In my typical fashion, I got on the bus from Tampere to Helsinki-Vantaa Airport at 2:20am on Friday night to catch my early morning flight. The early morning flights are made a lot easier by the fact that I’m rather adept at falling asleep on the airplane. Before I slept on my way to Copenhagen and then Paris, a stranger came up to me at the airport to tell me he recognised me from YEM UK videos and to say thanks for my work with the organisation. Nice blend of last year and the upcoming one to hear that right before boarding my flight!
Saturday: Sweating with suitcases, language immersion and cake
As I got to Paris, I had a mission at hand. I don’t have my flat yet for this year, as the contract only starts from next Friday – however, a kind fellow JEF member who is away promised that I could stay in his flat until my contract starts. I had to pick up the key from another person; however, because the communication about this happened at the last minute, it was only when I arrived at the flat that I heard that in fact the key had been given to someone else. The person lived 20 minutes away by taxi, and an hour away by public transport.
Mind you, I was wearing five layers of clothes on a warm summer day, and I had three suitcases and a heavy backpack with me. The flat was in the seventh floor, behind two coded doors, but I was getting conflicting advice from locals as to whether it would be safe to leave my suitcases in front of the flat door while I get the key. There was no way I could have taken the suitcases with me for public transport, and at the same time ordering a taxi without first giving your card details (which I was scared to do over a roaming connection, a fear that further research afterwards proved unfounded) didn’t work out. The person with the key couldn’t come to see me either.
Finally, the person living in the flat told me it’s okay to leave the suitcases in front of the door. There’s no lift to the flat, so I carried the suitcases upstairs one by one. There’s 104 stairs along the way if I got it right, so I did over 300 stairs’ worth of training. After that, all sweaty, I went to get the tram to get the key.
The story had a happy ending – I got the key and made it to the flat so that I could also join for the JEF Sciences Po welcome picnic that was taking place in the afternoon.
It was nice to join the picnic, organised by Maria from JEF Sciences Po who herself had only arrived in Paris the same day, too (we messaged each other at 4:30 in the morning and were mutually surprised to get an immediate reply at that hour). There were familiar faces there, and my French skills didn’t disintegrate in a real-life setting – there were awkward moments, but I also was able to have discussions like a normal person.
The location wasn’t bad either, as the picnic was at Champ de Mars right by the Eiffel Tower. It couldn’t get much more Parisian than that, could it?
Sunday: Walking tour of French modern history
After sleeping for 12 hours, I woke up to go see Skylar in Jussieu (she was asking me if the place was named after me) and have lunch. She is on the paying Welcome Programme of the university that features city tours, getting to know other exchange students, and introductions university life in Paris. She had brought a couple of friends over from there, and at least one of them may be taking some of the same courses with me.
After lunch, my plan was to go to the Sciences Po building to enjoy from the wifi connection (there’s no wifi in the flat where I’m staying) and do some work, but the building was locked. The forced holiday was well spent on a long walking tour of Paris, stretching over a route of several kilometres. I had already seen Panthéon on my way to Sciences Po, and now I went to see Assemblée Nationale, Place de la Concorde, Louvre and L’Arc de Triomphe. Lots of Greek-inspired architecture, long avenues and large open areas on that route! The Greek architecture, and the Roman-style sculptures on L’Arc de Triomphe weren’t the only reminders that France is tied into the broader European framework; the European flags flying on several streets were a reminder of France’s European present.
Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle were probably the two individuals one was reminded of most often on the walk. Plaques for fallen Resistance fighters in World War II were there to be seen in different street corners, and Charles de Gaulle’s Appeal of 18 June was the biggest plaque on the pavement inside L’Arc de Triomphe. My first-year French course in Edinburgh looked into the “myth of Resistance” – looking around in the touristy area of Paris certainly showed that the official France is proud of the Resistance and potentially overplays it, but then again, who wouldn’t if they were in their position?
As for Napoleon, L’Arc de Triomphe of course was first built to celebrate the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The walk from L’Arc de Triomphe to Eiffel Tower (the direction of my current flat) passed by Avenue d’Iéna, named after Napoleon’s victory there. Napoleon lived 200 years ago – I wonder if there will ever be a time when streets are no longer named after his victories. If monuments, plaques and textbooks are the way to conserve history, how does it get forgotten?
Special mention goes to the Simone Veil memorial at Panthéon. If pre-1945 history is remembered through mighty military chiefs and an Egyptian obelisk, the most visible “lieu de mémoire” from post-WWII history was dedicated to a woman who fought for gender equality and for a united Europe. It’s also noteworthy that a building inscribed with the text “Aux grands hommes la patrie réconnaissante”, was now a memorial for Simone Veil. 21st century patriotism doesn’t have to look like 19th or 20th century patriotism!