Alexi Thomas CC’16 spent the Spring 2015 semester studying abroad through Columbia in Paris at Reid Hall, housed in Columbia’s Global Center in Europe. Spring 2015 marked the first semester that Art Humanities and Music Humanities, courses required in Columbia College’s Core Curriculum, were offered to students studying abroad in Paris. Students studying in Paris can choose to take either one of the courses as part of their curriculum during the fall and spring semesters; in the summer, students are able to take both in tandem. The classes are supplemented by special activities that take advantage of the artistic opportunities in and around Paris, from the collections at the Louvre to Monet’s home in Giverny. Here, Alexi, who chose to take Art Humanities, reflects on her semester abroad and the ways in which the lessons learned in Art Humanities influenced her experience of Paris.
After studying in Paris for almost four months, I was finally able to finish a journal I had slowly been filling up over the course of two years. Journals have always been integral to my sense of self, and it was no different in Paris. I leaned on this one piece of my old life as I threw myself into living in a new city, country, culture and language.
I initially decided to study abroad in Paris because I was captivated by the French language and interested in learning about a big city with issues parallel to, but very different from, those that exist in New York. I wanted to learn more about myself and about others by seeing life lived in ways that were outside of the American norm.
In Paris, I had to get used to occupying what I found to be an interesting place in society: that of the exchange student. Exchange students are not exactly tourists on a week-long vacation, but they are also not citizens or long-term residents. Paris is a city that shows its elegance and romance to visitors on brief trips, but its sophisticated luxury eventually softens into something warmer and more comfortable the longer you stay. In the building where I lived with my host family, composed of a retired veteran, his wife and their two teenage boys, I became known as ‘the American student’ to my neighbors. The people who worked in the restaurants and delis on my block eventually came to recognize me and hung out of their doors and made small talk if they saw me passing, asking about my classes and my plans for the weekend. On a shorter trip, they would be Parisians. Strangers. Now, they had become not just neighbors, but my neighbors.
While in Paris, I took Art Humanities, one of the courses required in Columbia College’s Core Curriculum. Taught by Ioannis Mylonopoulos, associate professor of art history and archaeology, my time in the course aided my appreciation of Paris’ beauty, as well as my ability to justly transcribe its beauty into words. After discussing the Parthenon and Bernini's vision of the Louvre in class, I walked home from Reid Hall, Columbia’s Global Center in Europe, and looked at the bars, post offices and shops, all with floors and floors of regal stone architecture standing above them, with new appreciation. I saw the meeting of history and modernity, and of beauty and utility. I went back to my Parisian home and wrote about these impressions in my journal, feeling a profound peace and wonder.
Paris is a ‘created’ city. Unlike many modern cities that simply sprawl outward over time in an uncontrolled blaze of development, Paris was carefully planned and curated. Though an ancient city, the Paris as we know it today began to be developed in the 16th century, with many of the monuments for which the city is famous joined by a new approach to urban space in relation to private space. Public parks, boulevards and even sidewalks are among the innovations that set Paris apart and made it one of the first European cities to develop a thriving leisure tourism industry. This careful curation of architectural style and cohesion is visible in the city today, and added a beauty and harmony to lots of otherwise routine moments I had in Paris.
Approximately three months into my semester abroad, I spent a portion of my spring break in Las Palmas of the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the coast of Morocco that was a marked change from Paris. There, I focused more on the natural beauty of my surroundings. The beaches, trees, flowers, even rocks, are the things that caught my attention. Rather than appreciating the magnificence of human achievement, as I did in Paris, my eyes and camera were drawn to the magnificence of nature itself. Being surrounded by the wild beauty of nature allowed me to come back to Paris twelve days later with fresh eyes, as if my palate had been cleansed after a heavy, flavorful meal.
Living in New York for the past fourteen years has made me competitive and I’ve become used to fast-paced environments. Studying at Columbia has only reinforced those qualities. But being in Paris and studying art with Professor Mylonopoulos forced me to slow down and re-evaluate my desire for success, maybe even my definition of success itself. Going back to New York in the fall will no doubt reinstate my passion for doing everything as quickly and as well as I find humanly possible, but Paris has shown me another way of being. Maybe I’ll stop occasionally and look at New York’s architecture, thinking about the intersection between beauty and function that is a skyscraper, or the fusion of memory and renewal that is a converted warehouse.
After my Art Hum class in Paris concluded, I realized that one might consider Paris a work of art itself. The city draws the eyes of visitors where it wants them, just as good artists draw a viewer's eyes wherever they want. Paris’ architectural design gave me both the idea and motivation to create my very own experience while abroad. Using my journal, I did my best to faithfully and thoroughly record the highs and lows of studying in such a beautiful city, so that I might be able to return to New York with an entirely new way of seeing, thinking and understanding the world around me.
Alexi Thomas CC’16 studied abroad in Paris for the Spring 2015 semester, taking classes at l'Université Paris-Sorbonne through the Columbia in Paris at Reid Hall program. She is majoring in Hispanic Studies and plans to attend law school.