The Paris Diaries
This summer’s Southern in Paris program is now under way. The following is an account of the activities and adventures of students and faculty members Camille Serchuk and Luke Eilderts as they explore the City of Light. The account was written in the form of a letter by Serchuk and Eilderts, co-directors of Southern in Paris.
Accompanied by Professor Eilderts, the students were met by Professor Serchuk after
arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. The group was very happy to see that
Professor Serchuk had brought many bottles of water, orange juice, and a choice of
pastries (what the French call viennoiseries) for their enjoyment. The students had
their first encounter with the efficient transportation system as they took the RER
directly from the airport to their accommodations at the Fondation Biermans-Lapôtre,
at the Cité universitaire, the International Residence Campus located in the southern
part of the capital. As several of the students have remarked about the Parisian transportation
system, “You can take a metro, bus, tram, or RER basically anywhere,” and “Coming
to Paris I was under the impression that I was going to have a hard time with the
metro system but once you do it on your own and try to figure it out on your own it
As directors of the program, we are delighted to be able to share Paris with the students. One of the participants of the program has written, “Ever since I was in middle school and started to learn French, it had been my dream to visit Paris, France.” This is a common theme for many of the students, and we are glad to see that the city does not appear to disappoint. Several students have been struck with the city’s architectural beauty: “Everything about Paris is breathtaking, from the monuments to the stone walkways. The energy is high and a simple walk down the street can leave you feeling appreciative of life,” and “The old historic buildings take my breath away.” Indeed, there is a lot to see, and it can become a bit overwhelming at first as this student astutely comments: “My first impression of Paris was that the city reminded me of an amusement park. I wanted to see everything, I wanted to taste everything, and I wanted to go everywhere. I felt like a little kid again encountering an overwhelming sensation of excitement and disorientation.” Luckily, as students have become more comfortable with their surroundings, this disorientation has turned into one of confidence.
Once students had access to their rooms, we gave them a bit of time to get settled in and then took them for lunch at the student center at the heart of the international campus. Many students were surprised by the choice and the quality of food at the cafeteria. With lunch finished, students returned to their rooms to rest for a bit before we departed for the Eiffel Tower. Clear blue skies and an abundance of scenery prompted the students to opt for walking as much as possible. After a quick group photo, we made our way to a neighborhood known for its lively pedestrian streets and excellent selection of reasonable restaurants.
On Wednesday students caught up on sleep and met in the reading room of the residence hall for the first orientation meeting, after which Professor Eilderts brought them to the nearest grocery store where students could find some necessities for their stay. The big event of the day was our first weekly visit to the Louvre, where Professor Serchuk dazzled the students with a tour of what she has come to call, “the greatest hits,” among which are the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo. The evening ended with dinner at the Troumilou restaurant where students were enchanted by some traditional French dishes.
Courses began in earnest on Thursday, with Professor Serchuk leading her students through vestiges of Roman Paris in the morning, and Professor Eilderts meeting his students in the Luxembourg Gardens for writing exercises before visiting a bookstore and capping off the session with practicing ordering at a chic café near the Luxembourg Palace.
In recognition of July 4th, students were given a long weekend to explore the city and complete assignments at their leisure. During that time, students began to observe differences between Paris and the U.S. One thing that has stood out to several students is how loudly Americans speak in comparison with the French: “One trait of Parisians that has boldly stood out to me is that they aren’t loud and don’t get very excited. Many little things will make Americans extremely excited and loud although the Parisians save those emotions for bigger situations.” Students have also had a chance to use their language abilities in real-life situations, commenting on how they have had to become more flexible with themselves: “I tend to try and do things well the first time and am hard on myself. This experience will definitely teach me to have more patience with myself and to not be so controlling.” Another student with little French background noted, “Thus far, I have found some ease in deciphering language within people’s body language (besides the occasional switch in the conversation to English), but interestingly enough, there can also be communication through current events, art and architecture, and the culture of food.”
At the close of our first week, the overwhelming consensus of students is aptly captured in these two quotes: “Coming to Paris it has the best experience of my life so far, and every day I’m eager to learn more about the culture as well as the language,” and “I am also thankful that the group of students on the trip are awesome. Everyone is so kind and fun that it makes me feel less alone being so far from home.”
For the beginning of our second week, Professors Serchuk and Eilderts accompanied students to the Basilica of St. Denis, the traditional resting place for the kings and queens of France. Students were invited to discover one of the first examples of what has become known as Gothic architecture through an investigation of the changing building technics that allowed for taller structures and larger windows. After our visit to St. Denis, we continued to the National Museum of the Middle Ages located in central Paris. There, the highlight of the visit was the outstanding tapestry series known as The Lady and the Unicorn.
