At the start of The Art of Travel, de Botton talks about how the beauty of a different place, its allure or even the distraction of its novelty, can’t change certain facts about how we’re feeling, what we worry about, or the flaws and imperfections and dissatisfactions that are an inevitable part of who we are at a given time. This, to me, is a really brilliant and important conclusion, one that I’m beginning to learn.
The thing about Paris is that it has to be wonderful. Always. Since I arrived here three weeks ago, I’ve received so many eager emails from family and friends, all asking how fantastic it is to live in Paris, what a magical city it must be. It’s a lot of pressure. Of course, Paris is fantastic, and even though I’ve only begun to explore the city, I do think I’m going to love living here. But liking a city doesn’t mean the city alone can make you happy. De Botton , for instance, writes about his own anxieties and petty arguments set against the idyllic backdrop of Barbados. I wander the cobblestone streets of the Marais or trek uphill in Belleville; by the end of the day, my knees hurt and I’m too tired to make dinner. I walk to school along the Seine and down a charming little street packed with boulangeries, but I’ve never been so stressed about trying to organize my class schedule than in this past week, and so overworked from a simple preliminary course that I still don’t feel like I know Paris at all. And, after my first week in Paris, my boyfriend came to visit from Copenhagen, and left at the end of the weekend as only my friend. It’s more difficult to motivate myself to go out on adventures in the city and simply have a good time when, despite seeing the Eiffel tower glittering from my balcony, I don’t feel happy, and even a basement jazz concert or a box of macarons can only put me in a good mood for a little while. I’ve begun to think that Paris is simultaneously the best and worst city for someone with a broken heart. But I also think that as the way I feel changes, my relationship to Paris will as well, and I think that’s going to be a really fulfilling experience.
Though unrelated, I also liked how de Botton talked about the signs at the airport in Amsterdam, how they were unfamiliar and what their differences meant to him. When I first landed at Charles de Gaulle, I noticed that the arrows suggesting “forward” or “straight ahead” point down. In the U.S. they point up. I’m not sure of the cultural significance of this difference; perhaps it has something to do with the clichés of American optimism versus French coldness, though that might be a bit of a stretch. (Before I arrived, my Parisian friend warned me that Parisians are mean, but I haven’t really experienced much of it since I’ve been here.)
It is shockingly easy to take yourself thousands of miles away from home.
Truly, to accomplish the thing you need only visit a website, pick your dates, provide credit card information, print a boarding pass, pack a suitcase, and show up on the appointed date at the airport.
As I turned to look for the last time at my boyfriend, waiting behind the security checkpoint, and walked towards my gate, I thought about my feet carrying me forward. I became aware the weight of my backpack and the laptop case in my left hand. I pictured my luggage, probably tucked in the plane’s belly by now. It was all so simple, so minimal really: the act of extracting myself from my life in New York and relocating to Paris came down to a few suitcases and little old me, walking towards the open door of an airplane.
De Botton, in Chapter II of The Art of Travel, reflects on the awe and power that a plane’s departure can inspire. For one, he describes the almost magical ability of the plane to bypass all “impediments” of life on the ground, from steep hills to restrictions of view. Looking even further inward, he also writes, “The swiftness of the plane’s ascent is an exemplary symbol of transformation.” It “can inspire us to imagine analogous, decisive shifts in our own lives[.]”
In the case of my departure for Paris, the flight itself actually was part of a “decisive shift:” the shift of my existence (temporarily) from New York to Paris. Given the magnitude of that decision, I expected the actual leaving to be long, arduous, and nearly impossible to carry out. Instead, the combination of my unnervingly simple exit and the plane’s facility of motion left me in shock for most of the flight.
In the months and weeks before September 5, there had been countless conversations: is now the right time to go abroad? Is this really what will make me happy, or is it a purely cerebral decision? On the micro level, there were considerations of housing (how to find an apartment?), set-up (should I open a French bank account?), and of course, packing. Down to the very last hours, in which we weighed and re-weighed my suitcases on the bathroom scale to meet airline restrictions, the to-do list seemed truly endless. At any given point, so many details and tasks stood in the way of my getting to Paris that part of me, I think, didn’t really believe I’d get here. And maybe I wanted it that way—maybe the to-do lists also helped make leaving seem farther away.
The fact, then, that all (or most) of the necessary tasks had been completed, that my suitcases had finally been zipped and locked, and that my feet were moving towards the plane, was almost unbelievable. And as the plane set off, so smooth and nonchalant, it was almost maddening to remember the exhausting journey that had led me to this one.
