Story and photos by Lauren Goldberg
Growing up in the United States, I always pondered what my life would have been like had my parents never tested their luck in the Green Card lottery, expatriating us from France. Going back for summer breaks to visit my family, not only meant making up for lost time but also savoring the city’s proclivity for elegance and happiness. The sheer amount of professionals and young adults gathered on brasserie terrasses was captivating, and I desperately wanted to join the atmospheric gaiety and laughter that drowned out the subtle French music emanating from the restaurant. Studying at Sciences Po gave me the opportunity to live in Paris once again, a chance I couldn’t dare dismiss. In these four months, I hoped to cross into a parallel dimension of my life, if, only for a brief period, I could have a small taste of what could have been.
I hoped to find the pre-pandemic Paris I once knew upon my arrival. However, the pandemic-induced hibernation and its ensuing restrictions were still in full-swing. By January 2021, the city was reemerging from a second quarantine, though, its vivacity was still restricted in the form of a 6:00 p.m. nightly curfew. After a month, the curfew was still in place, and restaurants, museums, bars, and clubs were still unauthorized to welcome the city’s burgeoning population of antsy Parisians. Before I knew it, store doors shut as quickly as they opened, allowing me only a short glimpse of the bustling city I once knew. All that remained to energize the silent city was the scintillating Tower, giving us a faint semblance of normalcy as the clock struck the hour.
Met with unpredictable changes such as social distancing, mask-wearing, working from home, and isolation from loved ones and the rest of the world, the pandemic destabilized the conventions of life to which we have become socially accustomed. But, as an aspiring optimist, my study abroad experience in Paris enriched my life in unanticipated ways, despite all the COVID-related factors that could have ruined my adventure, had I let them.
When classes weren’t in session, I promenaded along the Seine and the Jardins with no agenda other than to breathe in fresh air, unprecedentedly absent of the aromatic undertones of car emissions and tobacco. A smile arose as I saw parents waiting for their children outside their schools with Petit Ecolier cookies in hand, remembering my grandparents having done the same for me years ago. I took the time to visit the Sentier in the 2nd arrondissement, a historical district that was the fashion hub of Paris. I paraded the cobblestoned streets towards 31 Rue du Caire, the place where my grandparents created and sold designs that would define French fashion in the 1980s. I walked as far as my legs would take me, and little by little, I became increasingly familiar with the city. I was no longer a frequent visitor of my place of birth, but once again, a permanent resident.
As a result of a largely remote semester, mixed feelings of confinement and nostalgia ran over me as I sat, day by day, at the dinner table of the home I briefly knew as a child, surrounded by the unevenly lengthened walls of the Haussmannian-style apartment. In the occurrence of in-person classes, I jumped at the chance to take a seat in Sciences Po’s Émile Boutmy lecture hall and its adjourning courtyard— the same one that formed and enlightened the minds of France’s greatest diplomats and presidents. Professors hailing from Italy, France, and England each with their own pedagogy, taught me about political theory and democracy; western inequalities; and the intersections of war, technology and politics. I learned alongside international students from Russia and Spain, and full-time French students who spoke perfect English. I considered new and foreign thoughts, questions, and opinions of students whose worldviews mirror their own country’s perspective. For the first time, I was absorbed in historical and timely subjects where the United States’ perspective was not at the forefront, becoming increasingly aware of my intense, America-centric education in comparison to other students’. Throughout the seminars I began to understand that my conception of history, politics, and social inequalities stems from a single story among many. However, my unique advantage as a dual citizen allows me to be a simultaneous advocate of both an American and international stance on the numerous issues discussed and debated in class.
Sciences Po gave me the rare opportunity to live in France once again, and venture what my life could have been like had my path not deviated when I was five. However, my four months in Paris allowed me to realize I was destined to move to the United States, where my life was in fact enhanced by my French background. Though I previously saw my bicultural identity as a social and cultural roadblock, I now understand that it is nothing but a blessing that allows me to belong to multiple places and groups at once. Had I stayed in France, I would have grown up, learning one way of doing, one way of learning, and one way of being. As a Franco-American, I benefited from cultural comparisons with French and international students, allowing me a never-before introspection and questioning of the practices I grew up with.
Despite going to Paris with inopportune timing, my experience was necessary to broaden my capacity for flexibility and empathy, but most importantly, finding pleasure and comfort in my identity and the unexpected.
This story is featured in Spring 2021 (Print Edition).