Meditations on a Concentration Camp

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.

A photo of the Natzweiler-Struth concentration camp from wikimedia commons. I felt uncomfortable taking personal pictures.

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.  

Getting Ready for Paris

Over the summer, I worked as an intern on my local PBS station in Miami. I worked every day of the week and focused on doing a good job. Going to Paris seemed like a distant event for most of summer and I rarely thought about what it meant for me to be going there. The fact that I was going to study abroad only hit me at the end of the summer after my internship ended.

Me working with camera during my internship

When I finally did start reflecting on my future trip. I quickly realized that there is a lot of uncertainty in going to Paris. I have never been to the country and never learned French. I worried that I would be lost in a new place with no hope of adapting. I also feared that I would miss out on what was going on with my friends back at Northwestern, who would be separated from me by an ocean and a few time zones.

Whenever I had these doubts, I remembered the praise that previous students lavished on the European Union Studies program. They promised that I would fall for Paris and that the classes would give me a new understanding of European politics. These words reminded me that going on this program is such a rare opportunity that I need to make the most of it.

I’m not sure if a quarter is enough time to absorb Paris or if I can make long-lasting friends during my time in the program. But, I must try to make the most of it.

Departure and Arrival

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind. I remember realizing two weeks ago that the summer was over, my summer job was done, and it was time to head off to Paris. The initial excitement that had filled the time leading up to departure had given way to anxiousness, nervousness, and even almost panic. As the departure date quickly approached, I frantically checked off every item on my to-do list before I left the country for 3 months.

My summer was full of working, studying, volunteering, and everything else that you’d expect a high-strung college student to commit to. Because of this, I had little time to mentally and physically prepare myself to leave the country for 3 months. In fact, I didn’t begin packing until the morning of my flight to Paris.

After a long day of traveling, which included 1 layover, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on August 26th. During the first four days, all of the Northwestern students stayed at a hostel to meet one another and participate in orientation activities. Imagine a shortened version of Wildcat Welcome except placed in an even more foreign setting. These days were filled with meeting new people, exploring a new city, and participating in ice-breakers and group activities.

Now that I have been in Paris for 2 weeks, I can safely say that much of my initial nervousness has subsided. Although I am still finding my groove in this foreign city, I am beginning to piece together a daily routine, develop a core group of friends, and become more accustomed with the city. 2 weeks down, 12 more to go.

Second Study Abroad?

I have only been back in the US for a month and already I am packing up again, preparing to leave Evanston. I had been studying abroad in Peru for the last six months. It was a great experience, but it was not the typical study abroad experience. Typically, a study abroad experience is characterized by being in a place with which you are not familiar, whose language you are learning and do not already know, and inn a country where you have neither friends or family. All of these were true for me in Peru. Now, I am preparing to study in Paris, but do not know what to expect. Peru and France are two very different places. I stayed with my cousins, I am from Peru, and I was already fluent in the language. Despite not knowing what to expect, I look forward to the next few months abroad. I am under the belief that experiences like the one I will soon have are the ones that if approached with an open attitude, can prove to be the most enriching in the end. I learned a lot while in Peru so I cannot say with certainty that this is the case, but I hope that it will be.

Study Abroad, Take 2

Me. In an airport. Thinking about France.

Hello! My name is Hannah Perez. I’m a junior Theatre and Legal Studies double major who is studying abroad in the Art, Literature, and Contemporary European Thought program through IPD.

Those are a lot of words that may or may not mean anything to you, so feel free to just ignore them. All you need to know about me is that I’m a Northwestern student spending the upcoming semester in Paris. And that I’m going to be blogging about it on here, of course.

Right now as I’m writing this, I’m sitting in JFK airport. I’m only hours away from boarding a plane that will take me across the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in my life. I’ve only ever left the country once before (with another IPD program where I also got a chance to blog about my experiences). I can honestly say I’m just as terrified as I was then, but for different reasons. Last time I went abroad, I visited a country I was already familiar with. Being a Cuban-American in Cuba meant that although there were a lot of things to learn, I was already familiar with the culture and language. In comparison to that experience, I’m pretty much walking into this experience blind. But that’s the reason I chose this program. I wanted to live in a place that was completely unfamiliar to me. Having regular access to wifi while doing it is just a bonus.

As I sit in JFK, enjoying my last few moments in the United States, I find myself wondering what living abroad will be like. What will be different over there? What will be the same? Will having studied abroad in Cuba be helpful? Is it actually possible for me to learn any of the language? What will I miss about the United States? And most importantly, what will the food be like over there?

I guess I’m about to find out.

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


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,
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.