I have so enjoyed the past several weeks in Paris— sitting in the Place des Vosges, watching people smoke and lounge as the scent of burnt corn and fall clings to everything, seeing Romeo and Juliet in French at the Odeon Theater and recognizing those familiar words in a foreign tongue, exploring the northern city of Lille and tasting the world’s best hot chocolate, and spending a gloriously sunny October day in the gardens of Versailles, rowing out on the water and riding bikes to Marie Antoinette’s lake-side hamlet.
Two weekends ago we experienced a miniature America-within-Paris by taking a trip to Disneyland Paris, and I experienced the comic collision of two worlds— eating croque-monsieurs in the cafes of the fictional “Main Street USA”, hearing all of the rides dubbed, and even listening to characters babbling away in French behind their large stuffed heads. Of course, as soon as we stepped out of “the place where dreams come true” and onto the subway towards Paris later that evening, the magic ended rather abruptly as a little boy promptly began vomiting on the crowded metro, spraying puke onto my friends’ shoes, and a strange man “groped” me from behind, to put it delicately, and would not cease until I had to physically hit him, which was awful. Ah, Paris— home sweet home.
But all sarcasm aside, one of my favorite things about my French week is meeting my friends after dance class for our “weekly Wednesdays at the Louvre”, which has become a tradition ever since we realized the museum is open until 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings and thus blissfully free of the usual crowds. I have found that the fact that the museum is so big releases me rather than overwhelms me— I simply give over to being lost in its depths with the knowledge that there will always be something new to see. I am also always acutely aware of how lucky we are to have all of this preserved so perfectly in present-day; I can see how a place like Napoleon’s apartment could have been seen as an emblem of the bourgeoisie and thus something to be torn down.
As always, I am continually processing and attempting to define my relationship with Paris. Recently, I realized that I could compare my current abroad experience to my Cornell experience as a whole. When I first began college as a wide-eyed freshman, I registered for classes that sounded fascinating— courses that covered Ancient Egyptian Civilization, Art History, all different types of literature, etc. It was only as an upperclassman that I finally understood one crucial thing— that subject matter, matters, much less than you’d think. For me, it was the great professors that seemed important, and as long as I knew that those individuals could deliver information to me in a captivating way, I was willing to learn from them, regardless of the specific realm of academia.
As I’ve come to know it, Paris feels like a class with a great course listing and a rather mediocre professor. There couldn’t be a more architecturally beautiful city, with better museums, and more delectable food— namely, the content of the Parisian class is spot-on. However, when I interned in New York City this summer, I felt so alive— the smog, the heat, the less-than-stunning industrial buildings were all on the periphery, irrelevant, whereas the palpable vibrant energy that veritably shook the streets was always on the forefront of my mind. I couldn’t even listen to my ipod on my walk to work, because I wanted to tune into the vibe that makes NYC what it is— a hodge-podge course requirement taught by a charismatic professor who blows your mind.
In essence, Paris seems like a place where one could overdose on culture to his or her heart’s content, but still leave feeling malnourished in terms of bliss and spontaneity. However, I can hardly blame the Parisians for this— in fact, in an ironic twist of fate, I recently perpetuated this notion myself. I was waiting for the tram back from dance at around 9:30pm (or, in military/French time, 21:30), and as I stood on the platform, a man in his thirties approached me with a simple “Bonjour, Madamemoiselle”. He seemed on the verge of launching into a more extended speech, and therefore I gave him a rather stern look and said “what?” (in French) somewhat expectantly.
The reason for my coldness was merely past experience. My next statement is of course a blatant generalization, but from what I have seen, Parisian males make drunken college frat boys look like gentlemen. In that moment, I was instantly put on my guard, assuming that he was either going to a. beg me for money, b. try and pickpocket me, or c. pull a metro-man and start to grab me inappropriately. None of these suspicions were out of the question, mind you, because all of them had occurred before. However, in this case the potential thief/attacker/homeless man turned out to be a perfectly innocent Italian tourist, who asked me how to get to the metro in broken— and sincere— French. I felt awful.
In his mind, he had just met another stand-offish Parisian, not knowing that I understood how he felt perfectly! And yet, I also felt I needed to be wary and on my guard, due to those other experiences. I suddenly understood the self-perpetuating cycle of French stereotypes, but could not devise a means of eliminating them— and still can’t. It is a Parisian catch-22!