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Now, Voyager

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It’s over. It has been over for more than a month now.

But what a ride it was. As well as Paris, in the past twelve weeks I have been to: London, New York, Chicago, London again, Strasbourg, Disneyland, Geneva, St Ives and… Gloucester. I have woken up, a few times now, unsure, in the blind fog of the abrupt early morning, of what room, country or continent I’m in. It’s a fairly pleasant kind of disorientation, a kind of little gloat about my many voyages (and not necessarily a result of drinking too much the night before) (usually).

But now I’m firmly back chez moi. After a couple of months of jumping around different cities, the pull of home was irresistible, and after a quick, beautiful getaway to Cornwall with some of my very best friends, I am basking in the joy of staying still for a couple of months.
So what to make of this year?

It is generally agreed that the Third Year Abroad is life-changing for all its participants. I can’t deny it. In September I had a dramatic upheaval: my arrival in Paris was brutal. I was in shock. I complained a lot.

But in general the consequences of the big changes in my life are wrought slowly and subtly. For example: I’ve always considered my affinity with French to be more personal than academic; looking back over the year I notice the rising affection for France that carried me forward. I felt that I owed it to my family and to myself to speak French. It’s a beautiful language and I love speaking it – even when I completely butcher it. I acted as my family’s ambassador to French family and old friends and I take comfort now in their continuing presence there.

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Geneva

I’ve learned some interesting things in class, some not; but a really nice course on European colonisation in the Americas, and its brilliant tutor, inspired my imagination in particular and made me rethink my previous interpretations on American history. Merci, Mme Ferrier.

I felt no real fear travelling to the United States by myself in May because I knew it couldn’t possibly be worse than arriving in Paris with nowhere permanent to stay, and I’m ready to go somewhere new again soon. And I’m looking forward to my final year at uni in London, feeling, probably naively, that I’ve already done the hardest part.

I made some wonderful friends; in particular, Omega and Ottavia, my partners in crime who each supported me and explored Paris with me in their own way. I am lucky to have met them.

Canal St Martin

Canal St Martin

And most of all, I fell in love with the 14th arrondissement, my home for nine months. I didn’t shed a tear when I left because I was tired and cranky and wanted to go home; but my mind lingers there in odd moments and I feel a rush of bittersweet emotion. I loved it, but I had to leave.

I’ll leave you now a clip from the film Paris Je T’aime, set conveniently in my beloved Parc Montsouris just ten minutes’ walk from my flat. When I first watched this film in six or so years ago, I never dreamed that Parc Montsouris would be local, nor that the thoughts of this middle-aged American woman with a bad accent would represent my own so clearly.

“And then something happened, something difficult to describe. Sitting there, alone in a foreign country, far from job and everyone I know, a feeling came over me. It was like remembering something I’d never known before or had always been waiting for, but I didn’t know what. Maybe it was something I’d forgotten or something I’ve been missing all my life. All I can say is that I felt, at the same time, joy and sadness. But not too much sadness, because I felt alive. Yes, alive. That was the moment I fell in love with Paris. And I felt Paris fall in love with me.”

Maybe now I am a traveller, a voyager. But I haven’t left my soul in Paris; it has followed me here. Au revoir.

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Libérée, Délivrée

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The above title is from the version française of “Let It Go”, everyone’s favourite overdone Disney tune, from the film Frozen. It is a song of empowerment and liberation in the face of adversity. “Libérée, Délivrée” is all the more poignant to me; its expression of joy at the character’s freedom is more simply and sweetly stated than in its English homologue. I put it to you, most humbly, that the song has become an apt kind of anthem for me over the past few weeks. If you consider a 7500-word essay a type of adversity, that is – which I unreservedly do.

Due in at the end of April, my essay haunted my life. I went scurrying to the Archives nationales in Pierrefitte-sur-Seine and sifted through pages upon pages of Vichy documents. And then I typed everything up.There was a diversion when I accidentally destroyed my old laptop: I flung a full cup of tea across its keyboard, in a moment of rare enthusiasm whilst reaching for a history book. (After these tragic events, I lost all enthusiasm for pretty much everything.) Many thanks to Omega for counselling me through this crisis.

