The books mount in polyglot piles: Russian, French, Spanish, and English all in one stack, representing different strata in his miraculous brain. A layer for each new country in his journey. — The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver
Yesterday morning in Florence while Marissa was in class, I set off to conquer the Campanile Tower. All the signs at the entrance warned that the climb was particularly strenuous— that scaling 412 steps was not necessarily a good idea for everyone. (I almost laughed when I thought of the grand fear of heights exhibited by my [almost birthday girl] mother who wouldn’t have even looked at the tower.) Pish posh, lame sauce, spaghetti. I was climbing those stairs. It was indeed harder than I had expected, in spite of my daily practice of schlepping up the six flights to my Parisian apartment. But have no fear Anika/Linda, this dynamic stretching cheerleader made it up to the top in style. (In a KKG sweatshirt + tshirt, thanks to my favorite Kappas Marissa and Sarah)
But the climb itself paled in comparison to the distance I felt I’d come upon my completion of the stairs. Every step I had taken was a moment to remind me of where I was coming from. Most immediately was the beautiful city of Firenze, with my incredible friends Marissa and Sarah and the best pizza and gelato I’ve ever mange’d. Before that was an unforgettable week with some of my favorite people in the world in the most beautiful city in the universe. Each window in the tower cast light into the stairwell, reminding me of how unbelievably lucky I am, even when I feel like it’s an uphill climb.
And then I reached the top, and the city of Florence was below me. Distant snow-capped mountains framed the terracotta houses baking in the sun, and Tuscan trees jutted out along the landscape as if to remind viewers that this city is in a region equally renowned for its natural beauty. People snapped photos of the scene below to my left and right, and I couldn’t help but wonder (perfect Carrie Bradshaw line): What is our fascination with climbing high above a city to be able to look down on it?
Atop the Eiffel Tower at Age 15.
From New York, to Seattle, to Saint Petersburg, to Paris, and now to Florence, this is a process I personally have participated in countless times. But to what end? What is the appeal? Perhaps it is a way for us to put things into a more manageable perspective; even though cities are aproduct of the men and women who made them, it is easy to feel small and overwhelmed while existing within one. But in the name of the impending end to this abroad experience, I couldn’t help but think about it in a more introspective way. I think that part of our interest in looking down on a place is seeing it all laid out in front of us. We want a holistic view of the place we’ve fallen in love with, the place we’ve always read about, or in my case in Paris, the place we’ve grown up. Sometimes the experiences we have feel too big to understand until we are looking back on them. We cherish photos and anecdotes of trips, events, and relationships so we can have a more tangible way to look back and remember.
There, with three weeks left as part of the Wesleyan Vassar Program in Paris, on top of the Campanile Tower, I considered how to begin looking back and saying goodbye to the life-changing momentsthat are now behind me. And even those moments that were just the everyday normalcies that often go overlooked— the small things that came to define my short-lived time as a Parisian? How will I say goodbye to the physical locations— the Pont Neuf, where I watched movies being filmed while doing reading for class, the Boulevard Saint-Germain where I would meander on rainy days, the Louvre which played backdrop to my Parisian runs, the Seine by which I learned to orient myself in this sometimes overwhelming city— places that have truly become comforting and homey to me? But also, how will I bid adieu to the five months during which all this magic lay just beyond my door?
I have never been good at goodbyes. (remember? http://hannahblogsparis.tumblr.com/post/905582174/parting-is-such-sweet-sorrow) But I feel stronger as I begin this enormous farewell because this time, more so than any trip or photographable event in my past, I know that what I’m bringing back to commemorate my trip is more valuable and infinitely more durable than ever before. It is the lessons I’ve learned during my time in France, and the person I’ve become during my semester abroad, that will always be a reminder of this experience. And don’t worry, mom, you won’t need to go to great heights to be able to see this.
