A Quotable Feast: Understanding Paris by Word of Mouth

Russell Willoughby is a student at University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa and an ISA Featured Blogger. Russell is currently studying abroad with ISA in Paris, France.

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Preparing to live in a city that remains—for so many people, spanning so many periods—a paradigm of glamour, culture, exploration, and belonging is, most days, incredibly daunting. There’s just something about Paris: a world capital that was both a haven for the intellectual bohemian set of the 1920s and a beacon of couture, the city somehow seems to revel in dichotomies, while transcending them. Like most good (read: cliché) wanna-be ex-pats, I’ve spent many hours devouring the literature, films, philosophy, and language of the French. Yet, try as I might, I will never be able to fully remove my Americanness in favor of a haute couture French identity, even after spending two semesters en France. And I don’t want to! So, right now, I’m still sitting at home in pre-departure limbo, counting down the days until I leave (10.5!), while all of my friends are back at school, already preparing for midterms. In the meantime, I’m turning to the words and wisdom of fellow expatriates as a sort-of cheat sheet on how to reconcile my love for “home” and my eagerness to arrive in the city of lights and love.

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” Ernest Hemmingway

 Ah, let’s start with the classic—the gold standard by which every future American-in-Paris’s writing shall be judged (and, ultimately, dwarfed). Though I may not get the next great American novel out of my time in Paris, I still like to think that my experience will be just as meaningful and unique as Ernie’s (don’t we all?) For one thing, the preponderance of the lucky young women in study abroad programs certainly applies some tension to Hemmingway’s assertion. Accusations of misogyny aside, I’m staking a lot of faith on this whole “moveable feast” idea. As scared as I am to leave behind the comfort of my friends, my home-university campus, and easily-obtained Mexican food, the opportunity to spend a year in a city so idealized as Paris trumps all anxiety. Romanticized notions or no, it makes me feel better to know that amidst all of the uncertainties that my future holds—geographically or otherwise—I will always have Paris.

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Oscar Wilde’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery

When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” Oscar Wilde

(N.B. I’ve seen this attributed to both Wilde and American writer Thomas Gold Appleton. Because my extensive research–a.k.a. Cursory Google search–has yielded no clear author, I’m going to claim creative license and give this one to the Irish gent we all know/love/were forced to read in Lit class)

Preceding those fame-hogging lost generation writers by a solid few decades, controversial wit Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin and first left his homeland for London in the 1880s. Though he initially found success and society as a playwright and sometimes-philosopher in Britain, his name and fame were dragged through the mud in a series of trials in the 1890s aimed at the nature of his personal relationships. After serving a two-year sentence of hard labor, Wilde fled from this inhospitable land to France, allured, presumably, by the promises of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. While this quote doesn’t exactly set my existential wheels a-turnin’ I love it all the more for its unapologetic pithiness. I feel that even in my most bedraggled stages of homesickness (which, as everyone tells me, are inevitable), I can cling to this little nugget of smug humor and remind myself, “Hey, Oscar Wilde thinks I’m right where I belong—so it must be true!”

“You can’t escape the past in Paris, and yet what’s so wonderful about it is that the past and present intermingle so intangibly that it doesn’t seem to burden.” Allen Ginsberg

I know that relying on the advice of a Beat poet is always somewhat of a gamble, but I like to think that Allen knows what’s up. Or, if he doesn’t, he sure makes it sound lovely anyway. I think a lot of people grapple with this idea of “escape” when deciding whether or not to go abroad. For me, at least, there were strange and unclear feelings of guilt associated with the decision to, well, essentially say “peace out” to America for a year. Especially born and raised in the American South, I thought I would be perceived as shirking my roots, my past, in favor of greener pastures. Finally, I realized this was not the case. I wasn’t making my decision so that I could run away from anything; rather, I wanted to immerse in a different culture, so that I might gain a different perspective on living that I could bring back with me to the States. While Ginsberg may be talking about the “past” more in terms of art, politics, war, I like to believe he means our own individual past, too. That, ultimately, even if we are 4,000 miles from home, we are confronted with exactly that which we are hoping to distance ourselves from, and this is the first step in understanding what a freeing experience such awareness can be.

One thought

  1. I went to Angers, France with ISA in 1998 and the experience changed me forever. You are absolutely right that as much as study abroad helps us learn about other cultures, it ultimately teaches us even more about ourselves. Bon courage pour la suite!

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