But then it was done, and then suddenly the semester finished too, and I was free to prance around Paris, seeing sights such as the Petit Palais and consuming things such as a caramel millefeuille.

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But not for too long: where better to celebrate my release from the sweaty embrace of academia than the Land of the Free itself, the USA?

To everyone who had asked me “Um…. Why are you going to America again?” my basic reply was “Because I want to.” If this year has taught me anything besides some extra French vocab, it is that I am a fully independent person who can see the world by herself, and in the way that she wants to. This startles me a bit even now, if I think about it too much. And of course, my sadness at leaving Paris for a month was an encouraging sign of how much I’ve grown to love it without really realising.

I’m not sure a full rundown of my American trip is necessary on a blog about Paris, so here is a handy photo-montage to speed things up.

New York:

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Yale

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Chicago

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Thinking more thoroughly about it now, the “adversity” I have experienced, which has found me declaring myself “Libérée, Délivrée” with great gusto, not only represents my academic strife but also, in a way, myself: my basic lack of self-confidence and my abundance of fear, which drove me to start a blog in the first place. I never really believed that I would love Paris enough to be sad to leave it, or to look forward greatly to my return. Anxiety over many things will dog me for probably the rest of my life, as it does everyone – I’m not suggesting I am unique in this aspect whatsoever – but I feel a small sense of triumph, enough to build on, enough to carry on upwards, at what I have achieved this year.

I came back on the plane from Chicago, brain bursting with new ideas for new American trips (next possible destinations: San Francisco, Portland and Seattle) but also greatly looking forward to another trip to Strasbourg once I return to France, and a short break in Geneva in July – all before I finally return to Gloucestershire until term starts again in London in September. Cliché though it is, I’ve learned that there is no place like home, particularly if home presents you with endless cups of tea, a big cake on your 22nd birthday – and Frozen on DVD, of course.

A List

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 Incredibly, the end of Paris is in sight. I’ve lived here for nearly six months now, only leaving the city walls for about three weeks in total. I’ve got four months left, and one month of that will be spent hopping from Britain to the USA and back again.

 Sometimes this seems like ages. Sometimes I panic that I don’t have enough time.

You see: regular readers, fans and well-wishers will be surprised and relieved to learn that I have finally – begrudgingly – fallen in love with Paris. Well. We’re more than just friends, anyway. And I need to see as much of it as possible before leaving.

Here are some things I like about Paris.

  • Croissants from Dominique Saibron and a cup of tea or hot chocolate on a Sunday morning.
  • The uniformity and layout of the city. From Tour Montparnasse or Tour Eiffel you can see the deep cuts the streets make in the crowds of beige and grey buildings. I love these broad avenues and the webbed network of streets that link them. It’s very well planned out. Good job, Haussmann.

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  • Falafel in the Marais. Cheap and delicious. I’m going to contradict everyone else on the planet and say that the place opposite L’As du Fallafel is better than the actual As. Even if Lenny Kravitz hasn’t recommended it (yet).  
  • Monoprix. I really really like Monoprix and I can’t explain why.
  • Any time I manage to convince anyone I am Actually Parisian and they ask me for directions. Pleasing if it’s an Anglophone (I had an American ask me in the supermarket how to say ‘turkey’ in French), even better if it’s a Frenchie and I manage to make myself comprehensible. Bonus points if I actually know what I’m talking about.
  • Any sunny day in Paris. It is to be treasured. I sometimes act like Madame Mim when it comes to warm weather, but this time around I am absolutely desperate for spring to arrive so that I can go frolicking in Jardin du Luxembourg to my heart’s content.

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  • The fact that I walked past Quentin Tarantino on Boulevard St Michel. I’m not going to shut up about it for a while.
  • The abundance of museums and other attractions that are free for Europeans aged 18 – 26 so long as you show them your passport. Versailles, the Louvre, Sainte-Chapelle, La Conciergerie… it’s an absolute coup and something which is basically never mentioned in any guidebook.
  • The fact that I know my way around pretty well now, and I’m no longer afraid of speaking French, and the city feels familiar and… well, like home. 
  • Crêpes.

