Reflecting on Independence and European Fashion

More than a month after my return home, my experience in Paris seems kind of like a dream. My life there, away from family and friends, felt so separate from my life in Evanston. In so many ways, I think I changed and adapted to life abroad, so to be right back in my routine feels a little strange. Every day, I am grateful to be home, something I wished for and daydreamed about so often in Paris, particularly toward the end of the trip. My time abroad showed me how important my family and community are to me, but I also learned to become more independent and to thrive in an unfamiliar environment.

I think the hardest thing for me being abroad was leaving the comfort of a community I had grown to feel so much a part of at Northwestern. However, realizing that I will graduate next year and leave the campus community I love so much, I’m lucky to have been abroad and know that I can be happy and successful in a new environment. While I do feel that I’m independent at school, being abroad was a whole new level of independence, having to figure everything out alone (including the mazes that are international airports). This was tough, but through it all, I found the integrity and determination I’m made of, even when I’m 5,000 miles away from home. Plus, whenever anyone asks me where I got some item of clothing I’m wearing, I get to flip my hair and say, “Paris!” or “London!” like a regular Bethenney Frankel.

A Quarter Older

After moving into my first apartment, I looked outside my window and stared down at the Northwestern University sign at the intersection of Clark and Chicago Ave. I felt overwhelmed. I felt giddy. I felt like a freshman. I know I only left for a quarter, I mean it’s only 11 weeks, but Northwestern seemed so unfamiliar. Academic life with four classes a quarter, apartment parties with large groups of friends, buying groceries and figuring out how to cook, not taking a metro…they all seemed strange.northwestern-hero

I knew I would “change” …or at least that’s what everyone told me before going to Paris. I’ve noticed changes in how I approach daily life. After living in Paris for 14 weeks, I’ve carried some of Paris back with me (I know it’s cheesy, but I didn’t know how else to describe it).  I’ve accidentally spoken French to the cashier at Whole Foods, forgot I wasn’t 21 and can’t buy wine in America, and still have public transportation turned on for Google Maps. Like my homestay mom, I put butter in everything and make fish four times a week.

However, I didn’t expect NU, particularly the people, to change much.  No one mentioned how NU changes too. NU is a quarter older. No one warned me that I won’t be a part of that change and that I will be lost and that I will need to catch up on all the news. There are new relationships, new friendships, and new tensions. I didn’t see any of them form, but rather, I just suddenly walked into all of it (and I mean literally “walked in” as I entered a Welcome Back Party).

As weird, for the lack of a better word, as everything seems the first few days back, it is also refreshing. For me, I’ve realized that there are many friends on campus with whom I just don’t “click” anymore. We might have been close friends at the end of last year, but now we just diverged. We might have still been close friends if I stayed on campus, but that’s something I will never know. On the other hand, in the past few days, I’ve met a few people who I wasn’t friends with before I left for Paris. I knew them before I left, but we just weren’t friends until this week—we converged. We might not be friends today if I stayed on campus, but, again, that’s something I will never know.

All I know is that going abroad has given me a new perspective on people, events, the campus…etc. It has allowed me to approach all these changes with a new lens, attitude, and energy.

Among the tombstones at Père Lachaise

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I rose from bed on my final day in Paris without much of a plan. My only friend left in the city at this time was Max, who had been one of my most trusted companions of the trip. After bumming around, showering, brushing teeth, Max and I decided to go to L’Assignant, our favorite lunch spot in Paris. The waitress, who knew us well by then, thought we had already left Paris when we arrived at the restaurant, so she was happy to see us. Max and I ate large rumsteaks, and when we ordered coffee after the meal, the waitress gave us digestifs to celebrate our trip.

After lunch we ruminated on what we should do. It was a nice day, about 40 degrees and sunny. Museums were off the table. We had seen them all. A park sounded boring. Then Max remembered Père Lachaise, the famous cemetery where the likes of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison are buried. Without much hesitation, we decided it would be a cool thing to go see.

