I just booked a shuttle car to take me from my apartment in the 11th arrondissement to the airport. The confirmation email is definitely taunting me. 05:20am…yikes. I already know that in the early morning haze, eyes hardly open, I’ll be fighting off the weight in my stomach that accompanies the acceptance of “The End.” My spring term in Paris is over. Done. Fini. Somehow four weeks went by as fast as reading days. Did I go to enough museums? Did I take enough photographs? Did I eat enough baguettes? Yes, Yes, and definitely yes. I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t going to miss this city.
Each of my family members responded to my “Spring Term in Paris” plans in the same manner: “Paris in the springtime at twenty-one! What an experience!” As much of a media cliché as Paris is, I feel so endlessly lucky that I got to spend the past month sucking this city dry of every thrilling cliché it has to offer. I walked along Hausmann boulevards in the spring rain to meet my fellow students for a cruise on the River Seine. I picked up colorful pastries and crisp baguettes at my local bakery daily. I (almost) professionally avoided eye contact with strangers on the Metro. I took photos of the Eiffel Tower as it shimmered with white lights at night and people-watched at cafés in my spare time. Laura Wiseman: a striped shirt and beret away from being every Parisian cliché you could imagine. It was fabulous.
In between all the enjoyable moments that travel books rave about to the Parisian newbies, I experienced genuinely life-changing moments. Endless museums and galleries filled my days along with landmark after landmark. One afternoon I got to enjoy an amazing lunch and then casually stroll into the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and flip through books of original Eugène Atget albumen prints. No big deal. Wait. Yes big deal! We were able to freely browse volumes of the library’s collection of early 20th century albumen prints by one of Paris’ (and the world’s) most prolific photographers! At twenty-one years of age I was standing in a national library looking at Atget’s own handwriting, a mere few inches from my face! I realize this might seem a little underwhelming to anyone outside of the Wilson Hall, but trust me, this was a monumental moment. Le Sigh.
Now I’m headed back to the Washington and Lee Colonnade and Lexington bricks, and while I’m already homesick for my Rue de Faidherbe apartment, I’m endlessly grateful to W&L for giving me this opportunity. I’m adamant that this will not be my last time in the city of lights but this definitely will be an experience that I cannot repeat. I saw the city through a new perspective, got a permanent souvenir (thank you, True Love tattoo!), made new friends, and discovered my love for challenges in new places. I wouldn’t have changed a single day (even though I do wish I could have had just one more of those amazing paninis I discovered in Montparnasse). To my wonderful apartment, my absolutely fantastic roommates, Professors Bowden and Horowitz, W&L, and my family: merci beaucoup!
“So, you’re living in France for a month and you’re not here to take French language classes?”
I’ve been asked variations of this question many times since I arrive in Paris two weeks ago. And I would be lying if I said this didn’t instill some guilt in me. We have gone on several gallery tours where the tour guide constantly apologized for their “terrible English” skills, even though their English was flawless. While I do feel some guilt for living in Paris with a rough, working vocabulary, I definitely recognize how lucky I am to develop my French language skills through the best system possible: total immersion.
Several years ago at my secondary school I was lucky enough to study French with the most wonderful and charismatic teacher. As wonderful a woman as she was, this was over a decade ago, and so as you can imagine, the majority of what I learned got moved to the back burner. I mention my past experience with French because I noticed something quite amazing while studying here: I think it’s all coming back to me, bit by bit. When I’m in public and conversations are flying to and fro, I find myself being able to pull phrases out of the rapidly flying words. I know a part of this learning is being exposed to the language every day and slowly building my vocabulary, but I also know that a lot of this knowledge is being unearthed from my French lessons when I was 12 years old. The other day I heard a couple discussing “equitation” and my eyes lit up when I remembered my teacher jumping up and down, pretending to ride a horse and yelling “equitation!” over and over in an attempt to get us to remember. And it worked! Horse riding, of course!
Apart from picking up words and phrases that have been lost in my head for years, I have also been learning French in some very peculiar ways. This week I learned French from a German speaker, attendees at a concert and a tattoo artist. Who would have guessed? Having taken German at W&L, my German skills are obviously far better. This led to a native German speaker explaining some basic French grammar to me… auf Deutsch! Last week I went to see Against Me! Perform at La Flèche D’Or, and being in a large, loud and crowded venue will definitely force you to work out French phrases you didn’t think you had in you! Yesterday I met a tattoo artist, and while talking to him about art, I learned that if you can perfect the nasally French accent, then all you have to do is speak! Tout est possible when you just go out into the city and speak the language. Parisians are definitely not shy about correcting you, and when they entertain your attempts to speak French, you’ll be able to walk home with your croissant and a little pride. Worth it.
