France, So Far
As a recent arrival, I am often asked how I like France. I almost always start by saying that I’m lucky to live in Paris. That has been my overwhelming feeling. There is so much life here, so much beauty, so much thoughtfulness. Not that the French are necessarily more thoughtful than other people, but Paris has a history of engaging intellectually with the world which is, perhaps, unparalleled. They may not have always done it right, but they tried. I’ve been attempting to read French literature in the last few months — Albert Camus, Marcel Proust, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre — and that hardly gives just due to the French writers who have grappled with universal themes long before these nineteenth-century writers.
I walk often past the statue of Thomas Jefferson which stands along the Seine, near the great bridge of the Hôtel des Invalides. He once said, “Every man has two countries: his own, and France.” In the 1780’s it was more true than in the 2010’s, of course, but for me there’s still something to it. America will always be the land of my birth; England will always be the land of my social/intellectual heritage; but France is like a love r— inscrutable, engaging, and sometimes overpowering. The fates of the United Kingdom and France, of Europe and France, of the United States and France, have been intertwined for so long that there is no escaping its history or its present.
Yet despite all this, there is something refreshingly normal about my life here. After months of traveling, writing, living in new places every week, visiting old friends and meeting new ones, I am finally in a routine. I wake up in a little studio apartment looking over the roofs of southwest Paris, in the attic of a beautiful stone building. I use the toilet in the hall, shower in my kitchenette, eat some cold cereal, and descend the seven stories — past families and old folks and unknown lives behind beautiful wooden doors — to Boulevard Garibaldi, above which runs Metro Line 6. Then I round the corner, descend into into the Line 10 station, and ride three stops in a not-too-crowded train to the university.
Sciences Po Paris lies in the middle of one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin. The ancient church which gives its name to the quarter stands in a quiet cul-de-sac watching over the progress of this traditionally aristocratic, literary, and governmental district. Cafes and restaurants line every corner, with beautiful interior design or jewelry shops on the avenues in between. The school is divided into five main buildings spread over four blocks: 9 Rue de la Chaise, close to my metro stop; 27 Rue de Saint-Guillame, the main classroom and amphitheater building; a library across the street; 13 Rue de l’Université, an administrative site with a few classrooms; and 28 Rue des Saints-Pères, home of executive education and more administration. Each building takes up only a part of each block, so you hardly know where one building starts and another building ends until you get lost inside one of the school buildings. It takes about 15 minutes to walk from one end of the campus to the other, passing a dozen cafes and coffee shops along the way. And the buildings themselves are beautiful — stone archways, stone fronts, stone staircases, enormous windows, perhaps not quite as well preserved as a typical university campus in the US but so full of character that one does not mind in the slightest.
My first class starts at 8am on Monday mornings, a wicked trick but one which I bear since the teacher is an agreeable fellow who gives up his own Monday mornings to come from the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to teach us for a few hours. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to learn from someone in the middle of international collaboration who travels every other week to Tanzania, Japan, or the US.
Frankly, I am fascinated by the backgrounds of all my teachers. One other is a Frenchman working in an international organization (the European Union), like the teacher mentioned above. Then I have French PhD, an Italian PhD, a Turkish PhD, and a Russian PhD. Finally I have a former central bank deputy chief and a delightful French language instructor. I like them all, though — it was bound to happen — I do have one that is not a particularly skilled teacher. (He teaches math and financial analysis, and generally after he gives an explanation on the board we in the class have to whisper to each other until we find another student who understands the problem and can explain it to everyone else.) But my other teachers are eminently competent and I find myself enjoying almost every lecture despite the two-hour class length.
So it goes — Managing Globalization and horseback riding (for exercise) on Mondays, French on Tuesdays. On Wednesdays a class on US foreign relations and a class on Turkish history. Thursdays bring French again, then Quantitative Tools and (every other week) Financial Regulation. Finally, on Fridays I have International Trade and Political Economy of Development. By the time the last class ends at 4:45pm on Fridays, I am ready for the weekend. It is a delightfully full load.
Of course, there are other students in the classes, and I’ve had such a good time getting to know them. I met Salma in my first week, when we were both rushing around madly trying to arrange our residency permits. Her family left Syria after the beginning of the civil war, and she studied in Turkey before coming here. Fred is a BYU grad from Singapore who attends my LDS ward with his wife; he is a friendly soul and a math whiz. (The ward itself is fun too, with folks from Africa, Asia, America, and Europe.) Viktorie and I worked together in Lebanon, as teachers in the school for Syrian refugees. From the Czech Republic, she loves learning Arabic and has a mischievous streak. Sarah is from Boston; we were both hired recently to take notes for a conference on the Middle East and enjoyed our mad typing sessions tremendously. Denis, from Kenya, sits by me in Financial Regulation; Alexis, from France, gives me tips on how to survive in Paris. And so many more. I hoped for a diverse student body — still, I couldn’t have known how many good people I would meet.
Weekends have been, for the most part, full as well. I’ve already had three friends come into town — one I met while traveling in Jordan, two while I lived in Washington, DC. With them I have seen Versailles, the Père Lachaise cemetery, the Pantheon, and other lovely sites. I have gone out to see the city with new friends from the program. I have moved houses twice (finally settled in this beautiful studio). And I have spent some time just wandering the city alone, which has been lovely as well.
Two years is starting to feel like a very short time indeed. Too short. Not only for everything there is to see in Paris, in France, in Europe, but also for everything I want to do and learn. To become. These new acquaintances will hardly be friends before the end of the semester in May scatters us to the four winds. This beautiful new apartment will hardly be home before I have to abandon it again to a stranger. I treasure every moment already.