Père Lachaise turned out to be one of the most unexpected beauties of the trip. Moss covered monoliths towering over the cemetery honoring the lives of artists and barons and celebrities past. Walking among the tombstones felt akin to walking down Fifth Avenue. Hidden details around every turn. We saw Oscar Wilde’s tomb, where people left packs of cigarettes for him to smoke in the afterlife.

We set out looking for Jim Morrison’s tomb, but got lost along the way; there were so many mausoleums it was easy to get lost. Consulting the Internet was no help, and after half an hour of stumbling through the cemetery, we gave up the search.

I thought about assigning some symbolic meaning to being in a cemetery on my last day in Paris; something about the parallel between the cemetery as the end of both life and my trip. Realizing the superficiality of this comparison I opted to focus on the present. To take in the light hitting the trees, the smell of wet moss, the cool air of Paris in December.

Yum Paris

Greetings from Heathrow International airport!
I left my host family about four hours ago and am currently sitting in Heathrow airport in London, in between flights from Paris to Chicago. I simply can’t reflect right now on what I have just completed— that will come in my next blog post in the coming two weeks after I have had time to think more rationally. It’s always hard to understand the impact of an event on one’s self clearly when they are in the midst of it.
I do want to share a few of my last moments in Paris. Many moments are bittersweet at the end of a sojourn like this. Last night was my last dinner in Paris, and my host family and I had an amazing farewell feast in our cozy dining room. As an entrée we ate foie gras, a french delicacy where you cook goose liver and eat it with a tartine, toast with jam. We accompanied this with a very sweet red wine from Bordeaux, a region in France known for its wine. The intense sweetness was a perfect complement to the savory foie gras. We followed this with the plat principale, the main dish, a white fish with caramelized onions, a sprinkle of lemon, and roasted cherry tomatoes. We ate steamed broccoli and green beans on the side. My host dad went around the table and poured an extremely dry ten-year-old white wine from Alsace into the second, larger wine glass during this course. After this came the third course, the family’s favorite cheeses taken with a third wine, this one red like the first, produced in Burgundy. After a leisurely wine and cheese, we concluded our meal with a house tradition, a whipped chocolate mousse with sweet cookies. Throughout the two hours we talked about everything and brought up many points about this study abroad and the things that happened at that table throughout the semester.
Here in France I have learned that meals are as much for the society of friends and family as they are for the food. Both are highly regarded; French people gather together enjoying great food and endless conversation. In my host home, dinners are the one time of the day when the whole family comes together. The conversations turn to discussions which turn to debates and even after you have finished eating you stay and talk as you please.
It has been an absolute joy eating dinner every night with my French host family. I think we repeated the same meal maybe once or twice in three months. Every night it was home prepared and colorful and flavorful. Occasionally on more special occasions like last night we paired our dishes with wine from all over France and Italy and sometimes Spain. Even when we didn’t pull out the wine from our family’s cellar, I will remember our dinners as moments that defined my everyday Paris experience. Because for an hour and a half each night I spoke more French than I had all day and and I learned about life in France from real Parisians. I learned phrases and expressions that only come up in native conversations, all the while feeling like I was truly a member of a French family. And I was; it makes sense why it was so hard leaving this morning.
I know for a fact that after some time, hopefully soon, these sad feelings will melt away and I will be left with only good memories of my time here. Sans aucune doute- without a doubt- I will return to this city and I will be sure to meet with my host family when I arrive. I’m leaving you with a picture I took earlier in the week. It was a beautiful sunset.
Sunset at Parc Belleville

Sunset at Parc Belleville

One more blog post to come when I have a bit more bearings about me!
À bientot mes chéris,
Henry
Written on December 10th.

What to Expect From Study Abroad

Looking back over these last three and a half months, it’s hard to sum up exactly what this experience has meant to me. It is safe to say, however, that my quarter abroad was not at all what I expected, for better and for worse.

Honestly, it wasn’t easy. Dealing with the language barrier, culture shock, and homesickness, there were times that I didn’t feel that being abroad was the “best few months of my life,” like some people will claim. At the risk of sounding too negative, I’d like to add that these feelings of frustration and loneliness had an ultimately positive impact on me.