It is the end of my first week in Paris, and I already feel at home. Become a regular at a café? Check. Find almond milk at the supermarket? Check. Maneuver multiple-transfer metro journeys without getting lost? Double check. I’m certainly no stranger to cultural acclimation, having lived in three different countries, but Paris is an entirely different animal. On my travels, I have always been confined to the tourist identity and used this to my advantage. Taking selfies in front of tourist sights and eating at Trip Advisor’s top recommended restaurants are perfectly fine activities when you’re in a city for a short trip. Now, I will admit that our first few days in Paris definitely generated their fair share of selfies and Eiffel Tower snaps, but after the initial rush of “Oh wow! We’re in PARIS!” wore off… so did the selfies.
The transition from tourist to student definitely began once I arrived at my apartment. Fourth floor walk-up. No elevator. Lots of luggage. Let me just say that after dragging my belongings into the apartment, I definitely earned “une tradition” from the bakery on the corner! Initially we were set up to live in what I like to call the “Woods Creek of Paris.” But instead of our class all being under one cozy roof, we were split up into apartments all over Paris. We have a few apartments in the fifteenth, thirteenth, and eleventh arrondissements, meaning that by the end of the month we will all have vastly different experiences to talk about. When I key in the door code to enter my building, fresh fruit from the market in hand, I receive the reminder that I am a resident of Paris, not a tourist. While four weeks is merely a blip in the grand scheme of things, it is enough time to settle in and get comfortable.
Now it is 8 o’clock, and our hallway will become fragrant with garlic and herbs from the apartment across the hall like clockwork. At 9 o’clock a woman from the apartment downstairs will go out onto her balcony for a phone call and a cigarette. Every morning around 7:30, the family upstairs will try to quietly make their way down to the lobby, two young children in tow. Occasionally something of a soiree takes place in the courtyard in the evenings and they play familiar music with the bass turned up. These are the little patterns that have made our wonderful apartment feel more like home. One week down, three to go. Time will go by faster than tourists at the Louvre and before we know it we will be shuffling our feet onto our planes headed home. I’m keeping this in mind in hopes that I will make an effort to take in all of the beautiful little moments while I’m standing at the foot of the Eiffel Tower or the Sacre Coeur.
For those unfamiliar with the word, “flâneur” in French refers to a wanderer, a stroller, or someone who meanders through life without a predetermined destination. My knowledge of the flâneur lifestyle began when we read a book on the subject during winter term. The book (titled The Flâneur, by Edmund White) was assigned to introduce us to one of the most traditional lifestyles that continues to be practiced by many Parisians today. Reading about flânerie certainly got me interested in putting the concept into practice. Over the past three weeks that I’ve been living in Paris, I’ve tried my best to channel my inner flâneur as often as possible. We have lots of scheduled class meetings and group activities, but outside of these, we are free to explore Paris at our leisure. One of my favorite things to do is to take the Metro to a neighborhood that I have not yet visited. Usually, I pick one that I’ve heard my classmates talk about, so that I know there will be interesting things to do and see once I arrive. But I never try to have any plans set in stone. One of my favorite afternoons so far was when I spent some time walking through the circling paths of the Luxembourg Gardens by myself. Now, I know that this may sound like a lonely way to spend one’s time, but the whole concept of flânerie is to explore the world on your own, in silence, with no outside distractions. It’s about walking through life with your eyes wide open and your head on a slow — yet constant — swivel. While I love sharing my time here with my classmates, there is also something to be said about taking in the beautiful city of Paris on your own terms.
This week, one of our class assignments was actually to go on a flâneur adventure to any destination that we wanted. Seeing as this is what I’ve been trying to do all term, I was overjoyed by the task! For my solo excursion, I chose to wander through the Madeleine area in the eighth arrondissement. It was an area I had not seen yet, and boy, was it eye opening. Every shop in the Madeleine area is either a high-end designer clothing store or a gorgeous restaurant or café. The people who work in this area are all very professional, and I was fascinated to watch them hustle to and fro in their finely tailored suits and lovely satin scarves. This was a side of Paris I may have never seen had it not been for our flâneur project, and I’m grateful for the exposure it gave me to yet another incredible part of this city. With only one week to go, I’ve made it my personal goal to say I’ve seen the entire city of Paris in just four short weeks. Let the flâneur games begin.
