(Fairy tale for now. Photo by: www.marcandangel.com)
I’ve been writing every day, hand-writing, so typing now feels really strange.
On my first day in Paris, I couldn’t stop saying “Oh my god” and “Nothing seems real” and “That’s so beautiful, wow”. On my ninth day in Paris, I’m still saying all that.
Do you know what it’s like to consume a city/culture/language through classes/photographs/videos and then, suddenly, you’re face-to-face with it, touching it, eating, living, and breathing it? It’s unreal. I wake up every morning and say to whoever will listen: We live here! Look at this! Look at that!
Day one, Thursday. I saw France for the first time from my window-seat on the airplane. It looks like some perfectly manicured dream-world from above, and it looks pretty similar, I’d find out, from the ground. Once (Tess and I) got to our hostel and met up with Daria, we dragged our suitcases up six flights of stairs. So, naturally, I ordered wine immediately. Dr. Healey arrived and introduced us to two Rutgers-turned-Sciences Po (graduate) students. Casually, we walked through the Louvre and across the Seine (via the stupid love-locks bridge), then enjoyed a traditional French dinner together. I tried moules for the first time, and had a bite of bœuf tartare. That’s raw meat, folks. It could have used a bit more spicy, but I still haven’t eaten anything here that wasn’t absolutely fantastic. (Excluding the shitty hostel breakfast.)
(France from the air. Photo by Alexa Wybraniec)
Day two, Friday. The first day of Sciences Po’s international welcome program was a lesson in fashion. I’m glad I brought a lot of plain stuff to wear, but damn, I have a sense of style to develop. The president delivered a speech and then Tiphaine, my group leader, divided up the room of hundreds of people. I played an ice-breaking game that involved running from shoe to shoe and sharing facts about ourselves, discovering I was in a room with human beings from all over the world (Norway, Brazil, England, Japan, Canada, China, and even Texas), understanding how completely rocked my life was about to become. It’s interesting though, how I’ve gotten to know these people over the course of the week, and how we’re all so diverse (in religion and language, for example) but we all basically want the same thing: to experience the world. After, back at the hostel, I met a bunch of boys from New Caledonia. I had no idea that a French-speaking island off of the coast of Australia existed, but I do now.
Day three, Saturday. Dr. Healey took us all out for coffee, which is always espresso and always expensive. Then she introduced us to Bastille’s outdoor market. It reminded me a lot of Morocco, and not only because a lot of African vendors work there. The smells and sounds wafted a little bit of the medina back to my nose. These markets are in most every arrondissement, and they’re the most efficient and inexpensive way to shop. After, Tess and I meandered over to Place de la République in our jet-lagged haze. We watched a demonstration come and go, shouting about something we couldn’t understand. Curse my horrific French. I think we sat there for nearly two hours before some people from other Sciences Po groups showed up. Our group leaders took us on a stroll down the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement, an area full of “graff” and locals, which was a nice change from the tourist-y vibes I’d been getting from the 1st arrondissement. The tour ended in a bar around sundown. Everyone had a beer, because that’s totally acceptable here. After, Daria and I decided that we wanted to go out. Her group leader suggested Café Oz, an Australian night-club not far from our hostel near the Louvre. It was a great suggestion, to say the absolute least. (My first Vélib’ experience may or may not have involved riding in the basket.)
Day four, Sunday. I met Audrey, another Rutgers-Sciences Po exchange student, in the hostel. I filled her in on what she’d missed from Friday’s welcome program. Then, I dragged my suitcases back down those glorious six flights of stairs, called a taxi, and emailed my host family to tell them I’d be arriving soon. The ride there was almost twenty minutes, so you get the idea of just how far northeast the 19th arrondissement is. That said, it’s beautiful. It feels much more like an authentic version of Paris, a little bit more residential and relaxed. Probably nobody will ever want to visit me up here, but that’s just fine by me. My host family is fantastic. I feel like I’ve found a surrogate grandmother in Dr. Healey and, now, a surrogate family in the Ferréols. They’re pleasant and patient with my child-like French capabilities, for which I’m forever grateful. My host mom made me a gâteau (!) with dried apricots; I can tell you right now that nobody else got a cake when they moved into their apartment. While I unpacked she made dinner, and it was wonderful and adorable and everything I’d ever wanted. I feel like I’ve been let in on the biggest secret. What have I always wondered more about than anything else? How other people live. And here I am, living like these other people I’ve always wanted to know. After a quick run through the Buttes-Chaumont (which is even more like a fairy-tale than I imagined), I fell asleep with the windows open.
