Better Late than Never!

Everyone has a dream vacation. They imagine visiting a city or country that they’ve romanticized above all else. For some, this ideal getaway conjures images of white sand beaches and a cerulean blue sea. For others, it’s trekking through the dense urban jungle of a sprawling metropolis. For example, my mom wouldn’t hesitate to pick the Mojave Desert of the American Southwest, and Julia Roberts even managed to lump together three iconic destinations: Italy, India and Bali in Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love. By contrast, my dream vacation has always been relatively singular: Paris.

The City of Lights has always been my dream destination, and for good reason. Pop culture and high school French class gave me tiny morsels of French culture to taste test. Like a mouse on a trail of bread crumbs, I was always yearning for that next bite. For me, Paris became the epitome of everything French, from The Three Musketeers to Coco Chanel and everything in between. In high school, I marveled at textbook replications of works belonging to the great French Impressionist painters: Cézanne and Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir. Then at Michigan, I took a course titled: Paris, Capital of the 19th Century, and read plenty from French literary canon. I sampled works by Zola and Chateaubriand, Proust and Aragon. More recently, I haven’t stopped listening to Emma Stone’s rendition of Audition (The Fools Who Dream) from the musical La La Land. In the song, Stone’s character pays homage to an aunt who lived in Paris and consequently attributes both a romantic and nostalgic feeling to the city and its famous river: the Seine. What I’m trying to say is Paris, je t’aime.

A lot of people will be lucky enough to reach their dream getaway once in their lifetime. I however, have the enormous privilege to visit Paris for a second time. Two summers ago, I took a brief trip to Paris while working as an intern in another French city. My last trip to Paris lasted five days. This time around, I’m here for an entire semester, studying as an exchange student at Sciences Po. I’m determined to make the most of my time in the French capital, and writing seems like a good way to fully engage with my trip. Thanks to a little inspiration from other friends doing precisely the same thing (thank you Beau, thank you Rachel), I’m dedicating this blog to the pursuit of capturing my thoughts, my travels, my photos and maybe even a meal or two as I continue this exciting journey through La Ville Lumière.

More to come soon!

School in Paris

Contrary to the popular American opinion, French people can be nice. Often, when Americans think about France and Paris in particular, they have a tendency to associate the French with adjectives like rude and snobby. However, from my very first step on my school’s campus, despite jetlag and nerves, I felt very welcomed by the Sciences Po students and staff. The first day of orientation, the president of the university’s college addressed the entire body of international students and stressed the importance of cross cultural exchange; citing the need to prepare students to grapple with sociopolitical issues that are becoming more and more transnational. Then, over the course of our orientation program, all the international students were thrown together to benefit from a mix of Parisian cultural excursions and methodology courses; the latter of which taught us how to succeed when it comes to writing/presenting the very unique and very French problématique. In this setting, I strongly believe that what my French professors valued most, despite our imperfect French, was our effort. I mean think about it… It’s not easy to spend a full semester taking classes in a language other than your own. They appreciate the fact that we’re trying our best. I think this same etiquette draws a parallel to tourists visiting Paris. As a tourist, if you at least try to speak French, even a small bonjour or s’il vous plait, then the French are much more likely to be receptive. Parisians are no different from the citizens of any other large city; they respond well when visitors demonstrate respect for the culture and the language, even through small verbal cues. So, in spite of a couple things being lost in translation every now and again, I’m diving into my classes head-first, showing respect to one of the world’s greatest cities and most importantly, I’m trying my best.

L’institut d’études politiques de Paris or Sciences Po is a French university primarily concerned with the teaching of social sciences like political science, economics and sociology to name a few. The school aims to place students in both the public and private sectors, but centers heavily on preparing students for civil service. In fact, several of France’s most recent presidents received some sort of education at Sciences Po, including Chirac, Hollande and even Macron. The high caliber of instruction combined with coursework completely in French is enough to intimidate any international student. Sometimes in class I feel like I understand everything, and other times I feel like Sofia Vergara in Modern Family; mixing up idiomatic expressions and struggling to find just the right word to say. That being said, there’s no better feeling than having a professor or student praise your French skills despite not speaking French as a first language.

