Tales from abroad: Paris
As I prepare to write this article, my eyes wander to the brilliant swaths of orange, yellow, and blue depicting a sunset over the waters of Venice. While I’m glad that there’s a poster of Claude Monet’s “Saint-Georges Majeur au Crépuscule” in plain sight from my desk, it makes me miss Paris that much more.
My love of Monet and the radical style of impressionism he pioneered motivated me to study abroad the summer after my junior year. Although his work was considered shocking and remained unpopular during his lifetime, he nevertheless continued his efforts to push past the limits of what was comfortable or familiar. It was during his time abroad in Italy that Monet created “Saint-Georges Majeur au Crépuscule,” as well as other beautiful paintings. During this stay in Venice, his wife wrote: “*Monet … a été complètement empoigné par Venise!*” (“Monet ... has been completely gripped by Venice!”). Such a strong statement to describe the effect Monet’s time in Venice had on his life perfectly captures the experience I had during my summer in Paris.
Monet is one of many French artists with whom I have fallen in love. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I had access to all the wonderful free museums the District has to offer. Despite such marvels as the sculpture gardens of the Hirshhorn and the Freer and Sackler galleries, I found myself returning to my favorite French pieces — the multimedia ballerinas of Degas, Chagall’s whimsical tapestries, and Rodin’s gnarled sculptures. Although I did not have the financial means to travel overseas as a child, I often dreamed of indulging my museum fix in the City of Lights.
During my time in Paris, in addition to exploring as many museums, art galleries, and sculpture gardens as I could, I took a six-week Language and Civilization course at the Sorbonne University. The class focused on language, phonetics, and various aspects of French civilization. Although the course was incredibly demanding, the professor’s quirky attitude and sincere love of French made the content much more palatable. I still remember cracking up every time he tried to communicate his love of the subjective tense — “It is a beautiful and rare flower, Kelly, not merely a grammatical structure! You must speak French with your heart, not your mind!” Also, I was one of two Americans, which meant that I was able to make plenty of international friends. Some of my favorite moments happened walking around the Quartier Latin after class with my friends, eating delicious crêpes and learning slang words in Polish, Portugese, and Romanian. My closest friend, a chirpy Brazilian photographer, loved making the following joke in my presence: “What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American!” Much to my consternation, everyone else in the room would immediately burst into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Although I found the anti-American sentiment a tad annoying, it taught me to loosen up and not take myself too seriously. In addition, it spurred me to try my hand at new languages. (Warning: Vietnamese is impossible and Arabic is even harder.)
While I’m on the subject of my linguistic inadequacy, I should probably mention what it was like to immerse myself in an entirely French-speaking culture. I have been learning French in the classroom for nine years, but even so I was unprepared for the difficulty of expressing my thoughts in another language. Unable to fall back on the crutch of my native language, I quickly learned that the less I apologized for my broken French, the faster it would improve. With this in mind, I befriended every Parisian who was patient enough to suffer through my garbled attempts at communication. Not only did my foreign language skills improve dramatically, I developed a sense of what life is like for people our age in Paris — the books they’re reading, the music they listen to, and the extent to which these forms of media act as instruments of social conscience. Instead of reinforcing my preconceived notions of other cultures, study abroad provided me with an in-depth perspective into other countries’ cultures, eliminating stereotypes.
It sounds obnoxious to say that Paris is infinitely better than any other city, but it’s true. Let me rephrase that — it’s true for me. Only in Paris can you walk down the street eating the best pastry of your life, checking out incredible street artwork, laughing at mimes, and flirting with guys who are so well-dressed your gaydar would go off if you were in the States. Paris is my Mecca. Paris is my lifeblood. Paris is my Nutella — no wait, that’s going too far. But all jokes aside, my summer in Paris was one of the best experiences of my life — right up there with skydiving and popping bubble wrap. Not only was I able to eat delicious baguettes every day, I was given the chance to disorient myself geographically, linguistically, and culturally. Only when we branch out of our comfort zones are we able to truly grow. Visiting other countries strips us of our familiar modes of communication and leisure, catalyzing our search for new forms of beauty.
On second thought, I’m glad that a poster of Monet’s “Saint-Georges Majeur au Crépuscule” is hanging right next to my bed, since every morning, when I wake up, I am reminded of how rewarding it was to study abroad. Even though I can’t return to Paris for at least another few years — I blame Carnegie Mellon’s exorbitant tuition and my addiction to adorable shoes — my favorite paintings are even more special to me now that I’ve seen them in person.