I’ve never been so happy to feel this tired. Over the past week-and-a-half, my classmates and I traversed all around Paris, visiting various monuments and museums as well as exploring a number of the city’s neighborhoods. Perhaps my favorite place that we’ve visited as a group so far is the Père Lachaise Cemetery. The largest cemetery in Paris, Père Lachaise is home to a number of world-famous writers, musicians, poets and resistance fighters. Our professor led us on a walking tour of the burial grounds, and along the way we were able to visit the graves of two highly acclaimed writers: Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. Although I’m not as familiar with Wilde, I have discussed the work of Gertrude Stein in a number of my English classes both at W&L and in high school. To stand at her tombstone and think about all she accomplished during her career was both a chilling and incredible experience. In addition to being the final resting place of so many illustrious people, Père Lachaise also distinguishes itself as one of the most ornate and grandiose cemeteries in existence. Each tombstone is not only large in stature, but also designed so intricately that it memorializes the persons buried below in a unique way.
While our cemetery tour was my favorite class activity, I think the most exciting visit was one that I made on my own with a friend. We went to the Louvre, one of the world’s largest art museums and one of the main attractions in all of Paris. The Louvre is daunting to anyone who makes a visit. The sheer size of the building and the expanse of the collection of art inside requires you to spend nearly an entire day there if you want to see it all. We started of our trip with an obligatory visit to the Mona Lisa. Next, we made our way through the Louvre’s many hallways and levels, taking in art from the 19th century all the way back to the 15th century. After four hours, however, our energy had dwindled. Down the flights of stairs we went, retracing our steps back through time and passing all of the centuries-old paintings we’d spent our morning gawking at. Just as we turned the final corner on our way to the exit, my friend let out a gasp. Right on the wall in front of us was a plaque bearing a name and a city all too familiar to us both: “Cy Twombly, born in 1928 at Lexington, Virginia, U.S.A.”
Stunned, we entered the room to observe the mural on the ceiling that Mr. Twombly had painted. The two of us couldn’t believe it. Here, in the Louvre, a museum that nearly everyone on earth has heard of, lives a huge work of art by a man from the town we’ve called home for the last three years. As amazing as it is being away from home and learning about a new culture, I felt a ton of Generals pride and nostalgia for W&L in that moment. So let it be known, while studying in France is an incredibly different experience than studying in Virginia, a little piece of Lexington lives in the Louvre.
Greetings from the city of love! This term, I’m fortunate enough to spend the next four weeks traversing the streets of Paris, France. My classmates and I arrived over the weekend, and I feel like we haven’t slowed down since I stepped off the plane. I say this in good spirits, though — the excitement I feel about being in a foreign country keeps fueling me to wake up each morning with the goal of seeing as much as I can that day. On Monday night, our entire group of twenty-six students sat down at an authentic Parisian bistro for a welcome dinner, compliments of our professors and W&L Spring Term Abroad. It was a great way to bond with my fellow classmates and practice a little bit of my amateur French skills (the waiters and waitresses have all been very patient with us!)
One thing I’ve learned after only being here for a few days: Parisians love their bread. When my table went through its first basket of bread at dinner, another basket full of fresh slices seemed to appear instantly. I’ve eaten at a handful of cafés and even been to an outdoor food market since then, and bread is everywhere. It comes in all shapes and sizes: baguettes, croissants, filled-pastries—you name it. At first glance, all of these baked goods look familiar, much like the kinds of bread products you can find easily in the U.S. (think Panera). But after just one bite of my first chocolate-filled croissant, I understood why France is known for them. The exterior was delicate and flaky, while the interior was dense and almost chewy. It was still warm, hinting that it had been taken out of the oven just moments before. Since trying that first pastry, I now pause to observe the fine craftsmanship of every pastry that I see on display in the windows of Paris’ countless boulangeries. Each pastry is exquisitely decorated with colorful glazes or precisely placed fruit slices. No two pastries are identical, but they are all beautiful.
For me, this symbolizes a grander theme about the city of Paris. The effort that is put in to making the bread and pastries that are sold all over the city captures just how much pride Parisians seem to take in their work and in their livelihoods. Furthermore, the people of Paris — both past and present — appear to strongly believe in the value of aesthetics. I’ve been amazed by how ornate the city is, from its clean streets and lush parks and gardens to the way the Eiffel Tower sparkles when it’s lit up at night. I cannot wait to discover what other hidden beauties this city has to offer. When I wake up each morning during the next few weeks, I won’t know for certain what I will see that day. But I can say with confidence that whatever I witness while I’m studying in Paris will surely be unforgettable.