Love from Paris,
P.S. See some of what I’ve done this semester: http://hannahblogsparis.tumblr.com/archive
I never thought I would go to Germany. Years and years of Holocaust movies and stories garnished by countless Holocaust nightmares always came to mind at every opportunity possible- whether learning the word “allemand” in French class or discussing my father’s business trip to Frankfurt Reminders of “the Shoah” are even more ubiquitous here in Europe. I guess I should have expected this, as most of the cities I’ve visited this semester were directly involved. I don’t know if I’ve passed a single day here since my arrival without hearing a reference to World War II. I have consciously tried to avoid Holocaust-central works, because I don’t want to have to think about the potential familial culpability of every older French person I sit next to on the metro. But last week, of course right before my trip to Berlin, my host dad lent me his copy of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust comic series “MAUS,” and I couldn’t put it down. Of course, I did feel awkward at times sitting on the metro holding a book with a giant swastika on the front. I decided it would be wise to not bring the book with me to Berlin, both for how it would look to the people around me and for how it might make me look at them.
It didn’t really hit me that we were in Germany until I woke up to the stewardess welcoming us to “Deutscheland” in that harsh language I’ve always dreaded. I put my guard up immediately- in “MAUS,” the Germans are represented by evil-looking felines. I was practically ready to see the whiskers on their face.
Well-preserved pre-war street.
The first obstacle every trip I take is getting from the airport to the real city to the hotel. Ali* and I gaped open-mouthed at the map, trying to figure out where to catch such-and-such bus to such-and-such metro line at such-and-such metro stop. Immediately, seeing our confusion, a woman working at the airport approached us. With a smile and a heavy German accent, she asked us where we were trying to go and if she could help us. I was shocked at how friendly and eager to help she was- yes, it was her job, but I’ve gotten so used to the treatment of Parisians that this seemed particularly out of the ordinary. And yet this behavior continued throughout our weekend in Berlin: every time we stood on a street corner, trying to make sense of one of the the 10 maps we’d brought with us, a friendly German seemed to pop out of nowhere to send us on our way. (Of course, one time I sneezed on a bus and an old German woman shoo’d me- I had to actively suppress the visions that began swarming my head of her parents as evil cats…)
Brandenburg Gate, emblem of Berlin.
Berlin was not beautiful. The architecture doesn’t match and is often garish and dark. The city is sprawling and it takes a long time to get from one side to the other, not to mention the fact that there is a major lack of directive signs, which proved highly frustrating when we were trying to get places on time. But Berlin is the first city I’ve left while daydreaming about what I would do there during my next visit. It truly is the next up-and-coming city; the neighborhood we stayed in, Mitte (means middle in German), was bustling with new restaurants, funky bars, innovative art galleries, and countless high-fashion clothing boutiques. Thanks to Kalen for the recommendation and showing us around! The area reminded me of the village, minus the charming brownstones à la Carrie Bradshaw (I figured it was about time I used an SATC reference- approval, Becca?) Most of Mitte was under the communist leadership of East Berlin up until 1990 and yet today it is the most hip neighborhood of the city. I have great hope for what Berlin will continue to become within the next ten years.
Mr. Gorbachev, thank you for not tearing down the whole wall.
Ali and I compromised on museum choice, between historical and artistic. We ended up seeing a nice mix: the Modern Art Museum, German History Museum, Gay Museum, Jewish Museum, and some wacky but pretty awesome art show in our neighborhood. At the German History Museum, we decided to brave the controversial Hitler exposition. I was interested in the relics from Hitler’s beginnings, but when I got to the section about the actual Holocaust, the graphic images proved too much for me and I had to leave. The guard almost yelled at me for leaving too brusquely or something, but I think she stopped herself when she saw how green my face was turning. I was glad to get some typical German food after that, although I can’t say it helped too much with the nausea factor. Don’t come to Germany for the food.
At least it was better than Czech food.
