For a history major, or really anybody interested in studying history or art, there is no better way to truly learn what happened (or understand the social, historical, or economical impacts of an event) than standing right where the history in question happened. Because when sitting in a classroom, historical events can seem distant and unimaginable, almost as if they’d never really happened. However, when one stands in the exact place where Louis XIV held court, or Napoleon led his troops off to battle, or Hitler gave speeches against the Jews, the past comes alive. What might have seemed unimaginable or mysterious on a Power Point slide is instead something that’s very real.
Our week spent in Paris — learning on the streets, seeing the places where Roman gladiatorial contests were held, the palaces that Louis XIV built, the square where Dreyfus was stripped of his rank — all brought the history w’d been discussing and reading about to life in a way I never imagined was possible. I could feel the energy of such places, understand the importance, and better see the why, the where, and the how of such events just because I stood in the same place.
Better yet, spending the week walking around Paris with our professors constantly pointing out the important sights and monuments while simultaneously explaining their significance was an amazing experience for us all. It was like walking around with a personal tour guide, constantly. So often when seeing a new place, I miss so much because I simply don’t know its lesser stories. However, traveling with somebody who knows the ins and outs of a city — the hidden places as well as the the meanings behind the important monuments — was an invaluable experience for my fellow students and me.
Having class meet sometimes in a small café in the center of Paris is also an experience I will never forget, not just because we were learning the history of this country but because we were experiencing the culture as well. Because of this week in Paris, I better understand the hard work a small café owner puts into his shop and so many other tiny things that are about how people live in Paris. I saw the same young man working at our favorite café from open to close, just as I learned about the organization of a French post office because that’s where I went to mail my post cards. I luxuriated in the beauty of the Parisian park system not as a tourist but as a tired student — living in Paris — who needed a great place to relax after class.
I better understand all of these important aspects of French society and life in Paris because I was able, through my French class and this study-abroad experience, to live a week in Paris and feel like a local there. And it was a week I will never forget.