As a rising high school freshman, my first impressions of Paris centered around three (of the many) differences between the City of Lights and my normal existence in suburban Indianapolis. 1) The bread was the best thing I’d ever eaten, and it was for sale in every neighborhood. 2) My mind was busily absorbed in language. I spoke a tiny amount of French, just enough to be constantly curious. 3) Everything was old. The United States seemed to have nothing so connected to the deep past as the cathedrals and streets of Paris. (Much later, I visited the Mesa Verde Cliff Dwellings in Colorado and got a hint at how deep the history of America really is.)
How privileged I have been to build a course of study, and eventually a career, around this alluring place of food, language, and history. When, as a junior undergraduate, I started making plans to pursue a PhD in history, an insightful professor and mentor pointed out that much of the historian’s work happens in the archives in a place, and I therefore might consider where I wanted my place to be. And thus began my path as a French historian, centered, unapologetically, on making Paris my place.
Of course, study and time in the city complicated my relationship with Paris. There are parts of me that feel most at home there. My soul feels at ease in the public spaces of shared urban living. Yet I always eventually tire of the mental gymnastics of being foreign — of the constant struggle to understand a language and culture that, despite years of study, will never be my own. I’m now also much more aware of the role of my white skin in allowing access to safety, comfort, and ease in those beloved public spaces, and of the history of empire and racism that are also part of Paris.
When Heidi Kraus and I began to create a May Term course in Paris, our first instincts were to emphasize the aspects of the city we love and celebrate: art; physical connections to the past; food culture, and the lifestyle of a people who value leisure. And yet, as the November 2015 Paris attacks so shockingly reminded us, it seemed phony and wrong to teach a simplified view of a city that we had come to know with more complexity. So despite our time restraints, we strive to introduce students to the beautiful yet complex and troubled city of Paris. We share with students our joy in visiting the monuments to Medieval Christianity and the Revolution, in relishing three
hour lunches and bustling markets, and in experiencing art in the world’s greatest collections. But this is not enough. We center our investigations on the role of the “others” in Parisian history and life, pushing students to think about the legacy of empire, the construction of national identity, and the place of religious plurality in a secular state. We can’t explore all the stories of Paris in our month with these students, but we try our best to introduce students to a complex understanding of the city. Now, with the expanded curriculum of Paris Stories courses, we can do even more.
~ Lauren Janes
Shameless plug: My book, Colonial Food in Interwar Paris, is part of the Bloomsbury academic book sale through September, making the paperback cost under $30. If you’re interested in the role of French imperialism in Parisian life, please do check it out.