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On October 31, the French government imposed a 6-week national lockdown in an effort to slow the spread of the Coronavirus. Considering the rapidly-increasing case count, the strict measures were absolutely necessary. However, since I was living alone in Paris at the time, this meant I would have to spend the next six weeks quarantined in my 12 x 12 foot apartment with no human interaction besides the cashier at the grocery store.
I was trying to mentally prepare myself for the isolation— and I was even considering returning to the US— when I received a call from a family friend who lives in Belgium. Having heard I was in Europe and realizing I would be quarantining alone, he offered to let me live with his family during the lockdown. So, 3 hours later, I had packed up my apartment in Paris and caught the last train for Brussels before the lockdown began.
My friends live in a renovated 150-year-old barn in the Belgian countryside about an hour from Brussels. While they live on a small plot of unfarmed land, their house is surrounded by independent farmers, and I frequently see tractors plowing crops outside my window.
I have found that the Belgian countryside is the ideal setting to spend a lockdown— farmland stretches for miles, and the rural culture provides little opportunity to catch the virus: for instance, instead of going to a crowded grocery store, we bike to a nearby farm for meat and eggs, and we buy bread from a bakery in a tiny local bakery which is almost always empty. I have especially enjoyed taking advantage of the outdoors during my time here, as the landscape is incredibly beautiful!
Additionally, while the house is far more isolated than my apartment in Paris, my French has improved during this time more than it ever would have had I remained in Paris, even if there hadn’t been a lockdown. The children in the family I am staying with speak only French, so I am constantly immersed in the language as I communicate with them.
Though this certainly wasn’t how I imagined my trip to Europe, it has been an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience, and I am so grateful that my friends have allowed me to stay with them during this time!
As an avid traveller and a French student of seven years, I have always dreamed of studying abroad in Paris. Though I knew that travelling during the coronavirus would make for a very different trip than I had imagined, I was nonetheless excited to take advantage of my free time this year and travel to France.
The first hurdle was to acquire permission to enter France. Under current conditions, all travel from the US to France is restricted except for French citizens and international students– luckily, I had plans to study in Paris, so I was eligible to apply for a student visa. After numerous interviews and months of securing plans for my stay, I was finally able to acquire my visa, which would allow me to stay in France while attending a 3-month course at Sorbonne University. In a year when seemingly all my plans had been modified or cancelled, I was exhilarated that my trip to Paris was at last coming to fruition.
I arrived in Paris 2 weeks before the start of my course at Sorbonne, so I had plenty of time to explore the city. I was surprised to find that in many ways, Paris is just as beautiful as depicted in books and movies. The quaint cobblestone streets are lined with identical, brightly-lit trees, and the distinctive 19th century architecture is sprinkled with thousands of neighborhood brasseries and bakeries. Even my apartment is the picture of a traditional Parisian “chambre de bonne”: a cozy room with a tiny bathroom, a kitchenette, a bed, shelves, and a table all crammed onto less than 15 square meters of creaky wooden floorboards.
In the first few days after my arrival, I set out to discover my immediate neighborhood. Central Paris is divided into 20 “arrondissements,” or neighborhoods, each of which possesses its own unique character. My apartment is in the northern corner of the 14th arrondissement, which is home of the Catacombs and Gare Montparnasse. I spent several days walking through the streets, exploring the local shops, parks, and patisseries until I developed the essential knowledge I would need to live alone in Paris– such as how to navigate the metro station, where to go if I felt unsafe at night, and which bakeries sold the best baguettes.
Once I felt comfortable navigating my immediate surroundings, I decided to explore the city’s most popular destinations. Due to the coronavirus, I was virtually the only tourist at each location, so it felt as if I had private access; the courtyard in front of the Eiffel tower was empty, there was no line to enter the Louvre or see the Mona Lisa, and I was the only visitor at the Pantheon. As a result, I had extra time to visit places that otherwise I would have missed. In fact, perhaps my favorite destination of all was a science museum on the edge of the city called the Cité des Sciences, which I only had visited because I was in the area and had spare time.
I feel so lucky to have been able to spend the month studying in Paris, and can’t wait to continue exploring the city!
I’m halfway through my semester in Paris (a sentence I can’t believe I’m typing–I feel like I just got here), and feeling more comfortable with my daily routine. I thought it would be interesting to walk you through an average week in my life.
Monday through Friday, I go to French class from 10-12 AM at the Sorbonne, one of the oldest universities in France. I wake up around 8:30AM, eat a quick breakfast if I’m not still half asleep, and walk to the nearest metro stop. I live in the Marais, an amazing historic and cultural hub of Paris, and I’m lucky to have 3 major metro lines right outside my door. I hop on to line 4, ride that for three stops, switch to line 1, ride that for eight stops, and walk to my classroom. The commute takes me around twenty minutes every morning, but with the infamous, relentless French strikes, sometimes it can be tricky to get from point A to point B.
In my 10AM class, I study French literature and grammar alongside 15 other students. I am one of the youngest in my class, and the only American. It’s been really interesting to learn a foreign language without having the ability to fall back on a shared dominant one. Since most people do not speak English in my class, when there is confusion about a French word or phrase, my teacher does not resort to simply translating said word/phrase into a different language. Instead, we get to work our way to understanding the problem at hand using our French, which has deepened my understanding of the language in an interesting new way. I am in a C1 level class (we took a placement test to determine our level), so most of the students are hoping to pass this class to obtain a certificate which will allow them to study in a French university for graduate school.
After class, I grab lunch with friends and then head to an afternoon activity organized by my gap program. Tuesdays and Thursdays we explore Paris in a group. The activities range from baking traditional French pastries, visiting the first street art museum housed on a boat, touring the Catacombs, and facilitating discussions on important cultural differences between France and the United States. One of my favorite activities so far has been going to a Drouot art auction, a multi-story building open to the public to attend the auction and bid on pieces of art.
After the hour long excursion, I typically grab another snack with friends and venture off with them to do our own exploring. I’ve gone to countless museums, thrift stores, canals, monuments, plays, etc. in my afternoons in Paris. One of my favorite parts of French culture is how culturally engaged French people are. It’s not abnormal to find a group of teenagers excitedly gathering in line to be the first at the opening night of an art exhibition, or to see bookstores brimming with people buying new books and chatting. It seems to me that learning is an integral part of the French way of life–particularly learning outside of the classroom–and that’s something I’ve strived to incorporate in my own life here.
I return home to my host mom’s apartment around 8PM. We’ll have dinner together, or I’ll cook for myself, or, more often than not, my host mom will spontaneously have an idea to go to a photography exhibition or comedy show and bring me along for the night. My host mom, Dominique, is amazing. She’s a TV producer and is very involved in the arts in Paris, which has been fascinating for me to learn more about.
On weekends, I’ll have long, delicious dinners with friends. We explore the city some more (Paris will never, ever get boring to walk around), and go to more museums/thrift store, etc. At nights, I’ve had so much fun connecting with other students through Erasmus, which is a European student exchange program that hosts events to help international students connect with locals ones. I’ve met people from all over the world, all walks of life, and find myself speaking French in the most unexpected places.
My weeks here have been busy and full of adventure, each one different from the next. It’s been exciting to develop a sort of routine–my metro commute, my go-to pastry shop, memorizing my French phone number–but equally exciting to be unrestrained by a tight schedule. I’m excited to see what the next few weeks hold!