life I will get to pursue my career in the language most comfortable and familiar to me, English. But my peers and colleagues I’ve met in Europe and elsewhere will not. I hate that, but it has given me a new appreciation for the importance of pursuing collaborations with people across the world. Communication ability and mutual understanding are possibly the most important foundations for building an effective and productive professional relationship – I feel that I suddenly have access to an entire country of scientists that I might not have before, because I understand a little bit about their language and their lives. People are what make science so exciting and exhilarating. I have learned that a few times before in other labs, and I have learned it now again here in France. The people I have met in France in classes, the physics school, the lab, and other places, have fueled my passion further. I look forward to what’s coming next with perspective and high hopes.

Final Thoughts

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From the top of the tower of Montparnasse

 My favorite memory will forever be that first walk along the Seine in the moonlit night, with the lights of Musée d’Orsay glistening in the water and the Notre Dame standing tall and timeless. The cold, rainy climb to the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre, following winding streets to a little Italian restaurant where I learned how to pretend to know things about wine. The coffee breaks on the terrasse and the strolls along rue Saint Jacques during lunchtime. Hopping of the Eurostar from London at Gare du Nord and being so pleasantly surprised by how much I felt at home in Paris and how lucky I was to be surrounded by its beauty. The trip to Strasbourg – la capitale de Noël – when it was so bitingly cold outside but somehow I felt warm in my heart. The potlucks in the cafeteria, the housewarmings in tiny apartments, the drinking Tuesdays (and Thursdays), and the Friendsgiving. Eating couscous in Lausanne and seeing vineyards in Val de Loire, les balades énigmes in Fontainebleau and Lyon, biking through Ledringhem, and the boat ride in Bruges. La nuit blanche et la nuit des musées, les picnics sur le quai et au Montsouris. The metro line 7 and bus 21/27, and the walk between the 5th and the 13th. I will remember that the most.

 

“…Les gens du nord, Ont dans le cœur le soleil qu’ils n’ont pas dehors…” Enrico Macias

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