Julia SMU-in-Paris

Julia is a junior from Plano majoring in history, with a French minor, and is a member of the University Honors Program. She is studying abroad with SMU-in-Paris in fall 2007.

Saturday the 13th

I had the most frustrating day I’ve had in a while today.

First I woke up late, thanks to my battery-powered alarm clock that decided to die at 3 AM. Then as I was walking out of the house, I forgot my cell phones (yes, plural, I have one for France, one for the USA) and had to unlock the complicated front door which literally takes 10 minutes.

To make matters worse, as I was walking to the RER Pont d’Alma station, I stepped in a fresh pile of dog poo. To me it seemed like a scene right out of a movie: I was already having the worst day ever, and to top it off I stepped in the nastiest of all things. Little did I know the morning was just a warm-up for the rest of my miserable day.

Library blues
As I’ve mentioned before, I have the privilege of working at the BNF (Bibliotheque Nationale de France) for an advanced History course. Well, today, things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped they would. I had reserved 10 books, and 2 “microfiches,” which are reproductions of old manuscripts. When I went to pick them up, I only received 5 books. The lady working the book bank told me that my card “does’t have the correct documentation” to pick up the rest. Naturally, I was extremely confused since a week earlier I was given full access to all of the library’s collections.

Very confused, I rushed to the “Information Desk” to figure what the problem was. Of course, they told me the book bank was wrong, and there was nothing more I needed and “to insist I have the books.” Well, France is NOT a place that you “insist” anything. There is a very different understanding of “customer service” here. In the United States we swear by the motto “the customer is always right,” whereas in France the customer is only sometimes right, which I learned today.

When I returned to the book bank, I told the young lady working there that the Information Desk said there wasn’t a problem and possibly her machine was acting funny (exactly what they had told me to say). She literally looked me up and down (imagine Regina George in Mean Girls), and said in broken English, “I told you it no work.” I again explained, very politely and with a big smile, in French, what the Information Desk had told me and asked to speak with a supervisor. What a mistake! As soon as I said that she huffed and puffed at me, ran to the back and got TWO people.

I can understand French pretty well now and basically they were mocking the way I spoke French, the way I was dressed, and saying what I was asking them to do was somehow outrageous. Finally after almost 20 minutes of talking about me, they made me a new card and told me to “wait until Monday to use it.” Somehow, I was inconveniencing the employees of the library to actually do their job!

To say the least I was upset, frustrated, and mad. I had to keep reminding myself that things are different here: they speak a different language, their idea of customer service is completely different, and I am a foreigner. After calling my mom and dad almost in tears, I calmed down and rationalized the situation. In the USA, there are people just as rude to foreigners as the girl was to me today. I will have to adapt to that situation and work my best around it. I’m going to run across rude people, whether it’s in Paris or Dallas!

The experience taught me two things today:
1. I’m really NOT in the USA. Attitudes are different here, and I better get used to it and make it into a learning experience. These obstacles only teach me how to deal with “real life” situations and give me questions to ask my French teachers about what to say in certain situations.
2. At home, I should be more patient and understanding of people who can’t speak perfect English. They are at least trying!

Not only is France teaching me important French and history lessons, but France is also teaching me valuable life lessons! Hopefully, next week when I go to the BN with Dr. Kahan, we can figure out exactly what’s wrong with my card!

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La Nuit Blanche

Once a year the city of Paris celebrates its eclectic, vibrant, and beautiful culture by flooding their city with light all night long! During “La Nuit Blanche” or “White Night” all of Paris – monuments and attractions, like the Eiffel Tower, the Champs Elysees, the George Pompidou Museum, La Madeleine and others – are open to the public (usually free of charge) and feature various art exhibits, light shows, and theatrical shows. The city literally glows from the amounts of string lights hung on the trees, buildings, and light posts.

A Ferris wheel ride
My friends and I decided that Nuit Blanche was NOT an event we could miss. Though most of the activity runs parallel with the Metro Line 14, we opted to stick around the Louvre area in order to ride the huge Ferris wheel in front of the Tuileries Garden. For only 8 euros we rode around the wheel about 15 times and even got to stop at the top! We had an absolutely stunning view of the “city of lights.”

