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That’s a Wrap

It has been almost a month now since I left Paris. Coming back home to Texas, spending time with my family, and just taking it easy was exactly what I needed after four months of non-stop activity in Paris. I think even after a month I’m still processing everything that happened while I was abroad. I think my real motivation for going abroad was a desire to throw myself into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable environment in order to challenge myself and thereby grow as a person. I think this very same desire led me to choose Northwestern as my college. And I know without a doubt that I have grown so much as a person as a result of this experience, which is all I could hope for. How did studying abroad in Paris challenge me, you may be wondering? Sure, I expected there to be challenges from living in a country whose language I knew almost nothing of and challenges from being so far from my friends and family and knowing almost no one in the program. But Paris also challenged me personally in ways that I never could have expected, and it was through overcoming all of these challenges, both expected and unexpected, that I saw myself change and mature.

Someone asked me the other day what my favorite part of studying abroad was, and I began to laugh at myself when I couldn’t help from replying, “All of it. Everything.” And as cliche as it sounds, it’s true. There is not a single aspect of my time abroad that I would change. Every day, every experience, was new, unpredictable, and an opportunity to challenge myself by stepping out of my comfort zone and trying something new. There were definitely highs and lows though, to be perfectly honest. Some days I felt isolated and lonely, but I never felt that way for long. What helped me get through the low points were the students with me on the trip, who are among the most incredible people I have met. Being American students in a foreign country and only really having each other for a sense of familiarity and comfort created a kind of cohesion and camaraderie in the group, and I’m relieved now that I decided to study abroad with other Northwestern students.

Well, that’s it from me on these blog posts. I hope whoever has read them has enjoyed them, and I hope they’ve helped them get an idea of what studying abroad in Paris is like. All in all, it was an exhilarating experience that ended up becoming a journey of personal growth and fulfillment. Of course I encourage anyone who’s interested in studying abroad to take the plunge and do it. I believe it is not just an essential college experience but an essential life experience as well.

Parc Monceau

One place in Paris I will miss after I leave is the park near my homestay, Parc Monceau. I stumbled upon it one day when I made the spontaneous decision to explore the area around my homestay after my classes had finished for the day. It is probably one of the most impressive and remarkable parks I have been to, with its large stone rotunda standing in between ornate gold-tipped iron gates, which mark the entrance to the park, and its various features and monuments that can be found inside the park, including a pond with a row of Greek columns lining the edge of the water. On many evenings I would stroll through the park and admire both the natural and man-made aesthetically pleasing structures in the park. It truly was a place for me to be alone with nothing but my thoughts. In a place like Paris, with the incessant traffic, the crowded streets filled with clueless and obnoxious tourists, and the political protests that inevitably lead to the destruction of both public and private property, it was a special refuge for a weary mind like mine.

Eventually, I shared the secret of Parc Monceau with an acquaintance who lived close by, and it was there that our friendship took root, like the roots of the many trees in the park. It proved to be fertile soil, as our friendship and time together in Paris have become my most cherished memory of my time abroad. In time, our friendship became as special and essential a source of refuge for me as the park itself.

Parc Monceau, Claude Monet

Relfection: the return home

Usually when I am coming home from Northwestern I am super excited, this time when I was coming home from Paris, I was dreading it. It was different this time because I don’t know when I will return to Paris, whereas when I come home from northwestern, I know I will be returning at most in a couple of months. I’ll get to see my college friends again, I’ll get to visit places in Chicago that I’ll miss; it’s never a full goodbye when I come home from Northwestern. This time, it was. I saw the Eiffel Tower twinkle for the last time, I ate my last French baguette, I took the metro for the last time, I said bonjour to the homeless man at my corner for the last time, I went up the stairs to my apartment for the last time, there were all these lasts happening at once, and I didn’t know if I would ever get to experience these moments again. It was these intimate parts of Paris that made me love it the most, it wasn’t the pomp and circumstance that comes with the Louvre, with the Champs Elysees, with a boat ride along the seine, it was the small moments that made me really feel like it was home. I wish I had a few more days in Paris at the end to really say goodbye to the city, I feel like I didn’t have enough time at the end with finals and everything school related to really go out and appreciate Paris for the last time. That made saying goodbye really hard. Now, writing this in my bed at home in Seattle, I feel sad and a little in shock that this experience is already over, but I also feel nothing but gratitude for the experience and love that Paris brought me.

Primary and Secondary Focuses

In just a few weeks, I will be nestled between my best gal pals in the world overjoyed to be back in their presences. Between summer internships and study abroad I haven’t see half of them for nearly six months. The others I have seen over infrequent visits. But oh boy is it hard to keep up with them in the mean time. I guess I am not a very good texter or caller. If they read this, they would agree and so would my mother. I really don’t think it has anything to do with my feelings about my closest friends or family, although maybe people would tell me otherwise, but I think it has a lot more to do with short term focus. 

