It's Thursday evening and my French grammar class has just finished, bringing another week of classes to an end and marking the official beginning of spring break. I leave NYU Paris' terracotta brick campus that is perfectly proportional to the boxy dimensions of the city and walk out onto Rue de Passy.
It is still quite light given it's almost 7pm and so, while tossing around new phrases and difficult conjugations in my head, I stroll down to the closest Vélib station. If you ever needed any evidence that in Paris, fashion reigns over safety, look no further than the increasingly popular Vélib bike-share system. Helmets are little more than an ugly blotch on the well-styled landscape and thus are spared by most cyclists.
I take my bike and ride down to the Seine, passing the Eiffel Tower and the daily stampede of tourists each scrambling to take clichéd photos that will never quite capture the wonder of the scene. I keep my eyes fixed on both the road in front of me and the fleet of tiny vehicles that dart around like matchbox cars until I get a timely red light and find myself alongside the Louvre, lit by the glow of the setting sun.
The ride takes me 30 minutes. By the time I reach my street, Rue Oberkampf, the scenery has significantly changed. Where in Passy the cobblestone streets are lined with high-end boutiques and restaurants, Oberkampf is full of student bars, cafés, and eateries. Where the well-manicured walls of Passy are adorned by gigantic Dior perfume ads, Oberkampf is colored by provocative street art. Where in Passy the streets fill with busy shoppers during the day, it is in the early evening that Oberkampf begins to buzz with energy.
I leave my bike at a nearby station and grab a baguette from a boulangerie where I robotically utter, "une baguette, s'il vous plait," such is the regularity of my visits. Despite achieving more culinary disasters than successes, I optimistically assemble another creation in my kitchenette as the French news plays in the background. The newsreader rattles off names that, after a semester of French politics, are immediately familiar.
As classmates busily prepare trips to every corner of Europe, I look ahead to a weekend of lazy days exploring different corners of Paris. I think about what cheeses to buy from the Friday market down the road, about which vintage stores to raid in the Marais, and whether to grab an afternoon espresso on the left or right bank of the Seine.
While Abu Dhabi is truly a world away from the cobbled streets and baguette-dominated picnics of Paris, there are also little reminders of our adopted home.
In Paris, life doesn't feel rushed. Restaurants are crowded throughout the day, as lunch hour becomes lunch hours and park benches fill with people looking to soak in the early spring sunshine. As much as I have tried to devour Paris with the energy of a typical tourist, I can't resist this unhurried current. I find myself sitting in museums for hours, strolling through art exhibitions, or simply people watching from cafés, which is far more acceptable in practice than it may seem in writing.
After three months in Paris, my French has slowly improved. That being said, I'm still terrible at telling jokes in French and, more often than not, my words fall by the wayside as I clumsily mime my way through stories. In trying to communicate in French on a daily basis, I have come to realize the subtleties and immediacy of my own language that I take for granted. In turn, however, the success of managing to hold a conversation in French, or better still, tricking tourists into believing that I am Parisian, is all the more satisfying.
All but one of my classes are instructed in French, which is at times demanding after two years without formal instruction in the language. The classes vary from Art History to Political Science and each offers a window into French society and culture. Fashion and Power, for instance, is cleverly adapted to the culture of high fashion that thrives both on the streets and in some of the premier fashion houses and most innovative companies in the world. Readings for the class illuminate aspects of fashion that are easily notable on the streets, from Spanish fashion brand Zara's remarkable success in 'borrowing' ideas from major designers and reproducing them at half the cost, to the ever prominent legacy of Coco Chanel's revolutionary designs.
NYU Paris offers a wide range of programs and activities to complement the classes and help us better understand and relate to the city. Aside from weekend trips and organized outings to the theater or the opera, I audit a class at SciencePo, one of the most acclaimed political science universities in France, and participate in a language exchange with students from the University of Paris. France's dedication to cultivating its cultural and performing arts scene, especially among young people, is similarly remarkable. All students get free entry to museums and art galleries, and significant discounts everywhere else. The grassroots music scene is diverse and thriving, and on any given night, crowds from the bars around the city spill onto the streets.
While Abu Dhabi is truly a world away from the cobbled streets and baguette-dominated picnics of Paris, there are also little reminders of our adopted home. Remarks from Paris-Sorbonne students (like NYU, Paris-Sorbonne has a university campus in Abu Dhabi), the huge placard in the Louvre displaying the design for the Louvre-Abu Dhabi, or even an off-hand question about where I study, prompt long and affectionate stories about NYUAD and my fellow students.
As the end of semester approaches, the realization that life in Paris is not as timeless as it may feel sinks in. In these short months, favorite restaurants, quickest routes, cheapest cafés, best lookouts, most dependable wifi spots, and least-pretentious vintage stores have all been duly noted. More significantly, my mental map of Paris is highlighted by memories of encounters with strangers, lovers, and friends, and while they may not form the basis of our senior year Capstone Project, they might just get us through it. Then again, I've never come across an ethnographic study of Seine-side picnic-ers…