While studying abroad is inevitably a different experience for everyone, I feel that my experience has been particularly strange. I guess it originates from my childhood. I grew up in New Jersey, in an average suburban town, with an unreligious Jewish family. We always traveled over the holidays because there wasn’t much to celebrate. When I traveled to Disney World or California, it was an escape from a place where I was clearly an outsider. I always anticipated these trips for that reason.
As I got older, my family situation became different. It was strained. I started to recognize things that I didn’t like about the religion and culture I was raised in and would no longer accept religion and culture as excuses for negative actions. I was now an outsider in both my community and my family. When I was 13, I started taking French and fell in love with the language. Suddenly, something felt like it fit. The way the language sounded, the way the culture embraced la laicite, the way they savored life. Everything the French did from birth, I wanted to make my own.
So I decided that as soon as I could I would make my grand escape to Paris. I would run away and become someone new. I would be the person I desperately wanted to be. I anticipated being that person. For the next 7 years, the anticipation continued as I planned my escape to this kind of alternate reality. I dreamt of escaping my Jewish mother’s guilt and my father’s expectations.
Seven years later, I was on a plane to France. I was prepared to begin a new chapter of my life. I was ready to finally feel like a free-willed adult. Still, my parents were not. As I looked out the plane window, my anticipation was no longer wrought with excitement, but tarnished with bittersweet fear. I knew that I could never escape my mother despite time changes and sheer distance. I knew that I could never erase where I was from. I knew that my father would always have expectations for me that I could never meet. So as I sit here after 4 weeks in France, I can’t help but feel that I came here for the wrong reasons, but that I need to stay here for the right ones. I think that it is time for me to use travel and my studies here to learn what makes me happy and fulfilled, not to escape the things that don’t.
Paris is an incredible city. It is vibrant and bustling. When I first came to Paris three years ago, I fell in love with the city and all of its historical and cultural wonders. When I first decided to study here for the year, I imagined living amongst all these amazing places and things. I imagined becoming very Parisian-- drinking wine all the time and embodying a graceful chicness.
However, I learned very quickly that Paris would be very different as soon as I stepped foot into my Parisian apartment. I live in a building that was once a cloisters, but is now several smaller buildings. After entering from the street you walk through a long outdoor pathway, though another door, until you stumble upon what appears to be a greenhouse. That is my apartment.
When you enter, my apartment has stairs that don't allow for two feet to step on them at once. You must step right, left, right, left until you reach the top. That would be bearable if there weren't an abundance of plant life growing everywhere. I have ivy on my ceiling in my bedroom and kitchen. On top of that, these plants tend to attract all sorts of wild life, like worms, which I tend to find crawling along my sink. When I spoke to my landlord about this, she said "Don't worry about it. Its good for the plants." WHAT ABOUT ME?
Living in a new city is inevitably an adjustment. I understood that before coming here. However, I was not prepared for living in quarters that I generally believed did not exist. Living in New York is a real luxury. There are laws which dictate against certain fire hazards (like the exposed wires in my room). These don't exist in France. After doing my research, its seems that indoor mold is good for the immune system and air conditioning is for the weak.
However, despite all these adjustments, I am madly in love with La Belle France. Maybe I am living in an illegally converted greenhouse, but that is a small price to pay to live this life. There is something really beautiful about being the outsider in a foreign place, especially when that foreign place is so rich with history and art. While I may have to adjust to a new idea of Paris, I'm gaining so much more in cultural experiences.
As I was reading the DeBotton chapters I was particularly interested in his discussion of the anticipation of travel versus the reality of it. Since I have spent far more time anticipating this semester abroad than actually being here I felt like my current mental state is perfectly suited to consider this juxtaposition.
I had never been to Paris before coming here to study abroad and I have really only spent a limited amount of time in Europe (on one trip that I took years and years ago). I felt a huge connection upon reading DeBotton describe how he decided that he must go to Barbados based to the photograph that he saw depicting palm trees, beaches and clear skies. This is almost exactly how I imagined Paris during my months and months of anticipation. In my head, I had the most picturesque images of Paris: wrought iron railings, flower boxes, tree lined, cobblestone streets, and the Eiffel Tower reaching towards the sky.
DeBotton was taken aback when he arrived in Barbados and realized that there are other aspects to a place that you tend to forget about when you are looking at a fancy travel brochure or a travel book, such as normal advertisements, unsightly airports, or even a slum.