As far as my courses are concerned, the subject matter is challenging but engaging. I’m taking three courses in French, one in English – I needed a safety net – and one in Spanish. One of my classes titled, “une nouvelle géopolitique mondiale,” deals with defining different approaches to modern geopolitics and using the same lexicon to frame national and international action by countries like Russia, Turkey and Iran. In this regard, it’s super fascinating to hear a French professor’s perspective on U.S. – Russia relations. It’s definitely not a perspective I would hear at Michigan. I’m also taking a course called “les mouvements sociaux,” which traces the development of the field of sociology as it relates to studying social movements (i.e. protests, sit-ins, boycotts, insurrections, etc.). Over the course of the semester students are required to work in groups and prepare a final dossier concerning one social movement of their choice. My group is choosing to research the Stonewall Riots in New York of 1969 and their effect on the modern-day LGBT+ rights. In addition to getting accustomed to my class schedule, it’s also been quite the experience learning to navigate the Sciences Po campus.

A short metro ride from my apartment, the school is located in the seventh arrondisment and is comprised of a whole labyrinth of buildings spread out over several city blocks. The school buildings themselves are nestled quaintly into Parisian streets just like any other city building. I’d imagine this is how other urban college campuses in the U.S. look and feel (i.e. NYU, George Washington University, etc.). Given the metropolitan atmosphere of the school, there’s not a ton of green space for students to take advantage of; nothing like the diag in Ann Arbor for example. That being said, I didn’t fly across the Atlantic for the semester to see a couple of squirrels every day on my walk to class.

In short, school so far has been a wonderful yet quizzical mix of confusion and confidence. I’m taking classes alongside international and French students alike. I’m learning about socioeconomic issues in a multicultural and multilingual environment. And even though I’m still not fully comfortable in my classes, I find that I keep asking myself: isn’t that one of the goals of studying abroad; learning to be comfortable in the uncomfortable? More than anything, I’m being hit with a familiar lesson which revolves around the fallacy of stereotypes. Likewise, I’m putting my best foot forward and showing the French that unlike the angry orange man who sits in the White House, Americans can be respectful of other languages and cultures different from their own.

One last merci

At what point do you start to call a city yours? Nearing the end of my study abroad experience, I’m still struggling to come up with the perfect answer. Growing up and then moving to college, Brighton, MI was always my hometown. To my friends and family, Ann Arbor is my college town. But the extent to which I can refer to Paris as my own is less black and white, it’s more muddied and gray.

In order to truthfully answer that question, I’ve been retracing my steps through this past semester. First, unlike many other undergraduate study abroad programs, mine was enormously independent by nature. As a direct enrollment student at Sciences Po, I had no on-the-ground support from Michigan. I had no common cohort of students that I saw daily in class. Instead, I sat next to French students. If I had a problem or needed help, I went to see the French administration. French resources then became my resources too. This isn’t to knock anyone else’s study abroad experience; different programs are unique in their own way. Mine was just unique in the fact that it was extremely integrative and self-reliant. It was really up to me to make it work.

At first, I was terrified. So much integration seemed like a bad thing. Despite my French language skills, I was petrified to participate in class discussions. I was afraid that French students and instructors would judge my American accent. However, by the end of the semester, fear turned to fascination, petrification to proactive engagement. Throughout the latter half of my European semester, I found myself contributing more in class; elaborating on gun control proposals and the recent March for our Lives from an American perspective. I debated the United States’ decision to isolate Venezuela and brainstormed solutions that could prevent another financial crisis in the Eurozone. Not even two weeks ago, I gave an entire presentation in French; articulating the profound consequences emanating from New York’s Stonewall Riots in the 1960s.

Beyond the classroom I felt equally rooted in the Sciences Po community. In early April, I stood with a crowd of students to applaud Justin Trudeau as he emerged from a lecture he gave on campus. Then a week later, I was shocked when classes were cancelled due to student protests. Banners had been draped over second story balconies as students occupied school buildings to protest elitism in university admissions decisions. Ultimately, by the end of the semester, I felt just as much a part of the campus as anyone else and I’m sad to say goodbye to its students, its classes and even its faculty.

In addition to my academic experience, my feelings toward Paris itself have changed. At first, every step, sight and sound in the City of Lights was magical. I was enamored by its charms and secrets. Paris was the bombshell blonde that every boy wants to date. She was beautiful, charismatic and most importantly unattainable. How could I ever find my place amidst its urban sprawl? How could I acquire the effortless grace that Parisians carry so well?

Despite plenty of weekend side trips, Paris always held the greatest attraction for me. The city pulled me in like a magnet. I used to stumble through Parisian streets, Google Maps in hand, attempting to uncover the source of its magic. I would get butterflies in my stomach every time I spoke French and I even felt embarrassed to wear a hoodie or sweatpants outside of my apartment. I felt awkward and out of place, like a fish out of water or a blank.