Though we were absolutely in awe of the beautiful city, I’ll admit that a few of us were a little scared to be up that high. The Ferris wheel “buckets” also spun, much like the Tea Cups ride at Disneyland, so when we would come back down at the bottom a man would always spin us so we would literally feel like we were going to fall out! Even though I was a little freaked out, it is one of the most special memories I have of Paris.

Candle light and techno dancing
While we were on the Ferris wheel we noticed that the Tuileries garden was on fire! Well, not literally, but there was an exhibition of thousands of candles displayed on different types of torches in the Tuileries Garden. I encouraged my friend Federico to light one of the candles that had gone out, but I guess you’re not allowed to do that because later a security guard scolded him!

After walking through the Tuileries Garden, we noticed that in front of the Palais Royal were these three large video screens that kept changing colors in rhythm with this strange techno-trance music, with various members of the audience being invited to dance in front of them. Little did we know that three of our friends who had separated from us earlier that night, Brenda, Margaret, and Brooke, were dancing in front of them just minutes before we got there!

I decided at around 1 AM that I wanted to go home, and I thought it would be simple getting a taxi. Boy was I wrong! That night France had defeated New Zealand in the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup (taking place in Paris at the Stade de France). It was literal pandemonium on the streets of Paris due to the victory combined with Nuit Blanche. People were riding their scooters with the French flag swaying in the wind, and traffic was at a virtual standstill.

After walking up and down rue de Rivoli looking for a free taxi cab and pleading with taxi drivers to take me home (in Paris it’s illegal to “hail” a cab like it is in NYC), my friend Stephanie finally found a taxi stand. All of a sudden I saw a free cab, cut about 25 people waiting for a cab, jumped in and got home safe and sound at around 2 AM, a whole hour later than planned. I was extremely lucky compared to my friend Stephanie and her housemate, Claire, who waited for a cab for almost three hours until they finally decided to just wait until the metro reopened to go home! Luckily they had each other, because I would have been very scared to take the metro that night by myself!

Even though there was the difficulty with the taxi, La Nuit Blanche was a fabulous night. If you are ever in Paris during the first weekend of October, it is a must see. I’m not looking forward to my midterms next week, but luckily, immediately after that we head to Provence for our second study tour!

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Chantilly: A Castle and Whipped Cream!

As part of the SMU-in-Paris program, we not only get to go on two study tours, but we have several day trips in the Paris vicinity over the semester. While we were originally scheduled to visit the town of Reims, where the French kings were coronnated, there was unfortunately a problem with the train, so we visited Chantilly by bus instead.

In French the word “chantilly” actually means “whipped cream,” gaining its name from the region in which it was created, Chantilly. The castle is a blend of flamboyant gothic architecture and high Renaissance architecture, with large, pointed arches, intricate details on the facade, and several domes over the various rooms of the castle. Unlike some of the other chateaux I’ve seen, this was not a royal chateaux, instead it was a hunting lodge used by the Conde family.

Art History in action
While the chateaux has beautiful architecture and gorgeous Renaissance decor, Chantilly is best known for its immense art collection. In the Conde gallery, there are pieces by Raphael, Philippe de Champiagne, Corot, Corbet, and Regnault. There is also a room dedicated to small portraits of royals and nobles. Since I am quite interested in the Ancien Regime, I, of course, took my time looking at the portraits of Henri II, Catherine de Medici, Henri III, Charles IX, and Marie de Medici, just to name a few.

Since our Art History midterm was the following Monday, my friends and I were jokingly “analyzing” the paintings hanging on the wall, however, I have to admit even though it was in jest, it did help to do that, as dorky as it sounds.

I was a tad bit disappointed that we didn’t get to see Reims because I am enrolled in a history class entitled “Images of Power,” and Reims would have been a wonderful example of a presentation of royal power, but Chantilly was a good second option.

Now I really have to buckle down, memorize my paintings for Art History, and study my French grammar for my midterms next week!