My time abroad has shown me that it’s okay to not always be okay. Even if everyone else looks like they’re doing great on social media, everyone has their struggles, particularly when abroad. In a city like Paris, it’s easy to feel guilty for not seeing or doing more, but the fact of the matter is that Paris is a city like any other. People study and work and life carries on like anywhere else, except with prettier buildings and better bread. Studying abroad isn’t a vacation, it’s real life, and real life has its ups and downs. Ultimately, I learned to be more independent and to pay attention to and advocate for my own mental wellness.

Aside from the exposure I got to Paris’ culture and history, perhaps the most beneficial thing I got from being abroad was the ability to be more independent and to show my integrity even 5,000 miles from home. Even more than my first two years at Northwestern, traveling abroad forced me to become more mature and to rely on and take care of myself.

“You are not just my study-abroad friends”

Up until 6th grade, my family moved a lot. Ottawa to different parts of Toronto to Chicago. Every time, my mom always said, “home is wherever your family is.” Yep, sounds great but those words didn’t really mean anything to me—I just didn’t want to move away from the cute boy at school.
But those words have been so true here in Paris. After nearly four months, Paris has become home because of the family I have at my homestay and because of the familiar faces I see every day at Vera & Andréa Café (pro-tip, they have amazing soup here during late fall). And most importantly, Paris has become home because of the NU family we built.

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As a group of NU students in Paris, we have supported and taken care of each other in ways I have never really seen at NU. At the heart of it is the fact that most of us are experiencing a new country, culture, and lifestyle at the same time. All of us are learning how to order in French and how to find some Mexican food (love French food, but sometimes we need to change it up). We understand each other and we look out for each other. We found comfort in each other during election night and eased the pain of missing family during Thanksgiving.
I guess that’s what I will miss the most. I know the croissants and the crepes are delicious, but I can always have them again. I will probably never share the croissants and banana-nutella crepes with this group of people again.

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Hemingway’s Paris

My host brother is singing dangerously loud in his room across the hall from me.
I’ve picked up a new read for the daily Metro commute, a gift sent from my sister for my birthday (receiving this package could be its own blog post).
English lit major in Paris meets Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. !!! The book is a quasi-memoir of Hemingway’s 5 years in Paris during his early twenties. The man was consumed by the draw of the city. On every page there’s a reference to a bar or a street or a neighborhood that’s familiar to me. It is surreal to read about Hemingway’s café crème on Boulevard St. Germain only to walk down that rue to class the next morning.
Hemingway is big on truth. As a writer in search of inspiration, he starts by writing a sentence that he knows to be true. Write the truest sentence that you know, he says. It’s been about a week now since I started reflecting on this.
Behind the glamour of St. Germain shop windows and the prestige of Haussmann architecture is a Paris rooted in deep history and culture. This week I walked down Rue de la Butte aux Cailles in the 13th arrondissement with a few friends and we grabbed a coffee in a local shop. It is tucked away amidst an otherwise hoppin’ Paris arrondissement and its architecture is sunken in and cobblestoned, which doesn’t quite resemble the rest of Paris. The little neighborhood was at one time a fenced in village outside the city limits of Paris before Paris expanded. We walked around for a bit and then grabbed coffee at a shop where a group of older women were talking calm french.
Did I mention this street is riddled with street art?

Butte aux Cailles is riddled with dope street art

Places like these are dotted all over the city. In these places you can breathe easier. Your head is clearer too when you’re not surrounded by traffic and city sights. The grandiose of Paris is what makes it the hottest place in the world but sometimes you find spots like Butte aux Cailles and you realize Paris isn’t there just for the aesthetic. Something that I love is that all around the city they have these plaques that are put up right next to a building or a monument. The Histoire de Paris plaques give a brief history of each site and place the monument in its cultural context. It’s so cool to read them! I run across the street when I see one just to read it and usually bring it up to my host fam that night at dinner. Discovering the city this way to me is just as cool as museum hopping. Proof that Paris isn’t here for the tourists at all. It’s just another way of seeing through the flashing lights and getting to the real city. The true city. Hemingway would be proud.
Until next time friends- Bonne journée!
Henry
Written on November 20th.

Paris, What Can’t You Do?

 

Hello from Charles De Gaulle International Airport!

