Summer in Paris: Fairytale, Reality, or Somewhere in Between?

Growing up in a rural suburb of San Diego, California (merely an hour from Disneyland yet separated from the rest of the world by a vast mileage of cacti, farmland, and Downtown Los Angeles), my preconceived notion of Paris featured twinkling lights, a never-ending supply of freshly baked baguettes, and a constant background accompaniment of enchanting accordion music. My awareness of France as an actual, non-fictional country eventually expanded to include a general knowledge of war, disease, and power struggles (thank you, 7th grade World History) as well as the country’s famed artists, thinkers, and social movements (thank you, 10th grade AP Art History). Even after my childhood visions of a Disney-esque Paris morphed into a more objective view, the foreign and romantic intrigue of the City of Lights never failed to incite visions of vintage charm and upscale beauty within my imagination. The Paris of my dreams always glittered in the back of my mind even as my young adult self moved from the pink stucco Southern California house all the way to the wood-paneled Yale dorm room.

Last semester, while sitting in this very dorm room where I write now (with Paris still glittering in my mind), I decided to apply for a study abroad program. I was drawn to a literature and art history course titled Belle Époque France— and was accepted. Instead of filling my Pinterest with travel inspiration photos and crafting a color-coded Paris bucket list, I found myself anxious and surprisingly unable to anticipate the occasion with positive excitement. For one, it would be my first time overseas and the longest trip I’d taken by myself. Second, what if Paris didn’t live up to the expectations built over so many years of imagining? 

In May 2019, I said au revoir to North America and took off via Boeing 737 to spend five weeks in the city of lights, romance, food, and music. My first impression: France felt, in many ways, like America. There were other human beings (shocker!), small dogs (many of them), and a Starbucks on every corner (thank goodness?). There were the same trees, bushes, and flowers that populated even my hometown. Nowhere in sight was a charming young man in a black-and-white striped shirt and a bright red beret painting a picture by the Seine river. Although unique cafes brightened up every street corner and the sound of people speaking rapid French brought me slight fear (as somebody who does not speak French), I couldn’t help but realize how inexplicably similar being in Paris felt to being in SoHo, or the Paris casino in Las Vegas, or even the streets of Downtown San Diego. I was both comforted and alarmed to feel like Paris was simply a nicer, cleaner, slightly more aesthetically pleasing version of any United States major city. Would I ever feel like I was in the Paris of my dreams?  

This initial disillusionment faded quickly as I settled into daily life as an almost-Parisian. I noticed tiny unexpected charms that blossomed around the city, such as the color of the walk sign on a crosswalk, the glowing green crosses above every pharmacy, and the phenomenon that so many people gathered in cafes (in the middle of a weekday) simply to enjoy each others’ company. Soon, the Paris of my dreams was here, uncovered and illuminated by unforeseen charms. Of course, the way the Eiffel Tower lit up every night on the hour was something out of a fairytale. The aroma of freshly baked baguettes truly did draw me out of bed every morning. Musicians actually played their violins and accordions on sidewalks, parks, and Metro cars. 

When reading works of French literature (translated into English, of course) by authors such as Proust, Zola, Gide, and Colette in my study abroad course, I could sense history and literary inspiration in the streets I walked down on my way to grab a café au lait in the little bakery across from Notre Dame. Living in Paris was the first time in my life where I saw firsthand such a long and complicated history alive in its architecture, art forms, and cobblestones. Paris is no longer a dream to me, but I have become a more confident traveller and inspired writer because I have explored its (albeit, wonderful) reality. 

If you are interested in any of Yale’s study abroad programs, check out the Yale CIPE Study Abroad website or contact me with any questions about my experience!