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Un Mois a Paris

I’ve officially been in France for a whole month, and while at first thought I can’t believe it’s already been that long, I definitely am starting to miss some things from home, specifically television and a clothes dryer! As Midterms are approaching next week, classes have gotten very intense with lots of reading, papers, and homework.

Last week I finally got access to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BNF) for my advanced History research class! It was a bit intimidating having to speak to the BNF officials completely in French, explaining exactly what I was researching and why the BNF would help. It was definitely a test of my French skills! I know my French professors and tutor would be very proud of how well I handled it!

The BNF is what I imagine the “Ministry of Magic” (from Harry Potter) to look like. It is an ultra-modern building constructed in four glass towers that are actually supposed to represent opened books. (Personally, I think it’s kind of stupid to keep books in glass towers that are exposed to the sun most of the day, but I guess I’m wrong…) Once inside, I have to swipe my card to get access to the bottom level where I can actually access my books. The entire library is decorated in an ultra-modern way, with deep red carpet, very high ceilings with exposed pipes and very modern furniture.

Dr. Kahan explained to me how to “order” books. The BNF is not like normal libraries. In order to view certain books, you have to order them from the library and are given a specific time to look at them. You cannot check out books, so I have to spend a lot of time at the library taking notes and reading. I’m currently researching a Catholic religious sect called the Jansenistes in 17th-century France, which should make for a very interesting research paper.

For my Art History and other History class I have also often been going to the Louvre, observing the pre-Impressionist painters such as Rubens, Constable, Turner, and Fragonard as well as images of the kingly power for History. I really like having class in the Louvre. At first I was skeptical of having class in the Louvre again because I spent nearly 18 hours this summer with Dr. Freidel at the SMU-in-Paris Summer Study Abroad, but I still find the Louvre a fascinating place. It just goes to show that no matter how many times you can be in the Louvre, there is always more to see!

Unfortunately, according to many French journalists, the government is expecting a public transportation strike to begin on October 18. I really hope the government and public transportation employees can come to a compromise before October 18 because a strike of that magnitude would mean all the buses, metro system, and RER trains would be shut down, leaving only taxis (which would undoubtedly raise rates) and walking as the only modes of transportation. I’m a good 45-minute walk to school, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen!

Now I have to buckle down and get to studying for my midterms!

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Donde esta la bus?

This past weekend, my friends and I jetted to Barcelona for the weekend. My friend Stephanie and I flew separately from our other four friends, and unfortunately, neither one of us speaks a lick of Spanish! We were extremely worried we wouldn’t be able to find our friends in Barcelona and would end up staying at the airport the entire time. Luckily, we used my Spanish-French dictionary that Anne Marie provided me and we were able to find our friends at the bus station!

We left Paris in the middle of a torrential downpour and arrived to a sunny, but steamy Barcelona. I’ve been to Bilbao, Spain, on the Atlantic coast, but never to the Mediterranean coast, which is much lighter, more vibrant, and definitely hotter! Not only was it my first time to the Mediterranean coast, it was my first experience staying in a hostel. I’m used to staying in nice hotels with my parents on family vacations so I had to constantly remind myself that I was not with my parents and was on a budget! Though the accommodations were a little bit sketchy, it was fun being able to stay with all of my friends in the same room, and we said several times that it felt similar to a “youth camp” experience.

Julia-Gaudi.jpg Barcelona was also my first encounter with Tapas, a traditional Spanish cuisine. Tapas are small (usually only 2-3 bites) entrees of things like enchiladas, mini burgers, chicken kebabs, scallions on toast, and thousands of other types! They are delicious and relatively cheap in Barcelona.

Julia%20-%20Barcelona.jpgMy favorite site in Barcelona was the Gaudi Park, in which there are hundreds of mosaic tile art pieces. It’s nice because people can actually walk up to the art and sit, touch, stand, or take pictures next to it. The park is also on the top of a very steep hill, so it provides a beautiful view of Barcelona and the sea!

Barcelona was a very fun trip and I have a feeling that my fall break trip to Prague, Rome, and Athens will be just as interesting and entertaining! After a very long weekend of traveling and little sleep, I have to finish my assignments for Monday; after all SMU-in-Paris isn’t all play and fun, it’s work too!