On Tuesday, students trekked to the heart of Paris for a visit of the Sainte-Chappelle, a jewel-box-like chapel built by Louis IX, later St. Louis, to house relics of the Passion. A spectacular example of Gothic architecture, students observed similarities and differences between what they had studied the previous day at St. Denis. After the visit, Professor Eilderts class took advantage of the enjoyable weather to meet on the bank of the river Seine to practice essential daily activities as well as work through several grammar exercises.
The next day brought students to the Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris. Housed in two 17th-century Hôtels particuliers or mansions in the neighborhood known as the Marais, students were asked to consider examples of non-religious architecture and the links they would find with upcoming trips to Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. That evening, we met for our second weekly outing to the Louvre where students were treated to the Marie de Medici cycle, a series of 24 paintings by Peter Paul Rubens depicting Marie de Medici’s life. After the visit, students were treated to a dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant not far from where they are staying at the Cité universitaire.
Thursday called for a visit to the enormous Château de Versailles. Famous for its grand and imposing style, Versailles began as a “modest” hunting lodge built by Louis XIII. His son, the future Louis XIV, would transform these modest lodgings into one of the most impressive royal residences in Europe. Often more spectacular than the interiors, many visitors find the immense gardens—nearly 2,000 acres—the real high point of the château. After lunch in the gardens, students were urged to explore the immense estate at their leisure.
Finally, on Saturday, students visited the château Vaux-le-Vicomte, the castle that inspired Louis XIV to build Versailles. Located shortly outside the city of Melun, a short 25-minute train ride from the center of Paris, Vaux-le-Vicomte was constructed by lord Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finances under Louis XIV. After hosting one of the most spectacular festivities the French court had ever seen, and to which the young king was invited, Fouquet thought he was at the height of his power. His residence was innovative in design, and his gardens a marvel of optical illusions. Louis XIV did not see things the same way: two weeks after the end of the festivities, Fouquet was arrested for embezzlement and sentenced to life in solitary confinement. Louis XIV employed many of the same architects, artists, and designers on Versailles, which effectively put an end to the debate over who was the most powerful man in France.
And finally, yesterday was France’s national holiday, le quatorze juillet, what we in the U.S. call Bastille Day. A commemoration of the storming of the Bastille prison in 1789, the day began with a military parade down the avenue des Champs-Élysées, complete with helicopters and jets flying overhead in a spectacular display. In the afternoon, Professors Serchuk and Eilderts joined students for a picnic on the Champ de Mars, a long grassy field facing the Eiffel Tower. We enjoyed a concert organized by Radio France and France Télévisions where the National Orchestra and the Choir of Radio France played for nearly four hours. To finish the evening, there was a spectacular display of fireworks, with music, and a light show. The theme this year was a commemoration of World War I, which began one hundred years ago. More a celebration of peace than war, the fireworks this year were absolutely dazzling. The students were thrilled.
It has been a very eventful two weeks, and we are looking forward to guiding the students in their discovery of even more parts of the city.
Luke Eilderts & Camille Serchuk
Co-directors, Southern in Paris
After the First Two Weeks . . .
In the interval since our last report, we spent most of our time exploring the art
and history of Paris in the nineteenth century. Professor Serchuk’s class visited
some of the architectural projects associated with Napoleon, whose imperial vision
can be found throughout the city. Professor Eilderts’ class took advantage of the
many on-site visits by refining their written and oral capacities in French while
also interacting with local French-speakers. Almost all of our teaching takes place
on the spot, visiting neighborhoods, monuments and galleries, even at the movies.
Paris is a wonderful classroom.
Among the highlights of the last few weeks was a guided tour of the Paris Opera, built by Charles Garnier between 1861 and 1875. The students were really dazzled by the sumptuousness of its architecture and decoration. Every surface is covered with colored stone, paint, gilding or mosaic, and the effect is mesmerizing. Our guide pointed out some of the classical features and references of the design, and the students had strong opinions about whether they preferred the original auditorium ceiling by LeNepveu, or the newer one painted by Marc Chagall.
Later that evening we visited the Louvre, exploring the lavish apartments of Napoleon III, and then visiting the Islamic galleries. This section of the museum reopened in 2012 after a long renovation, and we have not usually included it in our program. But this year it seemed to fit, and the students were awed by the intricate calligraphy and of the many fine pieces on display. In Professor Eilderts’ class, when asked to write about their favorite piece out of all the museums they had visited, several students returned to the Islamic collection for inspiration. After our visit, we enjoyed a delicious Moroccan couscous dinner. Most of the students were unfamiliar with the vivid flavors of this cuisine, but they loved it.
The Paris that we know and love today owes a great deal to the vision of one man, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann. In particular we considered his legacy as the driving force behind most of the grand vistas and wide avenues of Paris since more than any other individual, he shaped the city as it is today. We not only considered how he transformed the city, but also how his contemporaries viewed these transformations. The Impressionists, in particular, had very strong views about the “New Paris” and we took a good look at their works to learn more about the city.