Now, a week stands before me and my eminent departure and Paris feels no bigger or incomprehensible than a city back home. I feel extremely comfortable navigating the city’s metro and getting myself from one place to the next. I no longer stutter or get nervous speaking French and I even feel like I partially captured the elusive secret of the Parisian dress code. Like learning to read, the city finally made sense to me.

In the end, I’m still not sure if I can self-identify as Parisian. My temporary placement in the city’s 15th arrondisment and my impending departure are indicators of this fact. I was but a brief guest in the most magical city on the planet. I can however, place some possession in my use of adjectives. Although short lived, Paris was my city for an entire semester. The memories and experiences I’ve had here will last a lifetime, and then some. You might think that after all this time the sparkle and shine of Paris would dwindle and fade, but it never did. Even though I do feel more at place, the French metropolis still retains its golden beauty and unattainability. That’s the thing about Paris though, is that I could spend forever chasing after its mysteries and never get tired. I never grew tired or bored or fell out of awestruck wonder. Paris will forever be my favorite city on Earth.

I was right to romanticize Paris before I left, and I was right to choose to study in Paris, but am I right in my decision to leave?

A piece of me will always hold on to the city’s iridescent charm; its art, its architecture, its history and its inhabitants. Hopefully, one day when I’m not bound by educational obligation I’ll come back. To Paris, je vous remercie for a truly unforgettable semester.

Coming Out... Again

How studying abroad became a semester of self-exploration

2018 has been a big year for the LGBT+ community. In spite of, or perhaps in response to, a homophobic administration, films like Love, Simon and music artists like Troye Sivan have been launched to the forefront of the public sphere. Even during the Winter Olympics, America couldn’t help but fawn over Adam Rippon and his undeniable love for Reese Witherspoon. And while 2018 has made enormous strides for the LGBT+ community as a whole, it’s also been a big year for me. This past January I left my sense of comfort in Ann Arbor and boarded a plane headed to Paris, France. Choosing to study abroad subsequently became one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and the experience propelled me to positively reflect on my own mental wellbeing and self-awareness. In other words, at the risk of sounding like a well-recycled cliché, spending a semester abroad gave me the chance to finally accept the human I am.

Prior to arriving, I had always romanticized Paris and its many wonders, both those in plain sight and others more so hidden beneath the metropolitan surface. Growing up, I spent hours dreaming of the city. In my sleep I walked the city’s cobblestone streets and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle and shine. I imagined writing my debut novel in Hemingway’s Café de Flore and getting stranded in a Parisian spring rain. Even after arriving, despite so much buildup la Ville Lumière met my expectations and then some. Paris left an indelible mark on my character and it was ultimately in this same transition from French dream to Parisian reality that I underwent my own metamorphosis.

I won’t deny that I come from a privileged background. I was raised in a pleasant suburb of metro Detroit and had an unforgettable high school experience. I was blessed with an incredible group of friends, most of whom I still talk to today. Most importantly, I had and still have a family who loves me unconditionally. However, throughout this whole period of my life I was hiding something. I had suffocated an entire part of myself; pushing it farther back into the deepest part of my psyche. I was constantly asking myself if I sounded too gay? Did I make flailing hand gestures when I spoke? Was it okay that I liked to listen to Britney Spears?

Then, at my high school graduation ceremony, I was honored to give a commencement address. It was something of a ‘Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society meets The Breakfast Club.’ My speech encouraged fellow graduates to look back upon their high school experience with fondness and joy; commemorating their unique passions and identities. Did they perform in the school musicals? Were they a three-sport athlete? Did they run for student council? And while my message of carpe diem came across loud and clear to the three thousand plus in Eastern Michigan’s convocation center, I couldn’t take my own advice to heart. Here I was, prepared to attend a prestigious university to learn and grow as a student, but yet somehow, I couldn’t teach myself the basics in terms of self-love and acceptance. I felt overwhelmingly confident on the outside, and full of petrifying self-doubt on the inside.

In college, coming out was the first step in my healing process. I remember sitting in my mom’s car almost two summers ago, uncapping the carbonated beverage that was my closeted homosexuality. The act of coming out was immensely cathartic, but it still wasn’t enough. Afterwards, I still felt plagued by a shadow of self-doubt. Was I acting too flamboyant? Did what I choose to wear make me seem too gay? Sophomore year of college was like picking up the pieces of a scattered and broken teenager. It was the first time I truly felt supported and accepted by a loving circle of friends and family. Nevertheless, despite putting these pieces back together, to loosely quote Lady Gaga, I could still see the cracks in my reflection.

