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.