The most impressionable thing I have seen so far is the statue at République, now a place of tribute to the victims of the November 13 terrorist attacks. Nearby is the venue where one of the coordinated attacks occurred, boarded up, also decorated with flowers and letters. On a Friday night, Rébublique is full of people as it’s an area popular for sortiring to restaurants and bars. Others skateboard in the square or otherwise kick back. But there are always people around the statue, laying down bouquets, fixing up signs or just taking it all in.
In France and all over Europe, the “social crisis” is palpable. Or maybe I feel it more because I study international relations or can’t stop myself from asking people how exactly they absorbed the events of November 13. Most describe the panic of establishing the whereabouts of loved ones, disbelief and now grim realization of a changing reality. Many have been pushed further right in their political and social views. Similarly to the US, hysteria is being fanned by conservative politicians – questions linked to refugee flows, the state of emergency and enforcing secularism are hot topics on the news. What is most striking, however, is increasing anti-US sentiment. Many are becoming increasingly frustrated with having to “bow down to the US” and “the US’s ruthless pursuit of national self-interest”, sentiments that surely have to be addressed in order for collaboration in cease-fire talks, as well as post-conflict reconstruction to be substantive, not mere posturing.
Overall, life flows as usual. The only inconvenience is having your bag and coat checked everywhere. An occasional heavily-armed policeman on patrol serves as a reminder. And the memorials, that allow for catharsis or way of expression.
Studying abroad in Paris – meeting new people, exploring your new city like a tourist and a local, going on crazy adventures! The flipside is the actual studying part. It is really easy to get caught up in the excitement and completely forget that you’re still in college and still have work to do. Of course, there is a little leeway because classes do not count towards your GPA, but as the study abroad office warned, potential employers sometimes ask for your transcripts. Putting that aside, many of us accustomed to As and Bs probably don’t want to see our grades take a drastic dip. Or we would rather avoid incoherently babbling in front of our class (exposés i.e. oral presentations are common. But don’t worry – if you think that = your worst nightmare, APA will arrange for you to have another essay instead).
So here are three core tips I could give:
See how your travel and academic schedules match up! Don’t be like me and sign up for an oral presentation slot, right after a weekend in Amsterdam. And then realize you also have an exam and an essay due the same week. Or book a weekend in Berlin during the one mandatory APA academic trip. Check and double-check your calendars!
Don’t always study at home. Find a place to go, be it the APA office, a café, bibliothèeque. Bring a friend and reward yourself with study breaks. A personal favorite is Bibliothèque Centre Pompidou. It’s open on Sundays, has free wifi and a snack bar with student prices.
Ask for help. Obviously, you can talk to your classmates: fellow Americans, Erasmus and local students. Some will be more than willing to share their notes or explain a term. If you are lucky, someone will reach out to you, but don’t be passive! Same goes for the professors. Either talk to them after class or send a quick email, specifying that you are a foreign exchange student. In one of my classes, after a quick chat, my professor agreed to send us the notes for all the lectures! Your host family could also be a valuable resource, especially host siblings, who, if you ask nicely enough (or help them out with some English homework) will glance over your essays. If all of this is not enough, APA provides tutoring. Extremely useful, even if you just want to practice some French grammar, work on pronunciation, etc. But you are welcome to come in with an assignment. I will be doing a run-through of my oral presentation next week. Finally, the APA directors are 100% there for you and will either help themselves or redirect you to the right place.
Flea marketing near Porte de Clignancourt was an experience. If you go, be aware that you’re entering a not so nice part of Paris. Nothing major, you just have to be a little more careful with your things. I was not that impressed with the actual market – too many Chinese knockoffs. But you can get a crepe for €2.50! The antiques in the neighboring boutiques are something to see though. After passing through the ancient furniture, mirrors, paintings, we came upon a space reminiscent of an exhibit at Centre Pompidou. In the style of Paris, you got this strange juxtaposition between ultra modern and traditional. A UFO capsule containing a kangaroo chef? Throwback to 1950s US? Why not!
