Bonjour, salut, coucou, my name is Matthew McCardwell, and I am a junior Art History major at Vassar, currently “studying abroad” in the city of lights, Paris, France. As Nicole pointed out in her blog entry, the Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris (VWPP) group has been exploring since the 7th of January. The first three weeks in Paris have been a grand tourbillon: our first few days discovering the city from the vantage of our hostel; the love affair between my brain, my mouth, and the French language; flanêur-ing in Saint Germain de Près; window-shopping in the cobbled vanelles of the Marais; and being brought to tears at the expositions of Anselm Kiefer and Wilfredo Lam. My hope is to share tidbits of this journey with the Vassar community and any friends and family who glean my blog entry.
Moving anywhere involves a certain ebb and flow that often cannot be predicted. I experienced this moving from Kentucky to Poughkeepise and then to New York City last summer. Paris is no exception, but luckily the Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris has a matchmaking wizard named Lisa Fleury who selected the perfect host family for my brief semester in the île de France.
My hosts live in a beautiful apartment on the right side of the Seine. They are as obsessed with art as I am and frequent the many openings at the Centre Pompidou (colloquially referred to as Beaubourg). In addition, my host mother restores paintings in her atelier adjacent to my room. Living with my host parents is as if I have popped out of a chapter of My Life in France by Julia Child. My host mother prepares eloquent French delicacies like zucchini bisque, onion quiche, and crêpes with gruyere and fresh eggs. My host father is a wine connoisseur, and we are making a tour of the many regions with each new bottle. Also, the fromage is incredible. I have sampled about twenty varieties of cheese and each poses a new goût before my taste buds. In addition, their French is beautiful and slow, allowing me to comprehend most of it. And for days when la langue français is beyond me, and the Paris rain isn’t as magical as films make it out to be, I have a bed fit for a queen where I have happily binged on Netflix for the first time since coming to Vassar.
The apartment is in the eighth arrondissement (the system that separates the neighborhoods in Paris), which is around the corner from Gare Saint Lazare, a train station that I used to visit Rouen last weekend. The neighborhood itself is an interesting mixture between tourists, business people and inhabitants, meaning there is also an incredible mixture between fast food, brasseries and the two fashionable shopping malls called “Printemps” and “Galeries Layfayette.” As Madame Fleury put it, there is always beaucoup du monde.
When we landed in Charles de Galle airport, Landon Kramer ’17, myself and a nouvelle amie Ana (Wesleyan ’17) immediately exited the plane and sprinted towards the city of lights. Bien sûr (a coy way of saying “of course” in French), we walked ourselves through a revolving door that closed behind us, allowing us to pass through a completely different terminal of the airport, through customs and out to the arrivals terminal where, bien sûr, our baggage was nowhere to be found: thus the hysterics of France had begun. We wandered through the airport that was teeming with armed guards, asking how to retrieve our bags, speaking in broken French, essentially asking to re-enter the airport without having to go through security. Alas.
We quickly remedied this with a stroll through the 13th arrondissement (where the program had us stay in a hostel for the first couple nights). We ate baguettes with camembert and drank the two-euro Bordeaux that has become a staple in my diet.
Paris is a city that sleeps
After spending time in New York City, it is fairly incredible that there is nowhere to go at night. After about 8 P.M. the entire city shuts down. Between then and midnight, only restaurants and bars are open, and at midnight the subway starts to shut down. So if you find yourself walking around after one or two in the morning–because you missed the subway or just really needed one more verre–you will find yourself alone wandering the streets of Paris.
Weekend in Jura
As a part of our orientation agenda, a lovely weekend to the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, which is in the department of Jura, was arranged to discover the mountains and culture that shares a border with Switzerland. I was able to experience the TGV (the high-speed rail that can take you all over France) for the first time. We departed on a Friday, visiting a petit fromagerie in a town between Besançon and Rochejan. We tasted the region’s delicacies like l’Edel de Cleron (a creamy cheese with a very strong taste) and Comté (a hard cheese, almost like a French parmesan). Afterwards we checked into the very tiny town of Rochejan where we were treated to a night of music and fondue.
The next morning, we made the journey to Jura to snowshoe up Mon d’Or. The entire activity was hilarious as the sixteen or seventeen of us scaled the mountain with two trusty guides, all decked out in tennis racket-esque snowshoes. From the summit we could see the peaks of Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps. Once we were halfway down, the guides led us to a lovely cottage on the side of the mountain to have a grand lunch of potato tartes and a mushroom dish for the vegetarians, and bien sûr wine from the region.
For our third day, we explored the ancient city of Besançon with a lovely walking tour of the city and its many spectacles. Afterwards we were able to spend several hours in the beautiful cathedrals, the Maison de Victor Hugo (where he only lived for two weeks of his life) and a few adorable bakeries (which were the only shops open on Sunday).
Classes in France/French
After spending the first few weeks of orientation relearning the basic structures of grammar and syntax in a new French context, we began classes. I am taking three at Reid Hall, the American university building in Paris, which is very beautiful and operated by Columbia. My professors are incredibly sweet and each speak with a cadence that I can understand.
On another note entirely, the Sorbonne is horrific. I am taking one course at the Arts and Archeology building, which is two blocks away from the Jardin du Luxemborg. From the exterior, this brick building looks regal, almost majestic. But the classes are huge and both my Art History professor and TA spoke rapid French. In addition, all of the students appear to already know each other, thus making friends was incredibly difficult the first week. I also do not speak a word of the French slang that the students use, which literally flips words inside out in a manner similar to Pig Latin.
Only in France
Each day presents a new French or Parisien cliché, some better than others. For instance:
There is always someone playing the accordion–on the subway, outside of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Rouen, next to any tourist attraction–and you can be sure that it is always an Edith Piaf classic.
The other night the couple who live above me were having a fête (that ended promptly at 11:45 so that everyone could take the subway home). So for the last 15 minutes they played the Celine Dion classic “On ne change pas,” on repeat. I had it in my head for the entire week.
My new friend from Wesleyan, Annie, and I enrolled in a gym this week, and on our first day something truly French happened. We were on the ellipticals, working out to Tame Impala, when a man who had very obviously just finished a serious lifting session strolled past eating an entire box of chocolate Bonne Maman cookies.
Paris est une fête, ça c’est sûr.