And, for balance, one thing I absolutely hate about Paris:

  • Grown adults riding silver micro-scooters on the pavements. Apparently they think they are twelve and also that it is 1999. It’s even worse when they ride them on metro platforms.

I can already tell I’m going to miss it.

Les Visiteurs

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Any Paris guidebook will implore: Abandon the tourists and pretend you’re a real Parisian. Well, yeah. That’s what I do in term-time when I’m hopping on the Metro to university, going for Happy Hour mojitos with my fellow cocktail-fanatic Omega or going to Carrefour for my weekly food shop. So of course, in the slight monotony of la vie quotidienne, I have gotten used to the sights of Paris. I only really blink at the Louvre or the Centre Pompidou now if I happen walk past them.

It has been the same for my first two years of London. I absolutely love visiting London’s museums, for example, but I also spent a lot of time last year in Sainsbury’s, puzzling over the price of natural yogurt. Just like all Londoners do. But this week, a visit from the lovely Gemma and Callum reminded me of one indelible fact: I love being a tourist.

I’m planning this summer’s expedition to New York and Chicago – my first visit to both of them – on my miniscule budget; poring over guidebooks and Trip Advisor and googling “Free stuff NYC” to embellish the huge list of everything I want to see and do in ten days. It’s all typical tourist stuff: Empire State Building, Central Park, maybe the Met… I’ve said before how much I love cities  and in my humble opinion, there is no better way to fully appreciate a city’s history, architecture, ambiance and food than to try take in as much as possible, because you understand its importance, its value to the world and the unique forces that have shaped it.

Paris, in many ways, has been no different. On my 21st birthday last year, my parents gave me a Lonely Planet guide to Paris and I have been shamelessly ticking each attraction off, as evidenced by my previous posts on here . Recent visits have included Musée Carnavalet, Cimetière de Montparnasse and Place des Vosges. Next on the list are La Conciergerie and La Saint-Chapelle, both on Ile de la Cité. I’m sure no real Parisienne would deliberately visit these and throw themselves willingly into the photo-happy crowd but I don’t care.

Oh, and it was an absolute pleasure to show G and C around. Trying to show off my French status, I gave them tips on how to survive in Paris: “French girls don’t wear skirts.” “This is where the best croissants are in this arrondissement.” “Don’t make eye contact on the Metro.” (Seriously, don’t.) And every time we emerged from a Metro sortie or arrived at a new spot I was compelled to say, “Et voilà” as casually as possible.  But we went to all of the major tourist spots, saw as many panoramic views of the City of Lights as possible, and I consulted my Lonely Planet map more than once to check we were heading in the right direction. I was reminded of how amazing the city really is and how lucky I am to be here.

This was all accentuated by a trip to Le Chateau de Versailles, with Omega, the day after G and C (sadly) parted. The place is a great equalizer for tourists; it doesn’t matter if you have been in Paris for one hour, one year or one lifetime. We are all reduced to watching ourselves in the ten thousand mirrors, shuffling along, frantically snapping photos from each and every angle, getting increasingly flustered. I happen to think it’s worth it for the photos, if nothing else (despite my general photography ineptitude):

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So: I won’t wear a huge backpack and socks with sandals when I traipse around New York City and Chicago, and I’ll only wear the obligatory I ❤ NYC shirt back at home. But my head will be stuck in a map, and I will be frantically taking photos of everything I see, and I will end up in a Starbucks. Really, I won’t have changed that much since I first moved to London.

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The Motherland

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I’ve been quiet on here recently, mostly because I have been blundering through a fog of essays and deadlines. Parisian student life is not as glam as it sounds when you have to spend your weekend preparing for a presentation on that ever-cheerful topic, immigration.

But luckily the fog has thinned out and I celebrated by taking to a quick weekend trip to Strasbourg, aka my Maman’s hometown. It had been five years since I’d last been – and five years since I’d seen my aunt and uncle. How things have changed since then. (For one thing, I could now hold a conversation with them.)