The Catacombs were a lot less disturbing than I expected. Perhaps it was the museum-like order of the skulls and bones neatly stacked one on top the other, the desensitizing effect of how many there were… I strongly suspect it was our crew because we couldn’t keep it together, out laughter reverberating off the narrow, low-ceilinged walls. So maybe there was no intense adrenaline rush, but, thinking back, it was impressive. The remains of about 6 million people are held in this underground ossuary. Lamps line the tunnels, giving off just enough light to see the rows and rows of what used to be 18th century Parisians. A covering of moss has started to grow over the porous remains. It is quite damp and musty, condensation pools on the ceiling. Quotes in French, Italian and Latin are interspersed throughout and we would stop to decipher them.
Où est-elle la Mort toujours future ou passée ? A peine est-elle présente, que déjà, elle n’est plus.
On the way out they check your bags, so as much as you want to, try to refrain from pilfering any femurs!
At Versaille, there is an entire exhibit dedicated to Louis XIV death: La mort du roi. French monarchs were bearers of absolute and divine power. After his death, everyone wanted a piece of the Sun King. His body was buried in the Saint-Denis Basilica, his entrails sent to Notre Dame Cathedral and his heart placed in Saint-Louis-Saint-Paul.
The most interesting discovery was this painting.
It does not stand out. I probably would have walked right past it if our guide, Benjamin, hadn’t pulled us aside to point out what made it special. The heart contains a substance that can be added to varnish. Emulsion containing Louis XIV’s heart was actually sold to painters who would use it to enhance their artwork. Martin Drölling was among them and this is why his Intérieur d’une cuisine now hangs in the Versaille.
If you’re looking for an alternative activity away from the crowds, visit Paris’s abandoned railway, The Petite Ceinture, which stopped operation in 1934. There is no formal entrance: The way in was a simple swing over a barrier, but the way out, I am proud to say, I climbed my first eight foot fence. As it was a grey day, my tandem* and I were practically the only ones there except for a few teenagers hanging around. Walking down the rail tracks bordered by heavily graffitied walls, it was as if we had entered a post-apocalyptic world. During a long stretch of pitch-black tunnel, the flashlights on our phones illuminated stray clothes, remnants of cardboard boxes and a rat scurrying in the opposite direction. We’d get a reminder of life somewhere out there, only when the railroad’s bridges would pass over the boulevards. It is likely different here during the summer when the wild flowers start blooming and Parisians come out to picnic in the sun. I’ll come again to see this other side to The Petite Ceinture, but nothing will be able to top that first impression and feeling that we were on some kind of exploration project, doing field-research in a remote location only accessible to us.
* tandem de langue – future APA students, this is a great way to meet a French peer! Essentially a language partner who hopefully becomes a friend. APA and Nanterre both offer this opportunity. APA does signups about a week into the program while Nanterre sends out an email – after indicating interests and hobbies, you get your match.
We took cover from the rain in the Coeur de Lion, one of Normandy’s famed cider distilleries. Who knew the apple had this many uses. The tasting was a great finish to the tour – apple and pear brandy, calvados, gin. Then came the puzzle: How do you get the apple inside the bottle? The method is called “La Pomme Prisonnière”. The bottle is actually placed over the growing apple. Once the apple is fully ripe, the bottle is removed and filled with cider. The result is delicious.
The perks of having a friend in the program whose host mother is an opera singer, actor and comedian: front row seats to the show! A spin on Carmen, the show starts with an announcement of its cancellation. What comes next is a hilariously thrown together production. The assistant as Carmen (Sophie Sara), the maintenance man as the Toreador (Phillippe Moiroud), Italian playboy as Don Jose (Mathieu Sempere), neurotic manager as narrator (Bertrand Monbaylet), aspiring actress as Micaela (Ariane-Olympe Girard) and a troupe of Romanian street performers from the metro Châtelet to play Bizet’s masterpiece (Romain Fittousi, Julien Gonzales, Antoine Delprat). Decorations and lines are “improvised” and the “goofs” of the scramble are laugh-out-loud funny. Nonetheless, the vocals are serious business.