“If we are inclined to forget how much there is in the world besides that which we anticipate, then works of art are perhaps a little to blame, for in them we find at work the same process of simplification or selection as in the imagination.”
The more I think about this idea, the more it rings so true for me. Even when traveling to places domestically, or places that you have already been, it is so easy to get wrapped up in the idea of a place. Just as DeBotton was caught off guard when he encountered all the things that are really just necessity and part of day to day life, I was shocked when I got into my cab and headed for Paris. I did not meet my postcard images of quaint streets and Vespas, but actual cars on highways, a lot of graffiti and modern looking buildings as we went through the outskirts of Paris. I realized that this is probably very similar to what people experience when they come to New York City for the first time and they drive through the other boroughs as they come from Laguardia or JFK.
At the same time, I also realized that this is the beauty of getting to live in a new setting. You get to develop a real and accurate notion of that place, to replace those that you previously held. You get to see the “realness” of a place, including the things that are maybe not as nice, but are still essential to life in everywhere. Although I must note that I am living in a building that has wrought iron railings and flower boxes, so it’s not say that it isn’t nice to be able to hold on to some of these preconceived ideas…
George Santayana, as quoted by Pico Iyer: “[We] need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what."
i. escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness
Being lost, and being lost for long stretches of time, is something I’ve gotten used to in Paris. With all the tiny streets zigzagging in a completely ungridlike pattern, changing names, and unexpectedly converging (and terminating) in squares and circles, it’s virtually impossible to keep a map in one’s head. This appears to be a problem for Parisians, as well as tourists: pick out a person confidently walking down the sidewalk, and nine times out of ten they still don’t know how to find the street you’re looking for. My (already feeble) sense of direction doesn’t even help, because the angle of the streets is inconsistent. Quite simply, you must get comfortable walking until some small saving grace—a large landmark you remember, or an intersection that gets you oriented, perhaps—presents itself to you. Ahh, but how sweet the thought of uptown, downtown, and numbered streets can feel sometimes!
ii. moral holiday of running some pure hazard
Before my departure, it was often hard to justify leaving for almost four months, at this point in my life. I had just happily moved in with my boyfriend. Several of my closest friends had just arrived home after their own semesters abroad. My first paychecks for freelance writing were still in the mail. And yet, even at my most torn, I knew I wasn’t going to change my plan. On some level, I just knew the life I had built, as precious and delicate as it felt, would be there when I returned. I knew leaving wouldn’t be any easier a few months later, or a few months after that. And I knew, although it seemed remote, that living in the utter “otherness” of a foreign country was essential to who I am becoming as a writer and a person. That element of “hazard,” that subjecting of one’s self to the less-than-comfortable and possibly painful, is an element of travel that impacts, ineffably, life at home. The sense of competence that comes from building an existence out of nothing—and out of an atmosphere that may not always feel hospitable—makes the struggles of one’s “real” life feel all the more manageable. I decided, this time, to choose hazard over safety, and to see what I got back in return.
iii. sharpen the edge of life
This phrase has been tossing around my head since I read Iyers’ essay. The words seem playful to me, and at the same time, challenging. How does one know if life, a trusty blade, needs sharpening? My life in New York, to be sure, did not feel dull. But a testing out—a visit to someone else’s kitchen?—may be the only way to judge such a fine thing as sharpness. I’m not sure yet if time abroad will lead me to see flaws in my own life. I do know that I’m open to the test.
iv. taste hardship
My first night in Paris. As I began to fill the (few) empty spaces of my tiny room with my own things, I came upon the linens left behind from the former roommate. “Crusty” was my first impression. “Atrocious” was my second, and “possibly diseased.” The towels, as I unfolded them, reeked of mildew: they must have been folded without hanging to dry, or else left in the dryer, wet, for days on end. The sheets, some folded and some still on the bed, had someone’s long black hairs strewn across them, and worn-in spots where a body had formerly slept. “Furnished apartment,” I thought, “complete with human hair and skin cells.” Later that night, utterly spent, I lay on the stripped mattress (plaid casing, dense foam interior, circa 1960). I searched myself for traces of that usual, post-arrival feeling, that delirious disbelief: “Can you believe you’re in Paris?!” For the time being, there was none. All I could hear was the frantic little voice saying, “You need to go buy sheets. As soon as possible.”
v. work desperately for a moment
The courtyard of the Louvre. 9pm on a Friday night. Practically empty (comparatively speaking). Lit facades creating a warm square in the cool night, the glass pyramids glowing an ethereal white. Tuning my ears to the delicate lapping of the fountain pools, I didn’t need to go inside. The art, the moment, was out here.