In stark contrast, studying abroad was like throwing the mirror out the window. Faced with such a new environment, I began to let go of all the negative baggage and start over so to speak. At school, I was making new friends who didn’t necessarily know my backstory. We bonded over our shared present, and not by a common history. I was speaking French all the time and finding new and unique ways to express myself. I was taking class taught by French professors and learning in a truly international context.

Not even just school, but Paris and Europe more broadly presented me with an opportunity to fully embrace myself. I stopped trying to put on an air or act in a certain way, I was just being me. I felt freer, no longer weighed down by preexisting notions of how I should behave or act. If I wanted to wear a fur coat to a nightclub, then I did. If I wanted to whip around a shoulder-length green wig in Dublin, then who cared. If I wanted to see Lana Del Rey perform in Barcelona, then that was my prerogative. I stopped worrying so much about what other people might think and started asking myself what made me happy.

Europe taught me to indulge in the present. I felt happy and carefree going through my daily routine and exploring nearby cities on the weekends. In and outside of Paris, I took risks and gambled on high-stakes adventures. For example, in the French alps I decided to go paragliding on a whim. I faced a fear of heights and leapt off a cliff with nothing but a parachute and a middle-aged Frenchman strapped to my back. As silly as it sounds, moments like these taught me a lot. I remember hearing once that courage isn’t living in the absence of fear but acting in spite of it. Some parts of me might still be afraid of judgment or homophobia, but I no longer run or hide from the fear. I’m capable of tackling the hate head on. Whether it was soaring through the Alps or taking a full course load in a different language, I constantly challenged myself in Europe. I learned that if you play it safe, you might end up happy, but you’ll always wonder if there’s more. At the end of my journey, I’m finally done shying away from risks and giving in to hesitation.

Europe also helped me mature, albeit without sacrificing my sense of fun in the process. Ironically enough, Paris made me see my home through a whole new lens. As a foreigner in France, I was forced to think more about my identities. What does it mean to be an American or a student or even a gay man? It took going out of the country to reflect on what my place was back home. I think more than anything I loved watching these two worlds collide; American and French, home and foreign. For example, when I got homesick I would listen to Stevie Nicks. Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide is a song that never fails to make me think of my mom. In March, I even found a French adaptation of Grease. Some of the songs were kept in their original English, but it was amazing to see most of the musical translated à la française.

On a similar note, for me thinking about home is usually bittersweet. Sometimes I fault myself with harboring resentment for the places or people that initially made me feel like an outcast. I used to fall victim to letting certain emotions overpower others. I would let feelings of shame and anger take the place of joy, laughter and love. Europe helped eradicate this imbalance. Where previously, I often rejected the places that made me feel like I didn’t belong, Paris helped replace rejection and bitterness with newfound appreciation. Like a French adaptation of an American musical, I’m starting to reconnect old spaces and remix familiar songs. I’m eternally grateful for my roots and the opportunities I’ve been given and I’m extraordinarily lucky that Paris helped me recognize this fact.

Lastly, I don’t think that this phenomenon is entirely unique to Europe or my experience alone. I think that study abroad in general engenders an immense amount of self-reflection. The act of leaving everything behind, stepping out of your comfort zone, if even for a semester, prompts serious thinking. Without the structure of an established life back home, you’re left with yourself and yourself alone. You can either choose to love that person with all your heart or wage a war of ‘whys’ and ‘what ifs.’ In my case, I chose to lay down my arms and give in to utter self-love and acceptance. As humans we’ve all been given one life to live, and it’s a disservice not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world if we don’t live that life authentically. Like RuPaul famously says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love somebody else?”

All this being said, one last question remains: what’s next? How can I ensure that I’m able to take this happiness and self-acceptance with me when I go back to Michigan? Once the plane sets down in Detroit and the European semester ends, how do I carry over this burgeoning sense of self?

For me, the answer revolves around a mindset change; maybe I’m not exactly sure of where I’m heading in life, but I’m sure of the person that’s taking me there. Europe may be gone, but the memories I’ve had here will last a lifetime. The Paris that I had dreamt of for so long now holds a firm and unbreakable grasp on my memory. Though I may physically be back in the States, regardless of audience or geographic location, I’ve learned that no one can take my identity away from me. At long last, I feel both confident on the inside and out; I’m proud of where I’m from and the person I’m growing to be. Thank you, France for showing me that change is an incredibly powerful thing and that self-love is fundamental to happiness. From this moment forward, I’m going to be nothing short of unapologetically me.