Story by Gabriela Bentham-Garcia, Global Co-op⎜Photo by Silvia Diaz
We all have romantic visions of studies abroad; meeting interesting people, eating exotic cuisine, and traveling where maps and GPS’s are stumped. I had a similar vision of what my semester in Paris would be like: four months of crêpes, croissants, cathedrals, Courbets and saunters along the Seine. Paris is the epitome of picturesque, and its privileged status in the areas of fashion, cuisine, art, and culture are rivaled by few.
By some sort of miracle, I managed to secure an apartment in the 1st arrondissement, right in the center of Paris. I was eight minutes from the Louvre, three from the Musée de l’Orangerie and a mere twenty-five to my university, Sciences Po. I did my best to speak in French and ask for local tips and recommendations. I was lucky in so many ways, and it became easy to lose myself in the many pastry shops, cafés, and museums. And that was how the story went for the first three months.
November came and I went on a trip to Normandy and Bretagne with an Erasmus travel group. We were delayed both leaving and returning by boisterous crowds wearing yellow vests who were blocking the roads and choosing who may pass. At that moment, I didn’t know much about who they were or what they wanted. Frankly, I was mostly annoyed at the delays these groups were causing us. The next Saturday, however, they swarmed the streets of Paris. I hosted a Friendsgiving at my apartment and we could hear the scuffles and see the smoke from our windows. But it was the next weekend that things really took a turn for the worse.
Instead of watching it on TV, I was leaning out of my window, witnessing protestors set fire to the streets, burn cars, and break into stores. I was trapped in my apartment with tear gas seeping in through the windows. Suddenly, my well-situated flat morphed into the complete opposite of an ideal location. As a student of International Affairs and International Security, it was fascinating to witness these historical moments, filled with passion and fueled by outrage. I was, in the very meaning of the phrase, living history. However, as a 20-year-old woman, it was frightening. Despite trying to avoid it, those images and experiences changed how I navigated Paris the last few weeks.
This movement projected a very powerful message, but one that was at many times corrupted by acts of violence. The movement grew and grew, even spreading to other countries throughout the European Union, countries plagued with similar problems and who were quick to latch onto the momentum. This exemplifies the relatability of the struggles they express and the reason why it became impossible for the government to ignore. Unfortunately, it only takes a few to spark violence, and throughout the many Saturdays it became increasingly harder to concentrate on the core message of the self-proclaimed Yellow Jackets, or “Gilets Jaunes”. It altered the course of the end of my study abroad, and I found myself eager to leave when exams ended.
Even though this series of events was in some ways so shocking to me, it helped to remind me that I am not immune to domestic politics when I embark on these idealistic adventures. They give us insight into how different peoples address discontent and express frustration, while simultaneously teaching us about the current social, political, and economic environment of a country. Learning this is the authentic lesson of studying abroad, and the process involves rolling up your sleeves to take part in both the pretty and the ugly. In the moment, it is hard to understand all of these things, but reflection helped me to appreciate every event that contributed to my understanding of the French people, culture, and current social climate.
In many ways, I seem to be chasing protests and social unrest. I went straight from the Yellow Jacket, fury-filled streets of Paris to the frenzy of Brexit in London. I don’t know if you could characterize the decision as reckless or purposeful; it may be a bit of both. But the complexities of these issues are many times overlooked by foreigners, or cherry-picked by news sources. I continue to try to gain a deep and multidimensional understanding of them through my daily, experiential “history classes”, but I know that I have only begun to scratch the surface.