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Living history in Paris

Julia’s photos: (click a photo for larger version)

As an aspiring French history professor, I have the very special opportunity of taking a history research class in which I get to work with and examine primary documents from the 17th century at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (National French Library). I am also currently enrolled in several art history classes, examining the Renaissance and Impressionist movements, as well as an advanced French literature course, and a CF course covering French and American relations during World War I and World War II.

Living in Paris with a French family, I also get to practice my French skills every night at dinner! I hope to also be able to travel this semester to some other countries in Europe to soak up the history and culture of Western Europe.

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Visiting Normandy

School has gotten progressively more intense, but luckily this weekend we had a bit of a break with a study trip to Normandy, a region in the northwest of France on the Atlantic Ocean. Though Normandy is most famous for the D-Day invasions in World War II, the region represents the French agricultural center. To the disappointment of my waistline, Normandy is also notorious for the best tasting crepes (a type of French pancake that can be filled with sweets or meat).

The landscape of Normandy is rather odd. There are cornfields directly across from the beach. To me, corn next to the ocean just doesn’t make sense. It’s clear that Normandy is an agricultural region because vast farms and countryside surround all of the towns. It was rather picturesque, but I can never see myself being in Normandy for more than a weekend without going insane!

The first town we visited in Normandy was Le Havre. During World War II, Le Havre was completely razed by British “intimidation bombings” so the city is rather modern, with square, uniform buildings. It’s amazing to think that an entire city was damaged so much during the war that it had to be completely rebuilt.

On Saturday we visited several memorials dedicated to World War II including the Caen War Memorial, the American War Cemetery, and the beaches of Normandy. The Caen War Memorial is more of a museum rather than a memorial. I really liked the symbolic architecture of the building that is split into two halves with a black “slash” in the middle to represent the “scar” that World War II left on France. The Memorial features some intimidating Nazi memorabilia and traces the events leading up to World War II.

In the afternoon we headed to the Normandy beaches. Nestled on the top of a cliff of “Omaha” beach is the American War Cemetery. There are over 9,000 American men buried here from World War II. It was overwhelming to see the thousands of white cement crosses lined in rows for what seemed like miles. It sounds corny, but seeing the graveyard gave me a tremendous sense of pride for the United State. I realized what a huge sacrifice these men made, not only for our country, but also for our allies and the “greater good” of humanity. I was astonished of how many men died on that first day, June 6, 1944, (it was literally every other grave marker).

The D-Day beaches themselves don’t look much different than normal beaches at first glance, but then you look behind at the cliffs and you can see the cut outs from bombs exploding and in the distance you can see remnants of German bunkers that once contained huge cannons. The beach is now considered hallow ground in a way, but life still goes on, with people building sandcastles and frolicking on it. It was a bit odd to see that, but it also represents how the world has moved on somewhat from the physical devastation of World War II.

I’ve always wanted to see the Normandy beaches, especially considering my Grandfather fought in World War II. I was very proud of him and all the other soldiers who had to scale the cliffs of Normandy while enduring a shower of bullets in order to help the French fight off the Nazis. Though Normandy wasn’t the most exciting place I’ve ever been, I’m really glad that SMU brought us here. It finally made World War II come alive and helped me really understand the devastation, both physical and emotional, that was caused by the war.

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A Weird Feeling

It was a weird feeling for me to wake up this morning and have almost no mention of September 11th. I explained to my French mother, Anne-Marie, the importance of September 11th and what it means to Americans. She knew what had happened and obviously that the actions had sent America into war, but she never knew really how it affected Americans. It was nice to be able to share a bit of my culture with her for a change.