Our last day in Berlin, we took the 4-hour free tour. I HIGHLY recommend taking free tours if you travel to any of these cities- this was my second one and I am absolutely convinced it’s the best way to start seeing the city. Our tour guide began with the claim that Berlin has been the most important city in the world, historically speaking, since the 1930s. After visiting an enormous amount of famous sites (including the Brandenburg Gate, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, remnants of the Berlin Wall, the re-created Checkpoint Charlie, the site of Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide, the site of the Nazi book burning in 1939, and an old Nazi building turned socialist building being used today by the new Berlin government), it was easy to believe the Berlin-centric statement made by our tour guide. The only other time I’ve felt a similar sense of historical significance was during our time spent with Russian Professor Sirge in Saint Petersburg. Every step I took, I found myself thinking not only about the influential people who had walked there before me, but also the influence of world history experienced by the ordinary people who had walked there too. The magnitude of Berlin’s history is nearly tangible, and it is precisely what renders this city an indispensable visit for anyone with any interest in world affairs. I have no doubt that someday I will return to Berlin.
Peter Eisenman’s genius: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Now I’m back in Paris for the longest stretch since mid October. In other words, I don’t leave again till November 26. Which doesn’t seem like much time until I consider the fact that Tucci (!) is flying in this Saturday and we have a whole week together in what is by far my favorite European city. Home sweet Paris.
*Name has been changed as per requested.
Rachel Brody is one of those people who has made my semester here in Paris so incredible. (Thanks to Mer Gabriel for the introduction) Of course, I was slightly mad at her for withholding her blog from me for so long, but now that I have access and have spent a good portion of my procrastination time (no I have not figured out how to say this in French) laughing my tucchus off at her blog, I figured I’d share her rendition of my favorite night thus far in Paris.
Friday was rather interesting. See, Hannah, the friend I had met for coffee, and I had decided that Friday would be the perfect day to visit Giverny, the site of Monet’s garden and home about 45 minutes outside of Paris. How wrong we were. After waiting an hour on line at the SNCF ticket counter, we were told the next train to Giverny would not be for another 3 hours and by that time, the museum would be closed. THE GRÈVE STRIKES AGAIN!! We should have realized the ominous quality of the train workers marching in the station. So we bought our tickets for Saturday (ok, not the biggest loss) and headed home.
Saturday was Giverny. The weather held for the most part, minus some light rain here and there. The gardens are beautiful, even at this time of year. I’m sure they’re outstanding in the spring and summer, but the benefit of going now was the minimal amount of tourists. Rather than shuffle through the place, I could take all the time I wanted to wander aimlessly, just the way Monet had experienced it. After returning home, I took a quick nap, had a bite to eat, and met up once more with Hannah and some new friends for the evening’s festivities.
Hannah basically has the coolest host family ever. Both her host parents work in the press and thus have free access to some of the coolest events in and around Paris, including tickets to Nuit Curieuse, an “arts festival” about 30 minutes by train from Paris. I’m guessing they gave the tickets to Hannah because they couldn’t attend, but what luck for me. The festival included art installations like modern video art, photography, a series of music boxes that triggered letters to shuffle around on a computer screen, and a shadow puppet theater for public use. And that’s just the normal art stuff. To view the various short films on display, one could take a dip in the public hot tubs complete with free bathing suit rental (flip flops, towel, and bathrobe included) or lounge in blue and white striped beach chairs, each with its own flannel blanket. If you felt the urge to, I don’t know, have a haircut or massage, there were stations for those things too. Two euro plastic cup of boxed wine? Don’t mind if I do. Take in a 3D electronica concert based on geometry? I’m there. Free burlesque show? Sounds good to me. Oh, I forgot to add that this was all on a farm. Oh, and I also forgot to add that it kind of looked like a Halloween party so Hannah and I were inspired to become flannel blanket ghosts and run around scaring artsy French people. Things were winding down at this point. To sum up: the strangest and most amazing night of my life. Oh, one last thing. We almost stole the band’s ride home. Oops! Good thing they snagged it before we did… even though they had called for it in advance.