Like many who set off on a new journey in life, I looked forward to my year in France with many hopes, a couple of doubts, and a determination to make the most of my year abroad. Having travelled a thousand or so miles to the United States from Ghana, the plane ride from the US to France held more of a sentiment of returning home than of leaving home. For one thing, France is just two hours ahead of Ghana in comparison to the four hours time difference between Ghana and the United States. The knowledge that I could count on saying ‘bonjour’ to Monsieur Soleil at least 300 days of the year was also enough to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. What I didn’t expect however, was that the culture I considered alien and novel would actually be closer to home than I thought.
Paris. For many, that name imbibes romance, art, more romance and maybe a dash of history here and there. On the surface, there is absolutely nothing in common between Ghana and Paris. That is, until my roommate, my cousin and I ventured away from the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Notre Dame and into the narrow alleys of Place d’Italie. In that instance, time and space were no longer of consequence as all the energy seemed to concentrate on a single man standing on the curb with a sack of corn and a large container filled with freshly boiled corn cobs. Though I am not too fond of corn, the joy I felt at the familiar sight of those corn cobs was immeasurable. Who would have thought that a sight I had taken for granted back home would hold so much meaning to me a couple of years and a thousand kilometers into the future?
Montpellier. The fact that I had read the suggested books on Montpellier and had a vague idea of what to expect did nothing to reduce the impact of my first encounter with the Mediterranean city I would soon call home. I was literally blown away. For the first couple of days, I had to constantly remind myself that I was actually in France and not Spain or Greece. The Mediterranean influence in Montpellier cannot be over-emphasized as it is evident not only in the buildings, or the climate, but also in the mannerisms of the inhabitants. One could also accord the Mediterranean influence to the fact that Barcelona is a mere three hours away from Montpellier. Barely 24 hours after our arrival at “L’Hôtel Du Palaїs”, and Montpellier might as well have been Accra for all I knew.
Although we do not have a well-developed train system in Ghana, the tram that runs from Mosson to the Odysseum here in Montpellier brings about memories of the “tro-tro” or commercial bus system in Accra. Just like the “tro-tro”, the experience of a virtually non-existent comfort zone is all too familiar as everyone squeezes close in order to allow others some space on the tram. The culinary aspect of life here in Montpellier is another trigger of fond memories of Ghana. Having been involved in preparing large dinners from the age of twelve, my Ghanaian roommate and I quickly adapted to the French lifestyle of having late dinners after spending at least an hour in preparation of a meal. On the days when we decide to eat out, the aroma of home-cooked food wafting into our apartment from our neighbor’s kitchen triggers savory reminders of one local Ghanaian dish or another.
Even in the not-so-pleasant moments of my first few weeks in Montpellier when reality filters through, the similarities between life here and in Ghana remain. In those moments when it seems like every word of French I have ever learnt has vanished from my brain, I remember those days when I struggled to express myself in Twi – a local language generally spoken in the south of Ghana. One would think that I would be delighted to have to encounter guys every single day after having little or no daily contact with guys in Mount Holyoke. In a perfect world, this might be so. Unfortunately, the aggressiveness of some men here in Montpellier quickly brings to the fore reminders of times when I would have to explain to one over-eager lad or another why I could not and would not give out my phone number after meeting him for barely 10 minutes.
Although this is only the beginning of my time here in France, I believe I have already garnered and learnt a lot about French culture. From the looks of recognition we receive from the merchants we see frequently to the slow pace and laidback nature of life in Montpellier, every street and every corner seems to scream “Welcome home”.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.