(Paris. Photo by Alexa Wybraniec)
Day five, Monday. This morning was our first Sciences Po methodology lecture, where we learned how to write dissertations and present exposés according to strict parameters. Grades range from zero to 20, and I apparently shouldn’t freak out if I’m consistently getting 15s or even 10s. But I probably will freak out a little bit. I write in a notebook with a grid instead of lines. I still haven’t been lost in the metro. I discovered the cafeteria, where I can get a coffee for less than one euro. Things make me happy and nervous and excited! Each group has a small methodology class, and ours is great. Everyone is expected to give a 10-minute exposé, Sciences Po-style, this week. My topic is feminism in the 21st century (perfect). After, I metro’d my way back home to grab my raincoat, then back again to Sciences Po for a wine and cheese event. I talked to a girl from Italy and another girl from Illinois and I felt like royalty because my school was serving me alcohol in a plastic cup. I left to find my friend Alli, who I’d met on Friday at lunch, so that we could check out an apartment. The landlord ended up giving her the wrong key-pad number, though, so we ended up at the bar across from school. We tried cosmos and cognac for the first time (yum and yuck, respectively). I think we saw a rat scurry across the floor and I’m positive that we hung out with lesbians. Their 67-year-old male friend started stripping and that’s when I put down the wine and caught the very last metro car home.
Day six, Tuesday. My bedroom doesn’t have curtains. My host mom offered them, but I declined. Waking up with the sun is the nicest thing. I left a note asking if they’d teach me how and where to go shopping in the neighborhood before leaving, before they were awake. Life starts later in Paris. Yes it’s a city, and yes, everyone is sort of rushing around, but there’s a calmness underneath it all. The metro is all but empty before 8 a.m. Every time I see that Guimard-style metro sign, I smile. After another methodology lecture, I met Dr. Healey for a coffee with Daria and Audrey. We talked history and feminism, two very cool and important things. Then, my group had library orientation, and then I ran to Orange to get a SIM card for my phone, and then I ran back just in time for our small class. We discussed topics ranging from racism to sex-workers. I’m constantly surprised by how smart everyone is. It seems like they all know at least a little bit about any given topic. I really can’t wait for school to start, but what else is new? After, I went for a run in the rain through the Jardin du Luxembourg, and yes, it did feel like a movie. Nothing seems real. Fogged with lust for this city, trees like lamp-posts, cracking bones in crisp, cool air, pressure rising, clouds falling. I ate escargot and drank red wine with a French friend. My new world is kaleidoscopic.
Day seven, Wednesday. I ate a croissant and a brioche on a balcony that overlooks the 5th arrondissement. I felt like royalty, again. The slow morning gave way to another intelligent methodology class gave way to shopping with my host family! We went to the Franprix in Belleville, just a five-minute walk away from the apartment complex. We share groceries and food in the house, but it was nice to buy cereal and avocados. Food is great here, but I can’t eat duck every night. Also really interesting was the reusable shopping bag (on wheels) that everyone uses. The French are much more environmentally conscious than Americans. Unfortunately, my U.S. credit card wasn’t accepted there. After, we had dinner together again. I flush like crazy and stop speaking mid-sentence when I realize how stupid I sound, but I get a little bit more confident every day. I know it’s teaching me how to be wrong. They’re my biggest challenge and my best resource. I’ve been introduced to home-made pizza on little cracker-like things, rice pudding, and the best cheeses I’ve ever tasted. And then my host mom helped me do my laundry (which we hang up to dry) in a French washing machine! Have I mentioned that the showerhead is detachable? French life is adorable, may I keep it? I stayed in, connected to wi-fi, and wrote my first exposé. I affixed an awkward passport photo to my Navigo pass (that’s for the metro) and promptly passed out, eating cashews and feeling nuts.
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.