As well as seeing my long-lost family (and my not-so-long-lost older sister) my trip to Strasbourg had an ulterior motive: to see the Christmas markets. As the city is so close to Germany, and shares so much of its culture and history, I knew they were bound to be good. But first, a stop to a gingerbread factory in a picturesque Alsatian village that smelled like the Christmas I know and love thanks to the Alsatian biscuits Maman makes every yuletide.

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Strasbourg city centre looked beautiful, of course.

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Then we went to a restaurant where I foolishly challenged an enormous serving of poulet au Riesling to a duel and lost.

Of course, the food and the vin chaud and the pretty shiny things seemed inconsequential compared to the importance of being there with family. I was welcomed with big smiles and open arms. And then I realised I was tracing my own steps backward in my quest for fluency: back past the years of studying spelling and grammar, back past the vocab tests, back to Bonjour and Ca va? Back to where it all began. Sitting there talking to my mother’s sister, I thought – this is the point of language. Not to be able to write long boring exposés about immigration, or about King Chilperic, but to be able to talk and joke and tell stories with your loved ones. It’s as simple as that.

Le Conte de deux cités*

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[*A Tale of Two Cities in French. Testing my theory that clichés can be less cheesy if translated into a different language.]

I stared down at the gold and silver coins in my hand, feeling their unfamiliar weight and size. For a moment I couldn’t tell which was which. God, fifty-pence coins are so weird, I thought.

When getting on the Underground, I was baffled by the bizarre dimensions of the train, and I kept referring to it as “the Metro”. I couldn’t remember how much drinks cost in the Union bar when I went out on Friday evening, nor which ID I needed to get in, and when the security guard let me through I said “Merci”.

Could this be it? Was my transformation complete? Was I now a Frenchwoman in London?

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I was so grateful for the chance to return to London for a few days during the Toussaint (All Saints’) break. I had no choice but to take to coach there and back, but it was surprisingly bearable. I arrived in London just after midnight and felt oddly out of place.

But then my confusion melted away fairly easily. My wonderful friends welcomed me back with remarkable enthusiasm given that they are all currently beleaguered by excessive uni work. I went to my favourite café twice in one day, effectively confusing/horrifying the staff immensely, and then went again on the day I left. When my friends were too busy, I went shopping, I sent emails, I read month-old magazines in their flats.

Undoubtedly, one of the highlights of my stay was going to my friend Alice’s flat for what struck me as a very British murder mystery Hallowe’en dinner. I played, after all, the most British of characters: a governess who, despite my protestations of virtue and religious devotion, was actually (spoiler alert) the cold-blooded murderer. I played the part with great relish and very poor acting skills. [Photo by Christabel.]

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Everyone asked: “So how is Paris?” But I was more interested in hearing about their lives in London. During my absence, the city had taken on a mystical gleam in my mind’s eye. Somehow, Paris was the reality and London was the escape.

I’ll be honest and say I didn’t really want to go back to Paris. I felt the pull of London life so keenly that I imagined sending a doppelgänger to Paris in my place, and spending the rest of the year bunking in illegally with my old flatmates.

Then came a minor revelation. In the same way that I could be French and British simultaneously, I could compare Paris to London to my heart’s content – but I didn’t have to choose between them. I have been lucky enough at my relatively young age to have lived and still be living in two of the world’s greatest cities. And I can love them both: finding my favourite cafés and cocktail bars, discovering the best spots for quiet reading, talking affectionately of friends there, grumbling about the transport. It’s time to get to know Paris as well as I know London. Which is why I wrote the first draft of this blog post on the coach back with a smile on my face.

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L’Automne

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Autumn is arriving in Paris. Today was one of the first properly cold days – drifting leaves, biting winds and all that jazz. I’m quite pleased, because I don’t normally cope well in warm weather; during this summer’s heatwave I mostly sulked inside doing nothing. And, naturally, autumn is my gateway drug to Christmas hysteria. I’ve been setting the scene for myself by little weekend visits to some of Paris’s tourist attractions.

