After reluctantly letting go of a lazy August and stuffing my life into the two biggest suitcases I could find, I took off for my four-month sejour a Paris.
Although there’s something incredibly glamorous, or at least poetic, about an extended stay in the City of Light, I began my journey unglamorously crumpled in seat 43A, willing my sleeping pills to kick in so I could avoid the midnight showing of Drillbit Taylor. Ten groggy hours and one connecting flight in Frankfurt later, I arrived at Charles de Gaulle, met up with Dr. Roynier, the director of the SMU-in-Paris program, and boarded a bus headed for Compiegne, a city an hour north of Paris, for our orientation.
Our two-day stay in Compiegne flew by in a haze of jetlag, French classes, and castle tours. It’s a sweetly rustic city, with cobblestone streets and manicured flower beds at every turn – our first day there, we ate baguette sandwiches and tartelettes outside by a fountain, watching small romper-clad French children frolic in the square, feeling that all that lacked was a touch of accordion music.
On Wednesday, we returned to Paris and disembarked with our baggage at Reid Hall, our beautiful Paris campus, where we were scheduled to meet our host families. We’d all been terribly nervous about this – I’d corresponded with my host mother a few times and we’d exchanged pictures, but the whole situation is so inherently strange that none of us knew what to expect. Standing around awkwardly in the salon and grazing on bowls of potato chips, we were picked up one by one by our host parents.
My host mother, whose name is Monique, was one of the first to arrive. Dragging my massive suitcases to her car, I was embarrassed to see that they were practically the same size as the Renault.
As we drove, Monique, who only speaks French, gave me a little tour of the city, pointing out the Tour Montparnasse, the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Boulevard St. Michel and several other landmarks I should recall but don’t, as everything I’d been told was drowned out by twin feelings of exhilaration and panic.
We finally reached her apartment in Belleville, which is in the 19th arrondissement (Paris was once memorably described to me as a “potato” divided up into twenty arrondissements, or districts). Although it’s small, it’s beautifully decorated with all sorts of fabrics and colors inspired by Monique’s travels abroad, as well as trays of dried lavender that make the whole place smell like Provence – or at least how I’d imagine Provence smells.
After I’d spent a half hour in my little room feeling discombobulated, Monique called me into the kitchen for dinner – the French eat dinner much later than Americans, on average about eight o’clock. (Thus, to avoid dying of hunger, they’ve also invented a little meal between lunch and dinner called gouter, which as far as I’ve been able to tell, is a daily excuse to eat pain au chocolat.) It’s also an extended affair, each dish served one at a time (even in an informal setting like ours) and is especially dangerous because it provides at least an hour and a half for me to fumble through various topics in unbelievably choppy French.
Within our first dinner, I’d confused Monique thoroughly, describing the Republican convention as a rendez-vous between Sarah Palin and John McCain, and attempting to compliment her ring but referring to it as a “joke” (ring in French is bague; joke is blague).
However, she’s very patient, and a week later, I can already feel myself slipping into the language, the city, and the culture with increasing ease – or perhaps that’s just the optimism of a newbie Parisian!