Click Here to View Slideshow
This morning, June 4, I woke up in my studio situated on a quiet, narrow Parisian rue that runs just a few hundred meters—the short distance between Le Jardin du Luxembourg and L’Eglise Saint-Sulpice, two of the unfathomable number of must-sees in Paris. I brewed some coffee, showered in my closet-sized bathroom, quickly finished a bowl of cereal, said ciao to my girlfriend, and walked down the two flights of uneven, crooked stairs that lead to the building’s entrance.
Today was my first day as a summer exchange student at ESCP-Europe.
However, as opposed to the seven other summer exchange students hailing from universities in Canada, the U.K. and Turkey, I had already taken classes at ESCP-Europe. I arrived in La Ville-Lumière in January 2012, expecting to return to the States in May after one semester of courses. After a couple of months, I decided the one semester wouldn’t be enough. With the help of ESCP, UW-Madison, and my mother, I was able to extend my stay and am lucky enough to be spending another semester here learning in an environment unlike any other.
Back to this morning. After a short walk past Paris’s second largest church and a half-hour metro commute on lines 4 and 3 with a switch at the always-smelly Réaumur-Sébastopol station, I walked into the school’s courtyard to be greeted by Pierre-André Richer, the Joseph Halaas of ESCP. All the new exchangers gathered and we were quickly led out of the chilly air to a conference room where breakfast awaited us. I couldn’t help but think about that day four months prior when I made the much shorter commute with my four Badger roommates to our first day of orientation week. I walked to school that day with much anticipation, a lot of questions, relatively little knowledge about the city I’d temporarily be calling home, and no feeling in my fingers and toes (January was a little chilly). I also couldn’t help but think about how much I’ve done, seen, and learned in the four-plus months separating these two days. As I blog for the rest of the semester, I’ll try to share all of this with you. But I’ll start with some thoughts on this wonderful city.
I could try to explain what makes it so special in my own words, but I don’t think I could do as good a job as Professor Pierre Morel did today during our condensed two-hour orientation, so I will borrow from him.
Just as it has done to countless expats in the past few centuries, Paris has enthralled me in my short time here. I find the city to be unlike (read: better than) any other that I’ve visited for a few reasons. For one, the city is extremely easy to navigate by foot, by metro, by Vélib, and (I’ve heard) by bus. Another positive is how affordable it is for students with European visas to visit most tourist and cultural destinations in the city (although one could argue that that the high cost of everything else far outweighs that benefit). I can’t recall any major sight that cost me anything to visit except the Eiffel Tower (which is still reasonably priced at less than 10 euros to reach the very top). Yet another pro of studying abroad in this city is that you can find everything here: beautiful parks to escape the city life, art and culture at every corner, lively nightlife, great food, great wine, amazing people from all over the world, and so much more.
But above all, I think the city’s biggest attraction is its history. Professor Morel used a few similes to explain it.
He said Paris is like:
- A multi-layered cake – The city itself is more than 2,000 years old and it has been France’s capital for more than 1,000 years. As such, you can find traces of every period of the last two millennia here. Les Arènes de Lutèce—a wonderful place to sit down and lose yourself in a book or watch some local kids playing foot—are the remains of a first century A.D. Roman amphitheater once used to hold gladiator events, and they’re found right in the heart of the Latin Quarter. For a more recent historical reference, walk five minutes west and you’ll pass 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, where Ernest Hemingway settled into his first Parisian apartment in 1921. Walk another five minutes and you’ll come across the back of the Le Panthéon, a building originally built as a church, but since it was finished one year after the French revolution began, its role quickly changed to that of a mausoleum, and it now houses the tombs of great Frenchmen like Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Pierre and Marie Curie. For an even more recent reference, across the street from the Pantheon is L’Eglise Saint-Etienne du Mont, the church featured in the recent Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson’s character is sitting on the steps of the church as the bells ring midnight and he gets transported into 1920s Paris. The point is this: there is history on top of history on top of history throughout Paris, especially in its historical center, and all you have to do to find it is look around you.
- An onion – This comparison is in reference to the history of Paris’s confining walls and can be adapted to the more modern district divisions. As Paris grew throughout the centuries, old walls surrounding the city were demolished and new ones were rebuilt around larger areas. This happened six or seven times; as a result, most of the city’s oldest buildings and monuments are found in the city center, and the newer ones can be found farther from the center. You can still see the tracks of some of the walls as they have been replaced by les Grands Boulevards, and the metro stations that begin with the word Porte are located at the former sites of the doors or gates of Paris—the only ways to enter or exit the city.
The effects of this historical separation from the rest of France can still be felt today. Parisians feel and exhibit a certain superiority over not only foreigners but provincial Frenchmen as well. One could compare it to the sentiment captured by the most famous New Yorker cover.
There is even still a distinction made between Parisians from different districts. The 20 arrondissements are numbered in the form of an escargot shell; the first is just west of city center on the right bank of the Seine, and the successive districts are numbered moving clockwise and out from that point so that districts 1 through 7 contain most of the city’s tourist spots, its most expensive housing, and its most famous residents.
- Swiss cheese – Professor Morel’s final comparison describes the land upon which all of this history is built. Paris’s underground—a mix of sewers; human bone depositories; metro lines; and secret, illegal party destinations—is so full of “holes” that it really warrants this description. It’s easy to forget on the metro, as you’re smashed between Parisians returning home from work and tourists alike, that on the ground above you sit some of the most famous buildings in the world.
Professor Morel has been taking regular walks through Paris for 30 years. He still finds something new, something he’s never noticed before, every time he walks. I imagine one could do so for 50 years, if not more. I think the point to take from all of this is that Paris will never stop surprising you and teaching you if you get out and explore it.