A visit two Saturdays ago to Père Lachaise cemetery hinted at autumn’s imminent arrival.

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It’s in an appropriately calm area of Paris, set over some spacious grounds, and is large enough that each pathway is a Rue, Avenue or Chemin. I wondered if I would ever be as famous as one of its most famous residents, Oscar Wilde – famous enough to have countless people try to smooch my tombstone on a daily basis. It seems unlikely.

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Last weekend was the famous Nuit Blanche – when many of Paris’s museums and attractions are open all night long. My new friend Jake and I attempted to visit the Palais du Tokyo but were bemused when a tetchy guard told us it was a restaurant, not a museum, and anyway it was closed. Bizarre. So we went on a boat on the Seine instead. “Can you believe it – we live here,” Jake kept saying. (NB: He didn’t mean on the boat.)

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The next day I amused myself by taking the escalator all the way up to the top floor of the Centre Pompidou and having a gawp at the view. It is impressive; sadly my phone’s camera doesn’t do it much justice.

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I may have so far been reluctant to warm to Paris. The difficulties of moving to a new city, studying at a new university and finding somewhere to live distract from the glamour of a new environment. Added to this, I seem to be one of very few students for whom the Erasmus year actually counts significantly towards my overall degree classification; I can’t afford to be too lax. So in the past few weeks, I have not been overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but just whelmed.

Even so… for me, autumn is revitalising: the cold winds breathe new life into my veins. It is a season for getting my head down and working, but also a season to start anew. The glowing vision of Christmas at the end of the tunnel compensates for any academic strife. The city’s lights throw the darkness into warm relief. And when the swirling leaves have settled, I can get to work and become a real Parisienne.

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Edited 17.28, 12th October 2013: Maman emailed me to let me know that when she was but a small babe in a pram, her maman used to take her for walks in Père Lachaise. To which I say: 🙂

Frenglish

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A brief summary…

  • I am alive and well in Paris, living en colocation in the 18th arrondissement (nearest station: Château Rouge. Lonely Planet generally warns against it).  But, for reasons too complicated to explain, it’s only temporary… so I’m still on the hunt for something new.
  • Classes have started this week – but apparently there are no seminars this week, only lectures, so I’m going to be in uni for a grand total of three hours.  So far I can understand about 70% of what is going on.
  • I have eaten far more croissants than can be deemed reasonable.

My level of French, I have to say, is pretty good. I haven’t been incomprehensible yet (as far as I know) and, as I said, I can follow most of my lectures. But something weird has happened. I’ve been in the City of Light for ten days, and all I want to do is to speak English.

I knew something was up last Thursday, when I took an extremely long walk around the Left Bank and my first pit stop was the English language bookshop Shakespeare and Company. I’d heard about it for so long – and all I intended to do was step inside and pretend I belonged with the transatlantic, transcontinental intelligentsia.Image

It can be hard to navigate the shop’s slightly cramped aisles. Unsure where to begin, I went and stood by the A section – and my eyes fell immediately upon a Penguin Classics edition of Persuasion, my favourite Jane Austen book, kindly introduced to me by my flatmate Bryony. The edition before me was a thing of beauty – the classic orange striped design that I’d long coveted. (Yes, I do judge books by their covers, fnar.) So I bought it, although I already have a lovely copy at home. I haven’t even read it yet. I just keep picking it up and creepily stroking the cover.

Since then, little bits of English have been bursting out of me. “Trois, yeah,” I nodded at the boulangerie when asked how many croissants I wanted (I told you it was far too many). “Il est, like, très grand,” I explained to my bemused flatmate. “Sorry! Pardon!” I cringed as I accidentally hit an innocent bystander in the face on the Metro (don’t ask how).

That’s not the worst of it. I keep staring beadily at anyone I see on the Metro speaking English, be they British, Australian or American. I send long, rambling emails to my family entirely in English. I’m daydreaming about London. And all the while the corners of my mouth are doggedly dragging themselves down. I no longer take pride in my natural Bitchy Resting Face because all signs point to one answer. I’m homesick.