My arrival into Paris was lonely. I could have been the subject in a 21st century Hopper painting as I sat in the back of a taxi-van, surrounded by seven empty seats and seven unbuckled seat belts hanging limply beside me. Entering any city from the airport is like entering a no man’s land; as Alain de Botton discusses in On Traveling Places, it is an area tourists never recognize nor visit again. I’ve been to Paris many times; however, once the cab drove away from the airport, I wasn’t immediately driving down the Champs-Élysées in front of the Arc de Triomphe, and I didn’t even get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower—at first nothing was familiar. The apartment my friend Sophie and I rented is in the 13eme arrondissement, an area of Paris I had never gone to on my past visits to the city, but as the cab got closer to my destination, the streets began to be recognizable. Thanks to the hours I had spent on Google Street View before my arrival, I had a rough layout of the neighborhood already in my head; I knew which door was my own as the cabbie drove down my new street.
I was particularly interested in de Botton’s discussion of a traveler’s preconceived notions. Today, thanks to the Internet, nothing is new; I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to a city without previously seeing at least a few images of its skyline or monuments. Yet, the images I’d seen of my neighborhood in Paris didn’t do it justice. The streets are far more bustling and lively than I thought they would be and the buildings far more ornate. Google Street View didn’t show me the shop windows filled with kings’ cakes and croissants, or the Roman ruins hidden between two boulevards just a few blocks from my apartment. Even though I saw pictures of the 13eme before I arrived, being here is a new and exciting experience.
As soon as the taxi pulled away, leaving me alone in front of my new building, my roommate came out to greet me and I was no longer lonely in Paris. One of my favorite parts of studying abroad so far has been the fact that everyone here at NYUP is open to meeting new people. I’ve met many other NYU students whose paths I probably would not have crossed had it not been for studying abroad. I’m studying creative non-fiction, women’s studies, and art history at Gallatin, and since all of my classes here in Paris fit into those categories (they’re conducted in French and not English here) I’ve also made friends with many students whose interests are similar to my own.
I’m really excited about my classes here so far. On Monday my art history class is headed to the Louvre where we’ll get to see the paintings and sculptures we’ve read about. I’m taking a class called Gender and Sexuality and it’s particularly fascinating because we’re learning about the women’s rights movement in France, starting with the French Revolution! I hadn’t realized how much impact being in France would have on my studies, but obviously there are many differences between the evolution of the women’s rights movements in France and in the United States.
My main goal while I’m in Paris is to work on my spoken French and to get to a point where nothing gets lost in translation when I talk to a French-speaker; I want to be able to clearly express my own opinions in French. Pico Iyer’s comment on the connection between “travel” and “travail” really resonates with me as far as speaking a second language is concerned. Living in a new place is a lot of work, especially when daily interactions are conducted in another language. Going to the grocery store is a lot more work than normal when it’s necessary to read labels and speak to the cashier in French.
I’d say my semester in Paris is off to a pretty good start: I’ve eaten lots of bread and cheese, explored quite a few neighborhoods in Paris, been to my favorite museum, the d’Orsay, twice already, and my French is already improving. It has only been thirteen days since I drove into the city in the back of the near-empty taxi, but weirdly enough I feel like I’ve been here forever. I don’t feel like the subject in one of Hopper’s melancholy paintings anymore. In fact, after visiting Luxembourg Gardens this morning, I’m already planning a Renoir-style picnic come spring.