It seems like ages since I last introduced myself to you all. I will blame this time lapse on the obscene amounts of bread and adventures that have consumed my life over the past 50 or so days. Until recently I have not been inspired to write as much as I have been inspired to read and draw, which also may explain my absence from this platform. In any case, here are a few pictures I drew after checking out the Picasso Museum in Le Marais. Picasso challenged the conventions of faces in drawings, evoking a new type of reality through his unique expression. Me? Well, you can be the judge. 
 
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Face and Hand, Distortions

 
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Face (?) #1

What I’m trying to say is that in Paris, even the most inexperienced of artists (Re: Right) find inspiration through the seemingly endless lineup of wonderful artwork across the city. I swear there must be five hundred museums; going to all of them is an impossible feat, let alone discovering everything each museum holds. As we glided past the Louvre museum on our Seine River tour, our guide told us that if we wanted to view each artifact in the Louvre each for 4 seconds, it would take THREE MONTHS to make it to the end (fact check me, do it). Ummm what… Suffice to say this little tidbit has scared me into only visiting the Louvre once so far, traipsing my way lazily through a magnificent Egyptian exhibition.
 
 
Our Sciences Po student ID card has proven QUITE valuable. Not only does it let us into the Sciences Po buildings (in which hundreds of French and exchange students chit chat in groups looking chic as ever), but also it lets you in free to most museums in Paris. France has this (beautiful) system where young people get reduced fares on places that require a fee- it’s almost like they understand that culture is important even when you have no money!!! With this advantage, I have treated myself to the serenity of Musée Rodin’s sculpture garden, gotten lost in Musée de L’Orangerie’s mystifying Monet waterlilies, perused Musée Quai Branley’s enlightening Asian-Pacific exhibit, and of course visited Musée D’Orsay’s unfathomable 5th floor collection of Impressionist art, in which I left feeling noticeably happier than when I had entered.
 
Museums have been a joy to say the least, but it’s the parks that have allowed me the time to reflect on the beauty I have seen as I lay in the grass with my backpack under my head. Paris takes great pride in their parks here. Not only are they natural recluses from the hustle of the Parisian rue, but they’re also places of aesthetic pleasure, a picturesque Parisian landscape that seems to say, “You thought we couldn’t do nature? Ha! We can do everything.” Yes, Paris. Yes you can.
 
Parc de Buttes Chaumont is a 5 minute stroll down the street from my homestay. It boasts a rustic-looking gazebo as the apex of a big and winding grassy hill. At the top of the hill is a view of Paris not quite like that of the Sacré Coeur (pictured below), but just as breath taking. On a good day (of which we’ve been blessed with many) there are runners, picnickers, dog-walkers, young families with their kids, teens in their groups, book-readers, people who want to snooze in the sun, and just overall a beautiful atmosphere of calm and happy. I am ten pages from the end of my novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovish, most of which has been read either in that park or on my daily commute to and from Sciences Po on the Metro.
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Misty View from Steps of Sacré Coeur, Mid-Morning

 

So many little aspects of Parisian life make me so happy. It’s the things that you only pick up as a Parisian quotidian, an every-day Parisian. These are where I find the most magical parts of the city; in the gesture of politesse on the Metro as a young man gives his seat to an older woman; in the exchanges at the counter of the café, when you give the cashier exact change with your one and two euro coins, and he gives you a slight, knowing Parisian nod accompanied with his merci; in the mini dog who runs over to you as you lie in the grass in the park, unchained and unabashed in his curiosity. These moments are what I love most, and the beautiful thing about them is that there is no rule they have to follow. Everyone who lives in Paris finds the true joy of being a Parisian in their own way. From the routine breakfast of coffee and cigarette (yum?), to the ten pages squeezed in on the trajet to school, to the bisous you receive when you meet your friends for a tea after class.

These are my rambling thoughts as I wait to embark on my WONDERFULLY EXCITING trip to Venice, Florence, and Madrid during Toussaint holidays. Every day I add places and activities to my running list of “Things to do in Paris”, and every day I get that much more anxious about completing them all. But alas, you can’t do it all, and I will make sure to keep you guys updated as I coast into the latter half of this enchanting sojourn called study abroad.
DISCLAIMER: This post was written on Saturday, 22 October 2016 however an editing mishap delayed its publishing.