My Paris life is full of people, places and happenings that are unexplainable to the others in our lives. I can talk about Chez Georges and the inside jokes that unfold their until my friends go deaf. But does that mean they will know how excellent Picon tastes? or the little basement that keeps secrets, will they be able to see it? I don’t think so. I should try, however, as these small places are extremely integral to my experiences. They are my routine. I spent the last couple of months trying to manage it. When I could catch friends, we managed to sort through what was on our minds, but the actual specs of our lives apart are still a little bit blurry. As hard as I might try, the placement of our table at Chez Georges is in the forefront of my existence in a way that is uncommunicatable to others for the time being.

This is a kind of scary part of study abroad. What if I am so bad at communicating that when our lives go back to “normal” I won’t be able to communicate my perspective to the same people who I didn’t used to have to explain myself to at all? What am I going to do when I graduate and many of my friendships get spread across the country? I got a sneak peek to my answer this week when I was reunited with a close friend I had not seen since school let out last June. We gabbed and gabbed in our hotel room in Zurich the first night with nary an awkward pause. This whole week made for a trial run, and I could honestly not be more excited to hear about everyone’s adventures. How thrilling it is that we have all been on different continents. I need to be caught up on summers, relationships, and trips to mountains and beaches. Although, I should be better about calling periodically, I think that the moments of cathartic recounting that occur when we are all together again is going to beat any text message I could send. Ultimately, I have not really discovered the solution to this dilemma, but I can see that communicating across distances will be something we will all have to get better at throughout our lives.  

How Paris Won Me Over

I didn’t really, really realize it until I tried to explain the different between Paris and Chicago to my sweet French friends. I said something along the lines of “well, Chicago, it’s pretty but it’s not like Paris pretty.” And at that point it dawned on me that Paris and Chicago are incomparable in my mind because somewhere along the line I came to believe that Paris is the most beautiful and excellent city on this entire earth. You might say in response to this “well it is PARIS, afterall” but to be totally honest I had pretty low expectations of the city. During my first visit when I was twelve, we didn’t eat anything good besides street crepes near Notre Dame and a lot of French people were not tolerant of my brother and I’s loud, rambunctious behavior. On a later visit, at age eighteen, I was not disheartened, but also not enthralled the way I was with other cities like London, for example. I basically thought the whole Paris thing was a myth. 

Why then, you might ask, did I choose Paris when I could have chosen somewhere I could expect more from? Well, I started out with India and Morocco, but had to rule those out because they seemed impractical with budgetary and academic restraints. Then, I settled upon this program once I talked to some alumni and saw how well designed the courses are for my interests. Still, I thought that I settled for Paris. But now, in the most pathetically enthusiastic sense I am hopelessly in love with this absurd and beautiful city. 

A follow up question you might have is, “what changed? what made you love it? Here is a non-exhaustive list:

  • The way the city breathes around 5 pm when its starting to get dark and people are milling about everywhere. The myriad of buildings and personalities make for such a lively little place
  • Wandering down a completely unknown, never before seen street only to end up back on your favorite street like every adventure you have spits you out into your comfort zone at the end 
  • Walking past all the beautiful windows displaying the beautiful commercialism that makes this city a “fashion city” 
  • Good green spaces:  Jardin de Plantes, Luxembourg Gardens, Buttes-Chaumont 
  • Seine-side walks, but also Seine-side everything. Especially sitting near it as the sun goes down and watching reflections on the water 
  • All the people sitting outside at bistros every evening

In short, I explained to Louise, my French friend, that Chicago really is beautiful, but its design isn’t focused around maximizing the viewer’s pleasure the way that Paris is in its essence. All the time people are walking around and seeking beauty or enjoyment or good company. It’s lively like no other city I’ve ever been to because it seems to live on in beauty with the rest of us. 

Making the Most of Weekends

There was a recent Saturday that I did not dare to go outside. The weather was fine and I had plenty left on my to do list, but it’s hard to be a tourist for 15 weekends straight. I needed that Saturday of Brooklyn 99 in bed. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t my worst Saturday, nor was it anywhere near my best. This low-key much needed slump interests me in the concept of what constitutes a good weekend abroad. Would my travel fatigue have been suppressed had I been on a weekend trip to another country? Should every weekend be chock full of Mona Lisas and Montmartre? If so, how do you create the feeling that you’re living out your life and not taking an extended break from reality? Thus, I reflect on “weekends.” 