Speaking of my host family — I live with Anne-Marie, a single, older lady in a HUGE apartment in the 7th arrondisement of Paris. The apartment is not only beautifully decorated, but I have my very own bathroom and room! (I feel I lucked out compared to some other students who have to share their bathrooms.) Best of all though is my view of the Eiffel Tower. The Champs de Mars (the park under the Eiffel Tower) is literally across the street, I can’t believe I was ever worried about my French family! Anne-Marie is so nice and encourages me to really work on my French and experience as much Parisian culture as possible. She’s very similar to my mother at home, so it’s comforting to have her to talk to and laugh with during the evening

This week was the first week of actual class. It’s a bit bizarre having to take public transportation to school considering I’m so used to hopping in my car and buzzing down to Airline Garage. I quickly realized that in order to be on time, I have to plan ahead and leave at least 30 minutes in advance. I usually take the bus to school, but almost all of my friends take the metro (the French version of a subway system). Each month I have to buy a “Carte Orange,” which gives me unlimited trips on the metro, bus, tramways, and RER (a fast train to the outlying suburbs). I can’t imagine getting around Paris without the bus and metro! Cabs here are pretty pricey, so I have been avoiding them as much as possible.

SMU students take classes at a center called Reid Hall which houses several other universities study abroad programs such as Columbia, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence, and Dartmouth. It’s a beautiful building that has a lot of “Parisian” charm. In the center is a gorgeously manicured courtyard that we can study in, chat with friends, or surf the net with WiFi. So far I LOVE all my classes. The professors SMU uses are extremely knowledgeable and have a passion for their subjects. So far my favorite classes are definitely my independent study history class (5392) with Dr. Kahan and my French (4373) class with Dr. Roynier. Both are challenging, but interesting. For my research project I’m currently in the process of trying to get approved for a Bibliotheque Nationale de France card to let me have access to original documents from the 17th century.

I still can’t believe I’m actually living in Paris for the next year! Over the past few days I’ve been sitting in cafes with my friends, laughing about the funny things that could happen to us in the next semester, but I know no matter what this will be a life changing experience!

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I have finally arrived in France! As soon as I arrived at Charles de Gualle airport I had my very first taste of culture shock. Unfortunately a passenger had left a “mysterious” black bag and the police evacuated the terminal where I was supposed to be meeting the other SMU students. As I started running for dear life toward the nearest exits screaming “Pardon! Pardon!” to get out of harms way, I soon realized that no one else in the airport was moving. In fact most of the French people around me were grumbling and fighting with the police. When I had finally found the director, Dr. Roynier, outside of the terminal, she told me that in France this sort of thing happened all the time and therefore the people weren’t usually phased by “evacuations.” I was so surprised, but then again, I had to remember that I was now living in one of the largest cities in the world and “evacuations” must happen all the time.

For the past four days we have been in a small, picturesque town north of Paris for Orientation called Compiegne. We have about 20 SMU students on our program, which is a nice sized group. At Orientation I was able to easily get over jet lag while retuning my ear to French with the help of Dr. Roynier and a French professor from Switzerland, Fabienne.

Luckily for me, Compiegne and its surrounding countryside is full of history! On our first day we visited a former Roman ampatheatre and a Roman temple which reminded me that I’m living in a country that had a thriving civilization nearly 2000 years ago! Around Compiegne we also visited Pierrefonds, an enormous 14th century fortress that played an important role in the Wars of Religion, as well as Laon, a medieval town that holds the cathedral Nortre-Dame de Laon. At the Cathedral, we had a private tour and were allowed up to the roof of a bell tower to get a view of the city and surrounding countryside. It was absolutely breathtaking to see a medieval city from an aerial perspective! All of the roads are tiny and houses seem to be built one on top of the other. It was an experience I’m sure I’ll never forget!

Today we visited the exact point where the Armstice agreement was signed for World War I outside of Compiegne. Even though I have learned about World War I before, it never seemed “real” to me until I was on the exact soil where Germany surrendered and spiraled downward until World War II. It was a really strange feeling to know I was walking on the same path that Hitler walked on 20 years after the first Armstice. I have to admit, as dorky as it sounds, I had goosebumps.

While I’m glad we had the opportunity to sleep off our jet lag, get ot know one another, and relax before we met our French families, I’m definitely ready to get to Paris! I am a bit nervous though about meeting my French family for the first time and becoming a Parisian.

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