The Musée d’Orsay provides a great environment to study the development of Impressionism. We had an early reservation this year, and were allowed into the museum before the public: a once-in-a-lifetime experience! The Orsay is magnificent, but it gets very crowded, and it was a treat to move through the silent galleries and study the paintings without anyone else around. The students loved this collection—and went back on their own to visit it again.
On Monday, July 21st, we gathered at the Gare St. Lazare for a trip out of the city to Claude Monet’s famous house and gardens at Giverny. The skies were a bit overcast, and so the crowds stayed away. The gardens were in full bloom, and because of all the rain we have had, lush and richly colored. The students explored all parts of the garden, and they delighted in sitting on a bench in the shade of the willows admiring the water lilies and the Japanese bridge. Everyone enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the city.
The next day we visited the Musée Marmottan, where we feasted our eyes on a wonderful collection of paintings that includes the painting that gave the name to the Impressionist movement: Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. There are some beautiful paintings of Giverny, there, too, and it was gratifying to see the students make connections between the gardens they had seen the previous day and the paintings of them at the Marmottan. After our visit to the museum, we ate at a restaurant whose specialty is the tarte flambée, a dish from Alsace in eastern France. Our students loved the paper-thin crust, crème fraîche, and any number of toppings, and they benefitted from one of the few “all-you-can-eat” dishes available in France. No one went away hungry!
On Wednesday the 23rd, we returned to the Louvre for our final visit. We visited the nineteenth-century paintings galleries, where we looked at paintings large and small, including works by Delacroix, Géricault, and David. We started with the small ones, and the students were able to examine the studies and oil sketches for the better-known large-format paintings elsewhere in the museum. They saw earlier versions of Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, and marveled at the differences between the sketches and the final versions. We left the museum and went on to enjoy a great meal at a Provencal restaurant in Montparnasse.
We gave the students an extra day off that week so that they could catch up on their work or take advantage of France’s excellent transportation system. Several decided to travel to destinations that included London, the Normandy beaches, and Belgium.
In the final week of the program, Professor Serchuk took her students to see the work of Hector Guimard, who also designed many of the Métro entrances as well as many apartment buildings in the Sixteenth Arrondissement. The students were especially impressed by Guimard’s first major project, the Castel Beranger, built in 1897. They also visited some of the Grands Projets commissioned at the end of the twentieth century by François Mitterand, including the Pyramid of the Louvre, the Institute of the Arab World, and the National Library.
Last week in Professor Eilderts’ course, students chose one of the 20 arrondissements to study and present to their classmates in a walking tour that took place this week. For several of the presentations, students took their classmates to parts of the city they had not yet discovered (the Buttes Chaumont park with its breathtaking views was a group favorite). In addition to the presentations, students continued their study of the French social, cultural, and political landscape by interviewing local Parisians, thereby building their linguistic and cultural competencies, skills they will be able to apply in their future lives.
On Wednesday evening, we met for our annual banquet at the Grand Colbert. The time has passed so quickly! Their own words best communicate how much they learned and enjoyed.
Kate Lis (Class of 2014, Elementary Education and Liberal Studies) remarked on the differences in the pace of life in Paris, writing, “The busy yet relaxing atmosphere of Paris is a wonderful change in pace. At home everything is fast paced; and in Paris people are busy, but they know how to relax and just take life in. Some of us having been going to the Seine to just sit and talk which is something that would never happen back home… I am going to take what I have learned from Paris with me forever.”
Giovanna Bellettiere (Class of 2017, Secondary Education in English, minor in Art History) commented on the quality of the food as well as the environment, noting, “Another surprise is how good the pastries are. The ice cream, the croissants, anything sweet tastes good. Rose is my new favorite flavor of anything. I really love being here. It’s refreshing to be an environment that’s so different… I love the transportation systems, and the hustle and bustle of city life.”
Ashley Dambowsky (Class of 2014, Theater) shared her enthusiasm for the city as well as its impact on her when she expressed, “Every single step you take the city has something to offer you. You never think that you would want to go out and explore while it is raining for days straight, but you would be surprised. It is almost as if Paris pulls you in until you have experienced every last drop. It is amazing how much I have been taught so much within this trip. You do not think that so much can be achieved within one month until you actually do it.”
The students have all acknowledged how much the program has made them reflect on how they live their lives. They have enjoyed using public transportation, walking along the river, and even being away from their phones and Facebook accounts. Every one of them has vowed to return to Paris again soon.
All best regards,
Luke Eilderts & Camille Serchuk
Co-directors, SCSU in Paris
Southern Connecticut State University