Before arriving in Paris, I was unsure of my decision to live in a homestay. Now that the program is nearly over I cannot imagine what my time here in Paris would have been like had I not lived in a homestay. The concept of a homestay is somewhat strange and daunting at first. People who do not know each other all of the sudden must begin living together. In my case, this resulted in many different people coming together. Apart from myself there was another student from Northwestern originally from Nebraska/Kansas, an art school student from Saudi Arabia who has lived and studied in Malaysia, and our host mother, a French woman whose children have now moved out. The difference in our backgrounds, although from the outside could be seen as a source of discomfort, came to be what resulted in one of the greatest sources of learning for me during my time abroad. At dinner, we would compare the way things were done or thought of in France, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kansas, Chicago, and Peru. We talked about education and healthcare systems in each country, about how women were treated, particularly in Saudi Arabia, and about the politics of each country, among other things. I know that not everybody had such diverse backgrounds come together in their homestay, but to me it seems that the benefits of living together with such different people merits that the homestay experience be greatly encouraged for future students about to study abroad.
As I sit in my homestay during my last week in Paris, I can’t help but wonder how it all went by so fast. It feels like it was just yesterday I stepped off of the plane and was bombarded by signs in a language that looked a little bit like gibberish. Three and a half months later what had seemed so strange became familiar. I even knew a little French.
One of the most surprising things about Paris is that you really don’t have to try hard to stumble upon something special. During the first few days, we stayed in the center of the city at a youth hostel. I remember walking to class for the first time and being surprised when I looked up to see the Notre Dame Cathedral. Even when there aren’t major historical sites in view, there is still so much to explore. There will always be tiny parks, beautiful churches, and charming cafes at every corner. Not to mention adorable dogs.
City life comes with other challenges, of course. But considering the density of cool places to visit, all of which can be reached easily by metro or on foot, it seems like a small price to pay to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
One of the most striking things about spending any amount of time in Europe is how “old” things are. In the United States, it feels like we are constantly looking for something new. How much of our history has been lost due to the people who got to decide what was important?
While it would be unfair to say that a lot of French history hasn’t been lost, it is overwhelming as an American to see how far back what they were able to preserve goes.
For example, while visiting Arles we were able to visit a Roman cemetery over 1500 years old. While the bodies were long gone, the sarcophagi that had once held them were still there. As my classmates and I walked and climbed around them, it was difficult to comprehend just how long this site had been around. Since then, it has become a place for people to visit. Vincent Van Gogh himself even painted a few paintings there.
In Paris proper, there are still places that you stumble on whose history can be overwhelming. It seems everywhere you go there is something older than you can comprehend. At the same this doesn’t mean that progress is completely impossible. It just needs to be made without forgetting what came before.
The very first few weeks we were in France, we visited the Palais Garnier. When we made it into the theater we were all taken aback by something unexpected–the ceiling. It in no way matched the style of the rest of theater. As we settled into the velvet seats, we were given its history. Apparently the original ceiling was damaged due to gas lighting and in the 60s it had been replaced with a fresco by Marc Chagall. But instead of going over the old design, a new ceiling was added over the original in case people changed their mind about the ceiling.
To Americans it may seem silly to preserve an old, damaged ceiling when there is a perfectly good ceiling over top. But we can’t argue that it’s not a very French thing to do. And besides, it’s kinda cool to look at knowing what kind of history lies underneath.
One of the beautiful aspects of studying abroad in Paris is that you can easily travel around Europe and even Northern Africa if you are feeling more adventurous. One of the most surprising things about traveling throughout Europe to me was how cheap it can be. Although it may take some time and planning, finding cheap transportation, housing, and meal options is very manageable. It is not uncommon to find plane or train tickets to another country under 100 euros. Our class schedule here in Paris includes a 1 week Fall break, a 2 day Thanksgiving break, and plenty of long weekends for ample opportunities to travel. Due to the fact that most European countries are within 2 hours of Paris by plane, traveling to other countries for short periods of time is also extremely manageable.
