Melissa Ladd is the API Assistant Resident Director in Paris.

While an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Melissa studied in Paris at the Institut Catholique and Université  Paris, Diderot.


Melissa (far right) with API students


I remember my first few weeks in France as being full of mixed emotions. There were times when I was “aux anges” (as happy as a clam) to be here, where everything seemed incroyable, from the metro rides to the tree-lined boulevards, to the smell of croissants baking as I passed in front of a bakery. But one day, I was standing on the pont neuf with a friend, on one of those roller-coaster days, looking at the city spread out before me in her pink and golden autumne hues, and I was sad. Why was I sad!?! After a tear or two I wondered to my friend what on earth my problem was. I was in my most beloved place in this world, and had a whole year ahead of me to be there. Years later I learned that those emotions were results of “culture shock“, and were completely normal; as were the days when I just really didn’t want to go out and face the people of Paris because that would imply linguistic interaction which was a very frustrating activity at that point: those first days, weeks, maybe months. It took me really 2 years before I felt I could really speak well, and about three to feel “fluent”.

I arrived here as a student through my university, for a year of study abroad, which turned into two. And then upon finishing my bachelors came immediately back. I tell everyone when referencing the year I spent back stateside finishing the degree, that I really count it in France. My heart was here, and I came back 3 times…those were the days of glory when you could still find a 300 or 400 dollar round trip ticket in March or January.

Holding on to my American roots

Upon returning here, I did what many do to get back, I taught English through an assistantship, living on potatoes and eggs and pasta. Paris isn’t forgiving to the underpaid, but it was worth it to me to struggle to stay. My mother didn’t know why I was doing it this way, and thought I had gone nuts. She would have rather seen me work for an American company that would eventually send me to France. But there was this fear over the probability of coming back here by those means that did not necessarily bend in my favor. Besides, I much preferred to live precariously in Paris, than live normally in the US with only a mere hope of coming back. My heart ached when I was not in France.

What was it that attracted me like a magnet to this place? It’s hard for me to say now, because my life is so permeated here that I don’t imagine my life NOT here. But I think it was really just a feeling of being “home”. I felt like I belonged here, and it’s as simple as that. Oh believe me, I complain like the best of them now, about various social problems or political issues, and I don’t walk around with “rose colored glasses” anymore, but I don’t love France any less. In fact I may love her more, because I accept her, flaws and all.

Many people, friends, acquaintances, believe my life as an expat in Paris is extraordinary and always fabulous, and although I prefer it to anywhere else, it’s not always that much more exciting than someone else might find their life in New York or Miami or Austin to be, for example. There are ups and downs, good times and hard times. Well, OK, Paris IS an amazing city where the access to culture is very easily obtained, so yes, I am able to access things that are not available to everyone back home in the US. But that isn’t the only way one can enrich one’s life… a walk through the forest has it’s virtues, a quite night on the front porch has it’s own qualities. Life should be a balance of as many different things that one can access. And that’s what I try to do as an expat in Paris. Quality time spent with those who are close to me is just as important as going to see the latest art exposition at the Centre Pompidou or as engaging myself in social movements that move me. What matters is the interaction that I invest into the culture I have adopted, whether it’s through personal relationships or a more intellectual connection with this society. As an Assistant Resident Director for API, this is what I hope my students are able to learn during their time in Paris: how to interact and integrate. They get more out of that than from any classroom. Discovering how to be proactive in seeking out ways to join the exchange that goes on between people and cultures here, will bring more enrichment to one’s life than anything else.

We are here on this planet together, we better find out how to communicate and connect! But it isn’t always easy to penetrate into the French society. One has to be accepted, and it won’t happen right away. Establishing habits is a good way to slowly ease into the culture. If the same people in your neighborhood see you every day, they get used to you, and then one day they may speak to you, or may accept that you approach them. I tell the students to find a club or group to join, something where they can interacte with the French that goes beyond a customer/client – merchant relationship. Even if you live and work here, you may not necessarily be “allowed” into the lives of your coworkers. You have to make the effort to slowly and usrely infiltrate the lives of the French, even if it means feeling awkward and uncomfortable. It is necessary to be bold otherwise you’ll never get “in”. I joined a theater club my first year, and the friends I made that year I have made a point of keeping. They also happen to be amazing and wonderful people.

My French theatre troup

I love the work I do in study abroad, because it reminds me constantly of my starry-eyed beginnings in Paris, where everything was fresh and exciting, and beautiful. Seeing Paris through the eyes of our students is like seeing it new over and over again. But the smell of fresh baked pastries wafting from the boulangerie on the corner NEVER gets old!

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  1. Jeramy Johnson says

    Thanks Melissa for taking us through how you felt and dealt with culture shock (and reverse culture shock!) as well as the exciting and duller moments of expat life. Our students are lucky to have you and Anne Marie as their resident directors!

  2. Christie Johnson says

    What a great story, Melissa! We’re so glad to have you in Paris – and I know the students are too!

  3. Chelsea Kindred says

    One of the many, many, many reasons I love working at API is that we employ people as special as Melissa. Our resident directors are truly amazing.

    Thank you for all you do!

  4. Love it! So wonderful to hear your story, Melissa! I share many of the same feelings from my six months in Paris. I still miss it to this day and it’s been 14 years since I left. Please go have a une crêpe avec beurre et sucre for me. Yes, I know it’s boring. 🙂

    Hemingway’s quote says it best…

    “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” – Ernest Hemingway.

    C’est vrai!

    Merci for all that you do for our students and for API!

  5. …amen to what JJ, CJ, Chelsea + Marc said!! (= I love your story and share some of the same feelings with my study abroad country!! Our students are definitely lucky!!!

  6. Well Said Marc! Chelsea and Jeramy…Love working with you
    guys…wish you were all closer. 🙂 Happy New Year from

  7. Emily Proctor says

    Hey Melissa!

    I don’t know if you remember me but I studied in Paris spring of ’08 which feels like forever ago. I’m now in medical school in Erie, PA and god I miss being in Paris. I can’t believe that you are a ballerina!!! You’re really living life to the fullest.

    I’d love an update on what you’ve been doing and I was wondering if you had Anne-Marie’s email because I’ve been meaning to email her, but you know how time gets away from us all.

    Hope all is well!
    -Emily Proctor

  8. What a well-written, interesting and personal story. Thank you so much for sharing with us Melissa. I’m always curious about what brings other people to this amazing city we now call home. Great photographs as well.

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