There’s something to be said for weekends traveling. Many people maximize their time abroad by maximizing their country count. I will say that I heavily enjoyed the fact that Brugge, Belgium was only a two hour train and made for the perfect two-day stop. Or the weekend we went to see Champagne country. Although all of these trips unfolded in the blink of an eye, they got me to see beautiful areas while also maintaining the lack of need to establish any serious routine for Friday-Sunday. 

The second time of abroad weekend is the “my friend is visiting” or my friend’s friend. While these weekends are also anti-routine, they unfold differently because you’re constantly on the highlight tour. With friends you try to work in the museums you haven’t seen yet, while also showing them your favorite little niches of your new city. These weekends are really fun because your purpose revolves around making the city perform as its most cheerful self. Simultaneously, however, they are also tiring, so you might start to see why I needed a Saturday to just relax between traveling and giving tours to travelers. 

The three examples of how you might spend a Saturday abroad make up about 70% of your weekends, but they aren’t the weekends I felt most at home. A really, really good at home weekend involves long stays at your favorite cozy-casual bar. They’re 11 am french workout classes in new parts of town. 10 dumpling for 5 euro restaurants. While all of these things are not particularly exciting, they create a notion of home, while also immersed in the culture of French people themselves. I learned a pretty pattern for a night out with friends – french or otherwise – and I was challenged by the norms and language seeped into these activities. When I look back, I know that weekends like these impacted me the most in the longterm. I will surely travel more in my lifetime and make it to the countries I missed on this tour – Italy, Germany, the Netherlands – but I am not completely sure that I will be able to experience the cultures of another country while it is acting as my home base. So, these weekends spent really getting to know Paris are something special. 

NUSP 2018: An Introduction to Art History

I’m now nearing the end of my time in Paris, so I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on all the amazing trips I’ve been on while I’ve been living in France. All of the trips I’ve made, as part of the program and in my personal time, have been equally exciting and stimulating. Wherever I went, whether it was Brussels, Rome, or Vienna, there was never a shortage of culture, art, or history present in each city. I would have to say, though, that the city of Vienna has left the greatest impression on me, and it there that you can find what is most likely my favorite art gallery I’ve been to in all of Europe.

Inside the Belvedere museum in Vienna is a gallery devoted to many different eras of art, and therefore many different art movements, including surrealism, expressionism, and cubism. One of the painters featured in the gallery, Gustav Klimt, has become perhaps one of my favorite artists, although I must confess that my knowledge of art history and its many great artists is quite limited. It is in the section of the museum dedicated to his works that I saw for the first time his painting entitled “The Kiss.” It is a painting in the Art Nouveau style that depicts two figures cloaked in elaborate robes embracing and literally incorporates silver and gold leaf, which adds a vibrancy and brilliance to the painting that is simply stunning when seen in person.

The experience I had at the Belvedere palace in Vienna was not uncommon during my time in Europe. In Barcelona, for example, I visited Park Guell, a famous creation of Antoni Gaudi, and was amazed at the sight of the intricate and weird architecture of the structures in the park. Some of the structures there, like the bird nests, rise organically from the surrounding natural landscape and therefore seem as if they were creations of nature rather than man.

I must say that I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit so many different places and see such gorgeous and one-of-a-kind works of art first-hand. I realize now that four months is not enough time to explore the museums of Paris, let alone Europe. So, I can’t wait to return to Europe one day and see even more.

The Kiss

Bird nests in Park Guell

The Importance of Language

For thanksgiving my family came to town, and they were able to meet with my homestay family which was a really fun opportunity. However, my family doesn’t speak French, and my host mother doesn’t speak English. I had to play translator. I was extremely nervous to do this, because I had only been learning the language for three months. I had studied Spanish for 8 years and still was not that proficient so I assumed my French wasn’t even close to proficient. However, I surprised myself. I was able to communicate a lot of what my parents wanted to say and was able to understand a lot of what my host mom was saying. It was difficult to keep the two languages separate at times, I would talk to my family in French and my host mom in English sometimes, but for how inexperienced in French I feel like I did a good job. It just goes to show that being in an environment that forces you to speak the language makes it a lot easier to learn. At the beginning it was difficult to navigate, but I learned words as I needed them, and now I am confident in my French speaking skills. I even ordered chipotle today all in French, and was able to understand all that the workers were asking me.