Although being able to travel so easily throughout Europe is a blessing, it can definitely be a curse as well. It can be easy to get caught up in the fact that traveling accessible. Some students plan trips for every open time period that they have. This becomes problematic when you don’t get to experience as much of Paris as you would like. I can say that I am experiencing this to a certain extent. With only one month left in Paris, I am realizing that there is still so much for me to see and experience in this beautiful city. Especially now that finals and project deadlines are approaching, it seems as if time is passing by all too quickly.
So my advice to anyone planning to study abroad in Europe would be to travel, by all means explore Europe. Studying abroad is a great time to do so. However, don’t forget that the city that you are living in is dying to be explored as well; take advantage of your time there and don’t take it for granted just because it has become the new norm.
Most of my friends said that I needed to visit the Catacombs during my study abroad. They considered it one of the most important sites in Paris. When I travelled to Italy in high school, I saw a display created by monks where they turned human bones into artwork. The Catacombs reminded me of that exhibit, but on a larger, more harrowing scale. After climbing down numerous stairs, I was struck by how large the walls of bones were. It felt both impressive and disturbing and I thought of the countless people who made up the ossuary. The low ceilings added a sense of claustrophobia to this memorial and made me all the more aware that I was surrounded by the remains of those that were long-gone.
Some of the bones were organized into shapes, like a heart. The heart of skulls reminded me that the morbid could be made beautiful. However, I could not help but question if the people whose skulls made this shape would appreciate the symbolism. Would they be aghast that their remains were used in this way? It raised an important question about whether a beautiful display is worth potentially going against the wishes of the people whose remains were used. It could also be argued that the Catacombs did these people a favor. They transcended their individual bodies and became something much bigger and more long-lasting in death. I may be unsure of how I ultimately feel about this unique burial ground, but it left an impression.
Here in Paris, you have 2 primary housing options: living in a homestay or living at St. John’s University’s dormitory. From what I’ve seen on my program, the majority of students from Northwestern choose to live in a homestay in Paris. However, this may seem intimidating at first. Living in someone else’s home, someone who you have never met, having to follow their rules, and eating meals with them may sound potentially disastrous – now taking these circumstances and adding the fact that a language barrier may exist between you may have some people wondering why anyone would take such a risk.
There were a couple of reasons why I decided to live in a homestay. First, I wanted to learn the language. Although we are required to take French classes here, I knew that having to live with Parisians and interacting with them on a daily basis would ensure that I had ample practice using my French, however frustrating it may get. Second, I wanted to get insight into the daily lives of Parisians. Experiencing the more mundane aspects of daily life from cooking meals to commuting to work was something that I would not have been able to witness if I lived in the dorms. The last reason is the food! Living in a homestay gives you the option of dining with your host family every night. The opportunity to eat a home-cooked Parisian meal every night was an opportunity that I could not pass up!
So would I recommend living in a homestay? Absolutely! I love my host family. They have been incredibly welcoming, helpful, and ready to divulge any Paris-related knowledge. Living with my host family has provided me with insights into Paris that I know I wouldn’t have gotten without them. They’ve provided me with a supportive, cozy, and happy home to come back to every day.
Last weekend, I got lost. I decided to take a trip to Versailles to see the palace. After spending two hours marveling at the decadent living conditions on Louis XIV, I felt like it was time to take the RER back to my house. This was the start to a journey that lasted twice as long as my time in the palace.
My first issue was my unfamiliarity with the RER. I winded up in a small town with train station with no idea which train would take me back to Paris. I did not mind waiting for the next train, but I ended up spending two hours at the station because I was afraid to go on trains that the RATP app did not recommend. It did not seem like the train I trusted the most was coming anytime soon when I finally got on a train that I hoped would take me to Paris.
It turned out that it did lead to Paris. Thinking I was safe, I relaxed until the train halted midway between stops. I got off after 30 minutes and ran into an unfamiliar part of the city. To make matters worse, I had low phone battery. Luckily, I found a metro stop. While the stop was not on the line that I used to get home, I had become familiar enough with the metro to connect to the sixth and get home. While it was a daunting experience, I felt a sense in accomplishment when I realized how familiar I have become with the metro.
