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Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: I See Love, I See France

(All photos by Alexa)

“Work hard. Work hard. But, don’t work too hard. You’re in Paris, and you don’t want to look back and remember this classroom. Have fun.”

This was the parting advice of my methodology professor, who was tasked with teaching us — the international students — how to deliver an exposé at Sciences Po.

“Welcome week” is over. In fact, I’ve been here for almost a month. My grandmother maintains that everyone is settled in at a new school by Halloween. By then, you know your way around, who your friends are, and how to manage classes. This year, though, my favorite spooky holiday will come and go, as Labor Day and September 11 did, unnoticed by the French eye. Yet, I don’t miss New Jersey in general. The food famously sucks, the people are eternally in a rush, etc. I much prefer the life I’ve made for myself (or invaded upon) here.

I wake up with the sun, jog in the park. I fall in temporary-love on the metro. These two elements are the only fragments of routine I’ve got.

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There was a party on a boat a few weeks ago, but I left early — in favor of a private tour of the most beautiful city in the world, courtesy of a local with a motorcycle. He showed me the shimmering Tour Eiffel, endless Champs-Élysées, and looming Cathédrale Notre Dame. I felt this tunnel-vision, like my eyes were incredulous, like these things can’t exist in such proximity. He beeped and waved at some strangers, who emphatically raised their glasses in our direction. Life is but perpetual disbelief.

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I forgot the French word for “hangover” as one erupted inside me. Anyway, next day, I tagged along with some Brazilian friends for a bite to eat and for the view at the top of the Centre Georges Pompidou. They sometimes switch to Spanguese (Spanish-Portuguese), and smile more than most people I know.

Being here is a big step for my mental health. The Parisian attitude toward food, for example, is centered around quality and appreciation. At the open air market in my quartier, Marché Place des Fêtes, I watched a shopkeeper throw around a raw chicken, chopping off its head and talons, gutting and firing it. And it’s true that a meal is a big deal. No one eats on the metro, portions aren’t monstrous, and it’s really weird to ask for a doggy-bag. No one obsesses over their weight, goes to the gym, or artificially tans. This is especially weird to me, coming from New Jersey. I’ve been walking everywhere, running in all the parks, and eating authentic foods (yes, even white bread, full-fat cheeses, and chocolate!). And I’ve never felt better.

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I had an impromptu picnic on the Seine, surrounded by people from the Netherlands, Germany, Lebanon, India, and Canada. I got drunk on a boat with strangers, or friends. My host family invited me to have lunch — veal with prunes, tied in a sort of flower-like shape and served tagine-style, mashed potatoes, and warm bread and cheese. I even made a French friend while jogging. Running is a humanizing activity. It gives me a chance to observe and blend in for an hour or so. (My goal is to run in every park in Paris. So far: La Seine, Jardin des Plantes, Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc de Sceaux, Bois de Boulogne, and, of course, good ol’ Buttes-Chaumont).

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I marveled at Cézanne and Toulouse-Lautrec in Musée d’Orsay. I downed a fiery shot on Rue Saint-Maur. I drank wine and ate cheese at Place des Vosges. I navigated the Noctilien. I went to a French doctor, where I had to do 20 squats and didn’t need insurance. I read Plato and Baudelaire. I drank mint tea at the Grande Mosquée. I bought Saint-Nectaire and Bleu de Sévérac from my local fromagerie. I joined the Sciences Po track and field team, and the photo club. I took 800 photos. I turned off my flashlight in the Catacombs and I stood in pitch-black silence.

Socializing can take it all out of me, though. One day last week, I put on my lobster sweater to remind me of home (slash Nora) and went for a stroll through Buttes-Chaumont. It’s nice to live so far away from the heart of the city, because I’m not a city-girl at heart. For one of the first times in my life, I was walking alone in a foreign continent, content. Me, myself, and my camera. Eavesdropping on everything. If I can do this (and love every movement, or at least find substance in experiences), what can’t I do? The world’s all mine.

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Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

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