What strikes me so much about my confidence in the French language, is how it has changed how I go about life in Paris. I have been here now for three months, and there have been so many times where the language barrier has stopped me from seeking help because I was afraid that they wouldn’t understand me. For example, I was at dinner one night and wanted ice cream for desert. There weren’t any flavors on the menu so I assumed you had to ask the waiter what they were. I was nervous to do this, so instead I ended up just ordering something else. There have been so many instances where that has happened, where I found a different solution so that I would avoid having to talk to people. It’s very isolating. But, since I have gained that confidence in my language skills, I have noticed a change in how I interact with people. I am more willing to ask people for help, more willing to interact with my Starbucks barista and ask her how her day was, and build more relationships. It makes life in Paris much less lonely when you’re able to make those small connections.

Decoding

When I arrived in Paris on September 1st, I got off the train at Gare du Nord and desperately needed make a bathroom pitstop. I wheeled my massive suitcase to the nearest toilettes (across the station and down a hazardous escalator) only to realize they required 70 cents for entry, but I did not yet possess even a singular Euro. Because this business couldn’t wait until I arrived at the hostel, I was determinded to find a way in. So, I withdrew 100 Euro from the nearest ATM, halfway across the massive train station, and then I faced the fact that the bathrrom gatekeeper would not break the ATM’s 50s. I needed a way to get change. Another trial. I decided to buy a candy bar at the nearest conviencience store and once acquired I raced back down the escalator, luggage in tow. When I got to the bathroom, there was a massive line and an even more insurmountable obstacle: an attendent who only spoke French. These were the first moments where I had to put my French to the test to get something I needed.

In the time since then, encounters of this variety  are innumerable. Although, often, the cashiers at shops speak English, my plight for entry has become much more about proving myself. I want to be able to show to them (and mostly me) that I can execute a conversation in French, knowing all the little codes to get out of the store emotionally unscathed. All that’s at risk, in reality, is my pride – even when I mess up speaking the worst that happens is a response in English or an offhand “you American” look. Neither of these are deadly, but the ensuing intimidation that I acquire often becomes an obstacle  against acquiring the experiences in which I wish to partake.

I recently wanted to get a library card for a hallowed and historic library near my house, but the online instructions for getting a card were not explaining why there was such a long line outside the library everytime I tried to gain entry. I faced the queue of cool looking french young adults and turned around, went home and ate frozen pizza in my room instead of doing my homework. This is in no way a glamorous picture of my adventurous characteristics, but its the truth of that moment. The next day, I went back, still did not engage with the line outside and walked right into the library. I was allowed to get a card and study for a few hours under the beautiful arched ceilings. However, I still did not understand the protocol behind the line, so when I tried to return, and the doorman stopped me from just waltzing in. I needed to strike up a conversation and figure out what the actual procedure was that I needed to follow, so that I could study inside.

Although I can articulate how illogical these fears are, when I let them build up in my head, they can stop me from exploring my interests or gaining worthwhile experiences in my new city. I am slowly learning to conqeor these fears by adhering to the advice ‘be too curious to care.” I try to encourage myself not to back into the fears of messing up the language and owning up to my linguistic shortcomings. A new lovely looking shop opened up on my street recently, and I plowed past my anxieties right into a conversation with the shop owner about her products. I ended up with a new coat and the satisfaction that when I get past the doorways, none of these conversations in French are impossible, nor am I incapable of expressing myself. Each time nothing scares me off, I become more emboldened to take more risks and actually come closer to overcoming my fears.

A city of historical surprises

I just finished all my travel for the quarter. I spent a week going to Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Munich. Then spent time in Geneva and Rome. Coming back to Paris I have found a huge appreciation for this city. Of all the cities that I have gone to, Paris is by far my favorite one. The history, the beauty, the culture, there’s always something to do and see, it never gets boring and you’re never hard pressed to fill your time. What I think I find most striking about Paris is how there are historical monuments everywhere. There was one day I decided to walk home from school instead of take the metro. It was one of my first weeks in Paris so I was not familiar with all the monuments and important buildings. On this walk, little did I know I would be passing many. I started this walk, and I was walking on what seemed like a normal Parisian street, when all of a sudden there was a beautiful bridge that I would walk over. It ended up being the Pont Alexander III Bridge, which is one of the most ornate bridges in the city.

Next, I came across this beautiful plaza with what seemed like the Washington monument in the middle of it. This ended up being Place de la Concorde and the “Washington Monument” is actually an obelisk donated by the Egyptian government to Paris to exalt the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II.

 I then kept walking for a while and passed a beautiful building with a gorgeous decorations  and being dancing on the stairs in front of it. This ended up being Palais Garnier, arguably the most famous opera house in the world because it was the setting of Phantom of the Opera.

It is times like this, when I accidentally stumble across something that people travel across oceans to see, that make me most appreciative of my opportunity to be here. There are so many things to see and places to go, I only have two weeks left and I am getting in that panic that I might not be able to finish everything that I wanted to do.