Coming Together

I am about two months into my stay in France and this week, my mom and my best friend came to visit.

It was amazing exploring the city with these two and I was surprised to see how comfortable I’ve gotten in Paris and that I can do things like explain the metro system, recommend the best place to go, serve as an interpreter. You don’t even realize the progress you make in your French until you can show off in front of someone.

I think the defining moment of the week was having dinner with my three families around one table. Christine, my host mom, cooked a delicious meal and we were spoiled with foie gras and truffle cheese. Three languages were being spoken at the table – French, English and Russian – and conversation ranged from food and travel to politics. I am endlessly grateful for the openness and generosity of my host family and seeing everyone get along so well is an added bonus. Maybe one day we will all be sitting around a table on the other side of the Atlantic.

 

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Back at Sacre Coeur, but this time with Vickie!

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Not Just a Pretty Picture

I have a love hate relationship with my art history class at the Sorbonne. At times the analysis seems farfetched. For some reason, art history professors enjoy teaching in semi-darkness which is not particularly conducive to staying awake. As this is my first time studying the material, I cannot keep up with everyone’s knowledge of obscure facts.

However, after my oral presentation there was a shift.

Researching Renoir’s Les Grandes Baigneuses in depth, I actually began to understand the merit of studying art, not just looking at it. My friend was visiting from the US this week and we headed over to the d’Orsay where I was surprised to see how much I’ve learned. There is also a change in perception when you can situate a piece in its historical context or know the artists background.

I could have just written an essay, but I am glad I went outside of my conform zone and chose to do the oral presentation. It was far from perfect, but this is the first time I actually felt equal to the other students in my section. Just because they are native French speakers or have been studying art for years, doesn’t mean their work will be perfect and there is nothing like commiserating over an assignment to bring students together.

Marrakech

I was in the red city this weekend. Marrakech is a vibrant maze. Its dusty streets are pulsating with life and there are hardly any signs so when you ask a Moroccan for directions, it goes something like this:

-Excuse me, how do you find La Maison Arabe?

-Ah! That’s easy. You go straight, then you make a left, take a right, and another right! You’ll see an alley, you go down and it’ll be right on your right. If you hit the Mosque, you’ve gone too far.

It is almost impossible not to buy something at the souk, but bargaining is a must. Thick woven carpets, paintings, carvings, jewelry. The colors are rich and deep. Snake charmers, henna tattoo artists and traditional dancers will beckon to you, as well as those sitting in front of piles of fruit, bundles of herbs, clay tagines, steaming piles of nuts and grilled meat.

On one of our days, we took a road trip to the nearby Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains. As our guide called it: La vrai Maroc. The government subsidizes work projects for women, especially those divorced or widowed so they can receive some kind of income. In one of the little villages, its population only 200 people, we looked at the argon oil production process and couldn’t resist indulging in the handmade spa products.

Further up, the road ends and we hiked to one the seven waterfalls, resulting from snow melting off the top of the mountains.

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La Loi Travail

The French love a good protest. I’ve passed by numerous manifestations, people chanting, holding up signs, making impassioned speeches. On one hand, it is impressive how sure people are that there individual voices will make a difference to causes they care about, on the other, it seems that going to protests is just a national pastime.

Back at Nanterre after break, we were met with a rallying student body. I was quickly approached and handed a flyer for the current cause. As far as I understood, the French government is writing in a law that will change how many hours one can work a week. In France, you get paid for 35 hours. It is not like the States where you can work 50 or 60 hours. In addition, bosses will have an easier time if they want to fire somebody. There has always been a good deal of protectionism and emphasis on workers’ rights in France. The spirit of this protest is: the government is demanding more for less.

Before class we were again given the spiel. Later, during our exam someone knocked on the door, but my professor put her foot down. Instead of leaving us to do our text analysis, the protester let rain the flyers he was holding.

Greves were announced for the next day, meaning the unions were striking and the RER and metro would be shut down. This happens a lot. As it inconveniences all the commuters, it is an effective bargaining chip. Though this time the greve lasted only a day, my host mom recalled a time when it took two months for all actors involved to find a compromise.

Moscow-Amsterdam-Maastricht-Bruges

February break went too quickly! After a few days in Moscow, I flew into Amsterdam to meet up with friends from back home. We stayed in Clink Noord, a warehouse now hip hostel, just a ferry ride away from the city center. I highly recommend the Van Gogh museum and Anne Frank House. At night we dared ourselves to do something new and ended up at a Red Light District sex show.

My friend is studying abroad in Maastricht so we took the train down and then left for Bruges in the morning. This Belgian town has the most beautiful architecture, swans serenely swimming in the river, and endless chocolate shops. An ideal weekend trip to take from Paris!

Meeting People

One of the most pressing concerns for incoming students is making French friends. The stereotype is that Parisians are closed off and that it is difficult to establish a relationship. First and foremost, I would recommend not stressing out about being alone. You will naturally meet people. Maybe they will not be French, maybe they will not become your best friends, but there will always be someone to go out with on a Friday night.

Don’t hesitate to speak up in class. Some French students will be drawn to the fact that you are American. However, I have found that those who are the most receptive to striking up a conversation are other international students. Hearing us speaking English after class, we were approached by an Italian ERASMUS student. We now sit together in class, grab an espresso during the break and later got our respective groups to go out together to a bar near Bastille. It was a funny night – half of us Americans, half Italians, our common language, French.

Incidentally, getting involved in Erasmus is a good way to find community. They organize activities, ranging from movie nights, potlucks to clubbing. Our favorite is international night, Thursdays at Mix Club. If you get there before midnight, entry is free and the party goes till 5. People are here to have a good time and you are more likely to start a conversation with a stranger. A surprising amount of French students go, but I personally like meeting other Europeans or Americans. I’ve run into situations in which I put forth my best French, chat for a few minutes, only to realize I live a town over from this guyandthat we can probably switch into English now.

And if bars and clubs are not really your thing? No problem! APA works hard to find each student an activity, both on and off campus. Mia is on the rugby team. Molly joined an acapella group. Eleanor is playing flute with an orchestra. I’m trying CrossFit. Quite a few people are volunteering as English tutors in local schools. Not only does this give you something to do, it introduces you to like-minded people.

Take advantage of student tickets for exhibits, shows, etc. After my Transitional Justice class, I joined a few classmates to go see an independent documentary about the Iraq War at half-price. Each university has a student center which is a good place to visit for information on what’s being offered, but it could be enough to just read your email or look at the posters hanging around campus.

As I’ve mentioned before, take advantage of APA’s offer to find you a language partner. This is a shortcut process to making a French friend who will then likely introduce you to his circle of friends.

Also, believe it or not, Tinder could be a good way to meet people. It does not have to be a hook-up situation. Just grab a drink or go for a walk. If things don’t go well, you are not obligated to see that person ever again.

Finally, maybe you don’t want to get stuck in the American bubble, but don’t underestimate the potential for new friendships amongst other APA students. You already have one big thing in common: out of all the places in the world, you chose to study abroad in Paris.

Place de la République

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Study in Study Abroad

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.

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Marché aux puces

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!

Les Catacombes de Paris

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.

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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!