By Julia Clemens
Ever since I was little, I’ve dreamed about going to Paris. My third grade class took a “trip to Paris,” which entailed making fake suitcases, taking a pretend airplane ride with the window opened to a model of the Eiffel Tower, and being Photoshopped onto a picture of the Eiffel Tower. I never would have guessed in third grade that I would be actually studying in Paris, probably because third graders don’t really have very concrete ideas about college, and I don’t think I had heard of study abroad. It has been a great experience so far and very different from whatever I was expecting.
Life as a student in Paris (at least my life as a student in Paris) is far different from life at Wesleyan. First of all, I’m living with a family instead of in a dorm, and it takes me 40 minutes to an hour to get to school. My classes all meet only once a week and for only two or three hours, so I have a ton more free time, especially since the French don’t really give homework. They think you should be learning on your own and expect you to be finding reading material outside of class that is related to what they are teaching. There’s actually an option for taking a class where you just do all of the learning on your own and then take the final exam or write a final paper without ever having gone to class.
Since I have so much free time, I am able to explore Paris a lot. I’m taking an art history class that’s about how the body is portrayed, and each week the professor tells us about an exposition to go see. This would never be possible at Wesleyan, and she usually suggests expositions that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. I also have an ID that says that I’m an étudiante histoire de l’art (art history student), which is not true; I’m pre-med and a French and biology double major. This is great because it means that I can get into a lot of museums for free, including the Catacombs!
I’ve also really liked exploring outside of Paris. I went on a day trip to Versailles, and although I didn’t go into the castle (which is free for art history students), I spent almost an hour walking around the gardens (which were not free for art history students). Around every corner, there was a fountain or a pond or a golf cart that had fallen into a pond or an outdoor ballroom that had gold fountains all around it. Another day, I went on a trip to Fontainebleau, which is a town outside of Paris that has a chateau and a forest in it. We went to Fontainebleau intending to get off the train near the tourism office, get a map, and then hike in the woods. The train stopped at what we thought was Fontainebleau, but we didn’t see a train station. The door opened, though, so we got off and looked around for the bus that would take us to the office, only to realize that we had been dropped off in the middle of the woods. Since we had gone there to hike, it wasn’t really a problem, and we hiked to the town instead. It was really a beautiful hike, quite different from walking in Paris.
My art history class also went on a trip to a giant sculpture of a cyclops in the middle of what I think were the same woods. The sculpture was created by Jean Tinguely and Niki de Saint Phalle with the idea that hikers would just stumble upon it. We went on a tour of the inside of the sculpture, which is interactive and all made out of recycled material. Even though it has been vandalized, it’s one of the coolest sculptures I’ve ever seen. It includes a cattle car that had been used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz, which was the only piece that they installed with the use of a machine. The rest was built completely by hand.
Although I spend most of my time not in class, I am learning a lot, from talking to my host family, from going to museums, from reading Harry Potter in French (“magic wand” in French is “baguette magique”), and even from my classes. My French has gotten a lot better, but I know that when I go back to Wesleyan and stop speaking it every day, it probably will devolve.
Although the amelioration of my French is maybe temporary, I am so glad that I chose to go abroad. I think my third grade self would be proud that I finally got a picture of me in front of the real Eiffel Tower instead of a green screen.