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Every summer a group of students from the City University of New York descends upon Paris, intent on finding out whether what they’ve heard is true.
Is it really true that the French are incredibly rude and arrogant?
Is it really true that they particularly hate Americans?
Is it really true that Paris is one of the most beautiful, romantic cities in the world???
They are my students and I consider it an important part of my mission (though not my primary charge) to help guide them in the process of trying to unravel the mystery of all those nasty things that have been said about the French while letting them discover for themselves all that is beautiful and wonderful about life in this magnificent city.
Considering some of the awful things they’ve heard, I sometimes think it’s a wonder that they decide to come here at all.
But I am very glad they do.
Some of them are driven by an inexplicably strong attraction to France, something that has been pulling them here from childhood. I understand this. (I was that way too.)
Others have come here out of sheer wanderlust, the desire to go anywhere, to just GET OUT of New York.
Some come because they have a passion for reading, or writing, or both, and the idea of studying literature written about Paris while exploring and discovering it for themselves is very appealing.
Others come because they think fulfilling an English literature requirement in Paris will probably be more fun than doing the same thing at home.
Whatever their reasons for coming, here are some of the things they learn while they are here.
They learn that the idea that there is a whole nation (or even a whole city) whose citizens are all anything (fill-in-the-blank-with-an-adjective-here) is preposterous. They learn that there are other ways to understand the phenomenon of French people and American people getting off on the wrong foot with each other; and that there are a few simple things Americans can do to turn a bad dynamic into a good one, or even better, to never have it go bad in the first place. (We turn to Polly Platt and the wonderfully helpful advice she gives in French or Foe? for guidance in this matter.)
They learn that one of the most valuable things anyone can learn when traveling abroad, is important truths about one’s own home, and how it is viewed in the world. They learn what great American writers like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin and Richard Wright have had to say about this. They read Edith Wharton and George Orwell and Jack Kerouac and Gertrude Stein, who said the problem with Americans was that “they don’t know the world is round.”
From all of these writers they learn important things about Paris, important things about America, and important things about themselves.
They also learn important things about literature: that it is not written primarily for the enjoyment of English majors, or literary scholars, or book reviewers and critics, but people. (Which of course includes all of the above.)
They learn that literature is written for people who want to find deeper meaning in their lives; for people who need guidance; for people who love the sound of words spoken aloud, and the beauty of complicated thoughts rendered with simplicity and truth. For people who are trying to achieve some kind of wisdom as they work their way through their lives.
And what do they learn about the French?
They learn that the French are fascinatingly different than Americans. That, like any other group of people on earth, the French are composed of approximately equal proportions of good, bad, and indifferent characters.
They learn that the relationship between the French and the Americans is much more accurately described as love/hate than either hate or love, and that the sentiment flows freely in two directions, kind of like in families, which is what we are, after all.
Aren’t we all just one big happy/unhappy, highly dysfunctional, wonderfully diverse human family?
They learn that the French have perfected something called l’art de vivre and that this art requires dealing with time differently than they have been taught how to do, growing up in America.
And they learn that this art is indeed “a moveable feast.” And that though it is unlikely to be adopted into American culture, bringing even small bits of this feast home can immeasurably enrich individual lives.
Lives that are lived henceforth just a bit more thoughtfully, a bit less hurried, with a bit more care taken to enjoy the exquisite rhythms of daily life—and to infuse a little more beauty into its mundane details.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches Paris: A Literary Adventure every summer, and Hawaii: A Literary Adventure every winter, for Queens College, CUNY. She also teaches spring and fall writing workshops in Essoyes, a wonderful little village in Champagne, two and a half hours from Paris. You can read more of her writing on her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road www.wingedword.wordpress.com and learn more about her classes at www.essoyesschool.com
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