Growing up, I considered being French the closest thing I had to a cultural heritage. My maternal grandmother, with whom I spent a good deal of time with, was a first-generation French immigrant. She moved to America in 1955, she was 25, a widow with a baby. She did not know any English and did not know anyone upon arriving in Kentucky. Her life at that point, had seen the Vichy regime takeover Paris, she had seen her mother die of tuberculosis, and lost her husband all before turning 25. She learned to be courageous during the war, where she lived with nuns. She is still as ferocious, stubborn, and fierce as ever. She is religious, she is persistent, and she is independent. At 90 years old, she still does not let anyone help her with her laundry.
She taught me basic French words as a child (I was inquisitive and begged her to teach me anything): Bonjour, Au revoir, various colors and animals and numbers. We baked madeleines for class projects, we watched documentaries on Napoleon and Marie Antoinette, we celebrated Bastille Day with her Alliance Française friends. I sought a connection to my heritage, a way to connect to the past as well as the present. Even at a young age, this was something I yearned for. It became a way for me to learn about my grandmother’s childhood, as well as learn how life was before she was born. I took French classes for 7 years, I took history of France as well as African colonialism in college, I studied ballet, and I watched famous French films. I was in love with everything about French culture, and I dreamed of one day traveling to see it with my own eyes.
However, France always seemed out of reach, due to cost of flights/hotels/trains/food/etc. It never seemed attainable to me, growing up in a low income household. I have worked hard to travel and see the world in my own way. After becoming a travel agent, I finally had access to essential travel deals. I found a flight for basically 50% off and booked my trip!
Once I arrived in Paris, things seemed to just fall into place. I saw for my own eyes, Napoleon III architecture, the open roads, the glass skylights, intricate buildings, etc. Gothic, baroque, neoclassical, and art deco all mesh to create a beautiful, unique city. Every nook and cranny has its own story to tell. Some buildings managed to survive 2 world wars, some are restored, and some are inspired by others. Growing up in Kentucky, it was truly eye opening to see a city that has seen so much history! The oldest building, I have seen in America, is the US Capitol building (built in 1800). The majority of Parisian buildings are much older than this.
Throughout the week, I felt little pangs of pride rush through me, as I saw important monuments my grandma had a personal connection to. There is a cognitive dissonance to being in a place that seems both deeply familiar and deeply foreign. I felt like I had walked these streets before, I felt as if I already knew which direction to walk. There was a sense of familiarity, even though I had never been here before. It is, as if, it is in my DNA to be in Paris! The smell of the city and the quick hustle and bustle of the locals felt familiar. Eating at cafes, buying bread and wine at the market, and taking the subway were small moments that felt very significant for me.
Listening to everyone speak a language I had studied and practiced for so long was so exciting yet terrifying! French was a little bit harder to speak than expected because Parisians speak quickly and in slang. I held my own, even if it was embarrassing at times. The faces of the people we encountered were the faces of my family: sharp cheekbones, and dark eyebrows. The names on businesses, street signs, and gravestones—Delandre, LaCroix, Dominique, Commarieu, Boucher—are the names of my grandmother, her grandparents, and their grandparents.
We walked to Notre Dame (still under construction), where my great-great-grandmother had her funeral, and where my grandmother was baptized. We visited my grandmother’s old apartment building in the 12th arrondissement, where my family found out the Nazis had occupied Paris, where my great grandmother died, and where my grandma had to grow up quickly. This is where my grandmother’s childhood ended. The 4th floor apartment, where my great grandfather painted a mural for my grandma as a baby. Everywhere I walked, I thought, “I wonder if she took this route to get to her job, or to meet up with friends.” Walking through the streets my grandma’s family had lived, since at least the 1700s is very powerful.
If I had to choose my favorite aspects of Parisian life, it would be as follows:
I have learned a lot about the French revolutions and have always been fascinated with all the progression of the movements. The people of France were fed up with the monarchy, and united together. I read Les Miserables in English and French and was enthralled with the sense of community and unity that came from the political divide. I love history, and I love finding connections with the past and present. So, for me, seeing the protests, was seeing Paris wholly. History repeats itself, and the Parisians know this. The government has also been very open to change and has therefore changed their constitution and government structure through time. The revolutions are to thank, as they allowed for the upheaval of the monarchy! While we were there, we saw protests fighting for clean energy for future generations. A few weeks after we left, there were protests fighting for workers rights in the transportation sector. The subway nearly completely halted for more than 2 weeks! The power of protest is alive in Paris, and hopefully always will be. I think it is inspiring for Americans to see, we should never give up!
The Louvre is absolutely massive, so going into it, I knew which sections I wanted to prioritize. Because of my deep interest in French politics, I had to see La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple (Liberty Guiding the People) by Eugene Delacroix.
The Paris uprising of July 27- 29, 1830, known as the Trois Glorieuses, was initiated by the liberals for violation of the Constitution by the Second Restoration government. Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France, was overthrown and replaced by Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans. The painting accurately portrays the chaos of this 3 day urban conflict. Notre Dame, perhaps the defining architectural monument of Paris can be clearly seen on the very right side!
Delacroix wrote, “I have undertaken a modern subject, a barricade, and although I may not have fought for my country, at least I shall have painted for her. It has restored my good spirits.” Delacroix completed what has become both a defining image of French romanticism and one of the most enduring modern images of the revolution.
I took an Art History class in college which centered on neoclassic and romantic art, and it was my favorite painting by-far! It is iconic and can be seen in multiple facets of pop culture, e.g. Coldplay album cover for Viva La Vida. Victor Hugo may have been inspired to write Les Miserables because of this very painting. Gavroche, the young boy in the novel, is said to resemble the young boy holding a pistol next to Liberty. Delacroix’s historical and political painting bears witness to the death of the Ancien Régime!
We took the metro everywhere, which was easy and accessible even for a non-French speaker! It is color coded, so it is fun and simple enough to pick up after the first ride. I loved the subway, as it reminded me of my time in DC, but also felt like I was living as a local for the week. Just like my grandma, I hate driving and would much rather sit and read a book on a train car than pay attention to streetlights.
We took the TGV to Nice. We rode 6 hours, through Marseilles, Toulouse, Lyon, etc. We saw the countryside, while eating croque monsieurs. I always dreamt of taking the train through France. When the Nazis invaded Paris, my grandma took the train to Toulouse to stay with her cousins. She would later take the train back and forth until moving to America. She would kiss her old lover’s goodbye before being whisked away! She loved the train, she loved watching the towns rush by, and it is one of the things she has always missed most about France.
The streets of Paris live in me like a memory. I see them in my brother, who loves living in the city (NYC). I see them in my mother as well, even though she has only visited once before. I see them in her need to be in the city, while also being close enough to nature when life becomes stressful. We love a nice urban park! My grandma’s love for metropolitan life has been something I have always loved as well. I loved living in DC, because I somehow felt it was close enough to being in Paris while being in the United States. Being in Paris, surrounded by the architecture, historic parks, and numerous protests, felt like coming home.
Yet I am still an outsider, set apart as much by my American sized body and my bright colored clothes (everyone in Paris wears black lol). The faces that look so familiar to me stare back with vague confusion and mild suspicion— “Why are you looking at me in awe?” their eyebrows say. I am just excited to be here! Every moment in France is magical. Paris, je t’aime!