A semester in Paris with Sweet Briar

David McElrath
JYF Sweet Briar
Paris, France 2018

I was asked this week to write about my commute to and from my classes during the week. To be honest, I was (and still am) not entirely sure where to begin – and I think the confusion stems from the fact that my commute is never the same any given day. Now, there are a few reasons for this. The first is this: there are always at least two ways to get to any given destination (thus, an enormous variety of routes to explore). Personally, I have always preferred to avoid the more crowded stations in favor of more reliably roomy transportation, though this is not always an option. Some routes are quite scenic, including overlooks of various parts of the city, though often you are treated only to an identical sequence of grimy platforms. Beyond one’s preference of route, you also have to account for the endless variety of people one is likely to encounter in Paris’s unnaturally warm, labyrinthine tunnels. It is hard to imagine the many, many thousands of individuals that cross paths down there each and every day. One never knows if the next train will seat you next to a wealthy businessman, on his way to some important engagement, or across from a homeless musician, playing out his heart on an old, worn accordion before a captive audience. Though, in a sense, commuters are hardly captive. Easily two thirds of the occupants of any metro are thoroughly engaged with a private performance of some kind, made possible by a wide variety of earbuds, headphones, and what have you. Indeed, seeing people having a conversation on the dirty, rugged trains is rarer than seeing a 10-piece string ensemble playing jazz at an interchange (which I have seen – no picture unfortunately). And, to a degree, the companionable silence of the metro makes sense. We are all strangers on our own journeys – forced by chance and necessity to inhabit the same squeaking, soiled carriage for a few minutes before never seeing each other again. Why invest in those around you when the escape of your favorite music is literally a button press away? Why not distance yourself from the flow, observe and reflect, and go on your happy way when the train stops moving?
If you can’t tell, I’m challenging myself with these questions. Unpacking my nearly unconscious decision to shut out the real world for one of my own choosing when I can. I can’t say now whether I will follow up on the conviction that I should at least try to start up a conversation or two. I honestly can’t say at this moment if I will, or if I will retain the precious time I have to myself on my longer rides to read, to relax, to escape to someplace more familiar than the dark passages spreading like arteries beneath an ancient city above. Perhaps I am simply waiting for the right moment, the right stranger to talk to. However, if that is the case, I might be waiting indefinitely. Still, time is on my side, for the moment.

A semester in Paris with Sweet Briar

David McElrath
JYF Sweet Briar
Paris, France 2018

These last two weeks have flown past in a nearly uninterrupted flow of lessons, experiences, and memories made with new friends, at new places, and with new adventures each day. Our extended orientation weeks have given us, as a group, time to get to know one another and our respective host families here in Paris. Last weekend, we took a group trip down to the Loire river valley, enjoying an extended look at the plains of France’s heartland. While there, we visited three different royal palaces, each with its own unique history, architectural style and artistic design. Chenonceau, featured right, offered an opulent view over the calm waters of the Loir river.

Arriving in Paris, I now begin to realize how much I had acclimated to the calmer pace of life we enjoy in such isolated areas as Farmville. To be sure, I have enjoyed being back in an ever moving, ever changing city-scape – I simply find myself fondly remembering cool, breezy days walking the Wilson Trail after a long day. It is hard to find anything quite so peaceful here, as even the calmest moments still teem with attention-grabbing details. Still, I have found ways to relax apart from the frenetic day-to-day activity of the City. Just this last Saturday, I (and a few others) visited the Musée d’Orsay – a veritable trove of famous and stunning art pieces from all over the world. Even the view from one of the upper floors of the museum was incredible. Before such famous and intricate works of art, one could not help but feel a little more relaxed about the future.

Looking thru the clocktower from inside of the Orsay Museum.

 

View near the study abroad center.

Each week brings with it a new variety of opportunities. Chances to experience new and incredible things, but also new challenges. We truly are living in a different culture, with different values, habits, and most obviously, language. One of the most humbling things about my time here is how it has showcased how much I have yet to learn to be able to express my thoughts to others in another language. And while I have several months here to begin to address that problem, I begin to think that time will run quicker than I expect it to. Despite this dour thought, I look forward to the coming days and weeks as my chosen classes commence and my routine for this semester finally emerges.