As part of the Art, Literature, and Contemporary European Thought program, we got to visit the south of France. I have to admit, I had no idea what to expect from the trip besides the fact that I would be seeing a lot of art museums. While I would have also been happy with just that, we stopped some other places along the way that definitely put things we were learning about into perspective.
For example, our class ended up visiting Arles. I knew almost nothing about the town before visiting besides the fact that it was the place that Vincent Van Gogh fled to escape the “evils” of Paris. While there, we went on a little tour of all of the places Van Gogh painted while there. Many of these paintings we were able to see in person the week before at the Musée D’Orsay.
First of all, seeing these paintings in real life instead of on a computer screen was an eye opening experience. Getting to choose where you stand in relation to the painting as well as see all of the details of the pieces the way they were supposed to be seen completely changes the way the viewer takes in the painting. Seeing the actual places Van Gogh painted was another experience entirely. While a lot has changed in Arles since Van Gogh lived there, such as the house he lived in being destroyed in World War II, it is surprising how much of the everyday world can still be seen in his pictures. Being able to stand where he stood and see what he saw revealed aspects of how he viewed the world I would have never seen otherwise. Seeing the ways Van Gogh played with color, shape, and texture to turn what he was looking at into an experience and not just an image helped me understand how art is capable of conveying different ways of seeing the world.
Paris is nice, but Brussels…what a city. On a trip that is part of the EU Studies program, we skipped French class and took a quick train ride across the border and into Belgium. Quicker and closer than our previous excursion to Strasbourg, the purpose of our travel was to visit the Council of the EU, the European Commission, the headquarters of Politico EU, and Euralia, a consultancy firm specialized in European and French public affairs. Brussels is a beautiful city. I spent less than two full days. People tend to enjoy places they only experience for brief moments of time, maybe that is why I enjoyed it so much. Regardless, it is impossible to deny the beauty of places such as the Grand Place, the Parc de Bruxelles, the Palais Royal de Bruxelles, and my favorite, the city’s public transportation system. I look back at my time in Peru a couple of months ago and I wonder if such a beautiful and organized city as Brussels could ever be possible with Lima, the capital of Peru. I find it very difficult. Lima as the city it is today is not that old. With the migration of thousands of Peruvians from the countryside during the second half of the 20th century, Lima grew out of necessity and in an unplanned manner. The same city that was designed for no more than 1 million people today holds 11 million and is nearly unrecognizable. A couple weekends ago as some students and I wandered around the Latin Quarter of Paris with one of the French professors we learned about George-Eugènes Haussmann. Prefect of the Seine, appointed by Napoleon III, he was responsible for the renovation of Paris, demolishing old medieval parts of the city and introducing modern city designs and infrastructure such as wider streets, a system of parks, and a proper sewage system. Haussmann is responsible for the Paris we know today. Maybe all Lima needs is its own Haussmann. However, something tells me that not even Haussmann could transform Lima into a city as beautiful as Brussels. After all Brussels has been around for quite the time now, is not overpopulated, and is essentially the capital of the European Union.
The European Union Studies program took a trip to Strasbourg to see the Council of Europe and the EU parliament at Strasbourg. Before visiting those places however, our first stop was to the Natzweiler-Struthof Concentration Camp. I had never been to a concentration camp before so I had no idea about what to expect when I got to a place where such atrocities were committed.
When I arrived at the camp, I planned to see everything that I could in order to get a sense of it. I saw rooms where horrible experiments were performed and tiny beds where prisoners had to bunch up at night. However, reconciling the atrocities committed in that camp with the serene area around the camp was difficult. It felt like so much time had passed since the war.
I finally managed to feel a little bit of the weight of the camp when I was walking uphill to return to the museum. The walk was long and tiring. As I ascended the camp, I realized that I was approaching a noose at the top of the camp. The thought that prisoners, having been on the brink of starvation, would have to make this walk to their execution made me pause.
As time goes on and we become further removed from the Holocaust, I fear that the newer generations could fail to understand the scope of the horrors that were committed. Hopefully our generation will take on the role of mentors that previous generations did for us.