I finished packing up my bags the morning of the day that I was supposed to leave for Paris. Feeling confident that I had done a descent job pacing, or at least keeping my suitcases under the weight limit (a huge feat for me), I packed the bags into the car and headed to the airport with my family.
While many of the people who would be studying abroad in Paris this semester took the group flight from NYC, I had opted to book my own flight. I would be flying by myself on a non-stop, overnight flight from Atlanta, GA to Paris, France. “Perfect,” I had thought to myself, “I will be able to go to sleep on the plane at night and when I wake up in the morning I will be in Paris and it will hardly be jet-lagged.” There was also something about flying by myself to a place that I had never before visited that made me feel somewhat noble. I have always considered myself to be an independent person and to me this trip was just another opportunity to prove that I could do anything on my own.
I really don’t think that I could have been any more wrong. After a tearful goodbye with my mom and dad, I went to my gate and as I sat there, full of nervous excitement and with a million thoughts buzzing around in my head, I realized that I had absolutely no one to share this with. “You’re going to be fine,” I thought to myself, “just get on the plane and you’re going to go to sleep.” Wrong again. Not only did I not go right to sleep, I didn’t go to sleep at all.
After the nearly nine-hour flight and many, many in-flight movies, I landed in the Charles de Gaulle airport exhausted, but so excited that I was finally in Paris. Now all I would have to do is gather my luggage and get a cab to take me to the FIAP, where NYU was housing us for the next few days, until we moved into our apartments. This was also not as easy as I had anticipated, and as I sat in the taxi, not recognizing anything, I thought to myself, “oh my god, what have I done?”
At the FIAP, I still felt very much on edge, and as hard as it is for me to actually admit this, there was even a part of me that wanted nothing more than to get on the next plane back to the States. Over the next few days, I met more and more people and I began to start feeling at ease in my new “home.” Now, nearly two weeks later, I am having the most incredible time and those thoughts upon arrival are nothing more than a blip on my radar; however I have gained a new found respect for people who travel alone.
Possible reasons I am behind on this blog:
1. I was homeless until a few days ago, and now finally have internet
2. I’ve already forgotten how to express myself in English
3. I spilled red wine all over my keyboard
4. I got swine flu (I knew I should have listened to NYU and brought protective masks and gloves…)
I leave it to you to decide which (if any!) of those is true, but in any event, my apologies! Here’s a bit about me and why I’m in Paris:
I’m Aniella, I’m a junior at Gallatin, and my concentration is “Writing About Art, Writing As Art.” It was a happy day for me when Gallatin declared that undergrads could do minors, as French has been a fairly constant thread in my life and I’ve never been sure how to incorporate it into my concentration. I spent two summers living in France in high school, the first time studying Art History and French, and the second time living with a family in Montpellier.
My background in music (piano and voice) seems linked to my passion for language: learning the nuances of sound, intonation, and meaning in French feels very much like learning another instrument to me. My interest in cultural and artistic criticism (the “writing about art” portion), was born, in part, out of my earlier visits to France. I was never a journal-keeper, but I found I couldn’t help but scribble down my observations on the people I saw in the street, the particulars of my home-stay family and their house, and the experience of living in a foreign language.
These two loves—language study and critical writing—have led me back to France. Since my reasons for coming to Paris are tied into my studies at Gallatin, I feel a sense of focus here that I didn’t have in high school. Then, France represented adventure, new ways of socializing, and exposure that I felt was missing at my small private high school. Now, having settled in to a very rich and stimulating life in New York, I don’t need quite the same things out of my time abroad. In these three months, my hope is to get to know Paris more intimately, to learn the fine details of how people live, eat, interact, and speak, and to examine my observations through writing. In the long run, I’d also like to master the language enough to do creative writing (a genre unheard of France, I’m learning!) and poetry in French, or at least to translate other writers’ works.
I am keeping my own blog as a way to keep writing (and keep my family and friends happy back home!), which I will sometimes incorporate into my entries here. I’m excited to see how the readings we do, and all of your observations, relate (or possibly differ) from my experience in Paris. The first two weeks have been a bit of a blur here, and I’m guessing it’s the same elsewhere, so I hope everyone is starting to feel more settled and excited for the semester ahead!
