Reflections on France Study Tour 2015: Lovers of Permanence

August 29, 2015
Catherina Dario / 4 BFA Creative Writing, minor in Literature-English
It’s six o’ clock, and sunlight has broken through the window of my bedroom. Outside, I can see the slanted rows of pastel rooftops and the wrought iron balconies, the bicycles parked against the lush, green line of ginkgo trees, and the stretch of boulangeries and brasseries that have yet to lift their latticework grates, unlock their doors, and begin the day. This is Strasbourg early in the morning, its quiet occasionally disrupted by the hum of the tram. 
In Strasbourg, my days begin with a cup of coffee.  On the wooden table, my foster parents lay out the staples: a brick of creamy French butter, a selection of marmalades, and a freshly baked loaf of baguette. There is so much to talk about over breakfast: the churches, museums, and theatres all around the city, my intensive French lessons at CIEL de Strasbourg, the excursions to Germany and Switzerland. I tell them that I am still enchanted by Heidelberg—the slow boats rocking over the gentle, glittering waters of the Neckar—and still romanced by Lucerne—the Swiss Alps silver in the rain, the flock of swans huddled underneath Chapel Bridge. What about Strasbourg? They look at me expectantly; a smile breaks across my foster mother’s face when I tell her: where do I begin?
I think about this while I sit in the tram. As I lean against the window, the cityscape plays before me like a movie reel: there is Place Kléber, the city’s central square, and the sandstone spire of the Notre-Dame de Strasbourg towering above it; there are the Alsatian timber-framed houses and the Ill entwined among them; there are the small-scale bookshops, museums, cafes, and chocolatiers. In this city I have chased after buses; walked along the moonlit cobblestone with new friends; explored marketplaces abound with cured meats, wines, fresh fruits, all kinds of cheese; picnicked with my classmates underneath sycamore trees. In between, my French teacher—a blue-eyed lady with a blonde braid dangling behind her shoulders—would point to the whiteboard; hold up a copy of our workbook. Répétez, s'il vous plait. My classmates and I would repeat a phrase or a sentence, sometimes struggle with an accent. 
In the tram, a woman asks me a question. Later on in the day I order my ice cream with ease; strike a conversation with a local who asks me where I am from; read an advertisement in a local magazine. Everything once foreign and strange has, through time and practice, become all so familiar.
I miss this sense of comfort and homeliness when we eventually reach Paris. The metro, which lurches from a dark tunnel, is a sea of pale trench coats and leather boots. At our designated stop, my classmates and I rush up the flight of stairs that lead us to Champs-Élysées. Already I am overwhelmed by the knot of automobiles bustling between the tree-lined avenues; the elaborate buildings with gabled windows. Before me stands the Arc de Triomphe. Behind it, the blazing sun.
Days are spent treading atop Pont des Arts the Bateau Mouche goes by, admiring paintings and posters displayed at makeshift stalls. As for me and my friends, every scene is melded into memory:  the stained glass window of the Notre Dame, the immense fountains of Place de Concorde, almost raining on the taut red umbrellas of crepe and coffee vendors; the boxwood hedges and lavender flowerbeds of the Tuileries Garden. Not far off, a street musician is playing his accordion, a group of children are jump roping on the asphalt, and a bearded man is crouched before his easel. Some friends and I sit on the grass for a moment, if only to attempt to capture the medley before us. Paris is a whirlwind romance.
On the way to the Versailles, a friend leans on my shoulder; she is asleep. My other classmates are exchanging photographs, sipping from paper cups of coffee as they share stories, voices hushed and knowing. We have found home in each other’s presence. 
The Eiffel Tower blurs in the window, but I still have it memorized: the iron latticework glimmering over the waters of the Seine. The French, I’ve learned, are lovers of permanence and devotees to detail. Every word uttered, every carving on a monument, and every twist and turn to a secret side street demands a commitment to memory. I remember why I joined the France Study Tour. France begets a passion for the grandiose and orchestrated—history, culture, art—but also a love for delicate, honest, and tender experience.