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In his memoir, “A Moveable Feast,” written decades after his time in France, Ernest Hemingway penned the following on the topic of Paris, post-departure: “Paris was never to be the same again although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed.”
Hemingway and I are worlds and decades apart, but we both came to Paris for a reason many go abroad: to gain a new perspective.
Things continue to change as I transition back to life at St. Thomas after studying abroad fall semester, but the four, short months I spent in Paris remain crystallized in the past, the experiences preserved through photographs and memories.
One of the reasons I chose to study abroad in Paris is because I am minoring in French and have studied the language since eighth grade. However, the main reason was that I wanted to spend a semester in the same city where French revolutionaries stormed the Bastille, Impressionist artists shocked the Académie des Beaux-Arts with their paintings and where the American writers of the Lost Generation found their voice. Also, Audrey Hepburn had me convinced that “Paris is always a good idea.”
At the end of last August, I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle Airport after a sleepless flight to meet up with my future classmates and staff from CIEE, a study abroad program of which I was the only student from a school in Minnesota. The Contemporary French Studies division of the program I selected had about 35 students.
I lived with a host family in the Levallois-Perret suburb, just northwest of the 17th arrondissement, one of the 20 districts that comprises Paris. It was about a 30-minute Métro ride from my stop, Louise Michel, to the heart of the city. My school days consisted of grabbing coffee and bread with Nutella for petit dejeuner (breakfast); riding the Métro Line three to CIEE’s center in the second arrondissement; and learning about French grammar, culture, art history and literature in French. Out of five classes, intercultural communication was the only one in English.
My weekend, a Thursday-to-Sunday break from class, was spent appreciating countless masterpieces at a never-ending stream of art museums, mentally pinching myself as I visited a famous monument after famous monument, gorging myself on French classics like Camembert cheese and beef Burgundy-style and occasionally travelling to nearby countries like Spain, Italy and Morocco.
Studying abroad allowed the unique opportunity of pairing new experiences with new knowledge. For my final paper in art history, I examined the influence of the time American painter Edward Hopper spent in Paris on his work. Instead of relying solely on written sources for my research, I paid a visit to the Grand Palais for a temporary exhibition of Hopper’s work.
For my final in my intercultural communication class, I compared the United States and France with respect to the reason why each country’s citizens might listen to and write music in foreign languages. Once again, the unique component of my research involved interviewing one of my new Parisian friends who was French, but wrote songs in English.
My biggest fear of coming home was not that I would miss Paris or that I would lose the progress I had made with my French; it was that I would simply go back to the same life I’d left behind and feel as if I’d never left at all. I returned to Minnesota on Dec. 21, but I’ve since abandoned that fear because essentially, I’ve created Paris for myself here.
I discovered an organization in Minneapolis called the Alliance Française, which offers French classes as well as events and outings centered around French culture. I’ve been going to French book clubs, art receptions and crêpe nights, savoring opportunities to use my French again.
I’ve gotten together with a girl I met in Paris who is now, coincidentally, spending the semester as a French assistant at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in St. Louis Park, Minn. Even a month after my return, I was surprised to find after a whole day of speaking French with a native speaker that my own language skills were still up to par.
Though it’s silly, I’ve even undertaken the ridiculous task of finding Paris “replacements” in the Twin Cities – some of my solutions include trading in the Metro for the Light Rail, the Seine for the Mississippi and the Louvre for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a good boulangerie (bakery).
To make a journey is to make a passage “from one stage to another,” as the dictionary defines it, and to make a real journey by physically traveling can’t be done without making a journey by traveling mentally, emotionally and spiritually as well. Though I might forget the words I learned in my French classes, Paris gave me a new perspective on myself, on people and on the world that I will continue to carry with me.
Rita Kovtun can be reached at email@example.com.