I had a bit of a hard time relating to Iyers essay. I would guess that his observations are accurate considering the locations he focused on - Cuba, Southeast Asia - but I do not think his descriptions would accurately characterize the way my interactions as an American in France have gone. Being an American in Cuba would make you exotic, and would raise a lot of questions. But being an American in Paris just makes you, admittedly, a cliche, and I think it raises a very different set of questions, the primary one being: how do I get off the bus?
The bus that I am thinking of is the big red one in NYC, where the tourists sit on top and take pictures. Paris is basically set up as a tourist paradise. The city has made great efforts to be tourist-friendly and Amero-centric. The only things they have not made accomodating are the parisian cliches that drive their economy: the family bakeries, the cobble-stone streets, the French-speaking. From stepping out of Charles De Gaulle onward there is this kind of choreographed dance - it is not that there are not difficult or annoying things, but they are exactly the things you are forewarned to expect, comfortable signs of foreignness like adapters and euros. The bus is helpful, and maybe even necessary, when you first arrive. And it is not that the bus is all bad - it is nice to know, should i ever have a free afternoon, I can hop on the metro and be at the Louvre - but this is a city, not a theme park. Like New York, it faces the problems of all modern cities: homelessness and hunger and garbage, pollution and disease and terrorism, theft and drug use and sex trafficking and population control, the list goes on endlessly. Iyers notes how one of the joys of travelling is seeing how different plqces solve these problems, especially when their solutions are very different from ours. But France, because it is aware that for many people it is nothing but an enormous photo opportunity, has gone to great lengths to hide its mechanics from visitors - these mechanics which I have taken to calling the bus.
By the way, I am not using contractions because nothing is more difficult than getting an apostrophe out of a french keyboard.
But this leads me back to something Iyers hints at but ultimately trivializes: do you be a tourist, or a traveller? The choice may seem simple - no one wants to be called a tourist - but the question becomes what is more authentic? More sincere? We are taking a language intensive right now, and I am in a higher level after having studied French for many years. My teacher, a French person, frequently tries to teach us little phrases and and slang which are particular to modern Parisians. As we spend our time practicing these phrases over and over again, I find myself wondering whether my goal is to sound like, emulate, immitate, or if there is something both dishonest, in trying to fool Parisians into thinking I am French, and silly, in thinking I could possible succeed in doing so. Would it be better to just be an American, a tourist, just like the millions of tourist they encounter in their daily lives from all of the world? Obviously it is more polite to address someone in the language they are most confortable if you can, but should I be trying hard to smother my American accent? To what ends?
And this raises that big question that I imagine all of us have been pondering as we loose luggage or get lost or pick-pocketed or just mqke fools of ourselves trying to have a conversation in a language other than our native: why, exactly, am I here? Once you arrive, the general "expanding horizons, studying abroad is good for you" answer that satisfied friends and family as they watched you all summer fight with consulates over an endless visa paperwork does not seem quiote sufficient. And being here is an enormous opportunity, available only for a limited time - so, what to do with it . . . ?
My mother told me that when she studied for a semester in Denmark as a college student, she went with nothing but a backpack. And though I share her passion for travel and her logical sensibility, I ended up at the airport with a large purse, an overstuffed backpack, and two enormous, overweight black suitcases, one of which would not even be allowed on the plane until I removed my French-English dictionary. Managing all my bags as I weaved through Charles de Gaulle was, to put it lightly, a challenge. It did give me the opportunity, though, to practice saying “merci” as various people on the airport tram helped my right my toppled suitcases. I suppose it wasn’t until a few days later, when I moved out of the hostel where we all started out, and unpacked and settled in to my apartment, that I felt what Pico Iyer refers to as the openness of self that comes with travel, and not just the exhaustion of travail. And yet, having read the article, when I go somewhere unfamiliar in Paris, or try to explain American credit cards to a shopkeeper in French, I remember that travail is an integral part of travel, and I think those uncertainties keep me more open and more aware.
Along with his article, which I’ve just read, I’m also thinking about Pico Iyer’s plush tiger hand puppet. There is a picture of it right in front of me as a write, its grey and white fur worn down, its little paws reaching up towards its little ears. It’s a photo, and a little article that Iyer wrote for the New York Times magazine a few years ago, and which I had torn out and have hung up in most of the places I’ve lived in since (various New York dorms and apartments, and now Paris, just above my desk). I don’t know exactly why I’ve held onto the page for so long, beyond that I also travel with a stuffed animal, a very basic brown bear from a friend. I guess the bear might be, as Iyer writes, a way of “carry[ing] our sense of home inside us,” a reminder of the comfort of the familiar even as I begin to explore somewhere quite different from my home.