 

Bury Me at L’Assignat

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The other day, James and I were ambling around in our neighborhood, St. Germain des Prés. We were almost home, around the corner from our apartment in fact, when we passed by a small lunch spot with a red awning that read L’Assignat across the front. There was something about the place, looking through the window we could see that it was full of people, full of life, and the food looked good. We resolved to come back the next day for lunch.

The next day, the place was full yet again, and we were lucky to find a place near the back. A little dog lay on the floor near us, right on the floor of the restaurant. We sat down, and a beautiful young waitress, probably 25, came to take our order. We ordered in our broken French, and she was very helpful, providing us full English translations of the menu as best she could.

For 10 euro, we were given two large rumsteaks with a kind of zucchini salad. It was incredible. It would have been 30 euro anywhere else. We noticed as we ate that nearly everyone who came in called back to the kitchen “Merci Gerard!” After inquiring to the waitress about Gerard, we learned that he is the owner, the sole chef, and the bartender. He was also her uncle.

Since that first meal, we’ve been back nearly twice a week. We’ve become close with the waitresses, and with Gerard. The last time we were there, which was just a few days ago when a friend was visiting from Barcelona, Gerard gave us a free bottle of wine.

L’Assignat is the place that I was dreaming of when I dreamed of being in Paris. It’s unpretentious but delicious. It’s local, almost no tourists beside ourselves (you’ll find on yelp that it only has 10 reviews). And, they treat us exceptionally kindly, which is rare for a group of young American boys in Paris.

 

 

Was EU studies the right program?

Probably no one would discourage you from going abroad, and odds are that if the credits line up and the location sounds appealing, you’ll write any essay that can land you a spot in your abroad program of choice. It’s a haphazard habit, trying your hand at anything to find something that sticks without making an effort to know yourself beforehand. Note, this is the skepticism of an often pathless junior concurrently abroad and submitting resumes and cover letters for summer internships.

I’m the single SESP and, by default, LOC student in the European Union studies program. In my application, I talked about how I might want to work for a transnational organization or in an international capacity in the future, knowing that the four political science credits would fulfill four graduation requirements and two thirds of the credits necessary for a political science minor. My motives were well-intentioned: I’d never been abroad, I’d taken French in high school but only one quarter in college, and I needed credits for my major. Zero thought was put into applying for a direct exchange in France, and even when I was given the option between this program and my second choice—an IPD direct exchange in another location—I didn’t hesitate to choose EU Studies. Being aware of the paradox of choice and prone to neuroses, I felt a burden lift when I relinquished my class (and eventually housing and half my meal) choices to the program.

Rainy arrival in Brussels for a class trip to EU institutions

Rainy arrival in Brussels for a class trip to EU institutions.

In the first weeks of the Sciences Po semester, which spans all of September to early December, I attributed my classroom malaise to the vibrancy of Paris relative to the classroom. It’s inevitable for concentration to wane when every hour in class competes with a stroll in a jardin or a tour of a musée. But after my fidgety excitement for the city faded, and I still couldn’t get through the readings, the problem revealed itself as fundamental lack of interest in the European Union. This is not to say that all the sessions have been dry or have failed to hold my attention, but it’s been a challenge for me to see value in studying, for example, the gradual formation of the EU and the specificities of its legislative and executive structures. My predilections are for theory and bigger-picture or social analysis, so while I do appreciate the program’s emphasis, modeled after French pedagogy, on speaking, debate, and group work, the material of the EU courses are an academic low point (the exception being the French Politics, Culture, and Society course).

With this in mind, I would encourage prospective study abroad students to look further into direct exchanges and bespoke curricula to avoid a quarter of academic want.*

It is now November, and classes have just resumed from break. Though the return has been welcome following a long week of travel, I wonder if my current contentment will last through the season.

 

* If language is a concern, it is possible for exchange students at Sciences Po to take classes in English as well as French, and I imagine this is the case for many other schools as well.