Discovering culture and politics: Dispatches from Paris

Sarah Weaver
July 02, 2007
young woman in green dress in park

Sarah Weaver

Sarah Weaver, undergraduate student in French and Francophone Studies and International Studies, is one of 20 award recipients of the 2007 Undergraduate Discovery Summer Grant.

Financed by the Office of Undergraduate Education, the grant provides $2,500 to 20 students each year to pursue research over the summer under the direct supervision of a faculty member. The goal of the program is to enrich the undergraduate research experience at Penn State, especially when it requires expensive equipment or travel. Program director and assistant dean of Undergraduate Education Mary Beth Crowe explains, "Our hope is to engage undergraduate students in Penn State's research and creative community. Working closely with faculty mentors, the students are active contributors to their fields. Many go on to publish their results or present them at professional conferences."

To be eligible for the grant, students must submit a personal information sheet, a two-page project proposal, and a letter of recommendation. Additionally, students who are selected must submit a summary of their learning experience at the end of the summer. "Students discover the rewards and the challenges of research," says Crowe.

While in Paris pursuing her research topic, "The Changing Cultural Politics of French in a Global Context: L'Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie," Sarah is sending back a series of dispatches, describing her studies and explorations for Research/Penn State readers.

June 13, 2007

garden with domed building and cloudy sky
The famous Jardin du Luxembourg is only a block away from my apartment.

The famous Jardin du Luxembourg is only a block away from my apartment.

Hey, I'm here! I think to myself, peering out the window of Air France Flight 365 from Philadelphia to Paris. Hundreds of feet below, the City of Light sprawls out in miniature like one of those dioramas in a museum: I spot the Louvre, Sacré Coeur perched up on Montmartre, and even a tiny Eiffel Tower. The Seine is a thin, glinting silver ribbon in the morning light. As the plane veers north towards Charles de Gaulle Airport and Paris disappears behind us, I extract myself from two scratchy blankets and fumble underneath the seat in front of me to find my shoes. Although my twelve-hour, sleepless trip is finally drawing to a close, the real adventure has yet to begin.

So how does a 19-year-old junior-to-be end up in Paris for the summer, anyway? Thanks to the support of an Undergraduate Summer Discovery Grant, the Schreyer Honors College, and the College of the Liberal Arts, I'm here to get a jump start on research for my senior thesis. My goal is to examine the shift from a cultural to a political agenda in the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (an agency that unites all the French-speaking countries in the world) as reflected in the press. When Dr. Thomas Hale, head of the Department of French and Francophone Studies, agreed to supervise my project, he told me that the French National Library and the Pompidou Center Library both had great archives of the papers and magazines I needed, such as Le Monde, Le Figaro, Jeune Afrique, and even a satirical journal called Le Canard Enchainé ("The Chained Duck"??). So here I am, jet-lagged and ready to go!

June 14, 2007

Did I say I was ready to go? Scratch that. Getting out of bed when you're jet-lagged is pretty much impossible. However, somebody in my apartment building decided that nine o'clock would be a great time to get to work with what sounds like a jackhammer, so I drag myself to the shower and then head out for some preliminary grocery shopping. I'm living in the heart of the Latin Quarter, about a block away from the famous Jardin du Luxembourg, and I can't wait to explore the neighborhood. Before stepping out the door, I glance over my map, a handy, semi-discreet little booklet called Paris Practique par Arrondissement. I decide to head up Boulevard Raspail, passing overflowing cafés, kissing couples, and knots of high school kids who are smoking and gossiping faster than I thought was humanly possible.

tall buildings
Sarah Weaver

The bibliothèque nationale de France, site François Mitterrand

After dropping off my groceries at my apartment, I hop on the metro and head south to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, site François Mitterrand. The National Library has a couple of different locations in Paris, including one near the Opéra, one near the Stock Exchange, and this one, all the way out in the 15th Arrondissement. On the metro, I'm squished between a group of German guys with suitcases, an irritated-looking woman with long crimson nails and a Dior purse, and a young French couple exchanging sweet nothings in heavily accented English. I try to keep my balance, starting to get a little bit anxious about my arrival at the library. To find the periodicals I need, I will have to be approved for access to the research library, a lower level reserved for, well, researchers. Will they all laugh at me because I'm just some silly little American college kid?

When I finally enter the library, nobody there looks like they are even thinking about laughing. Professors, authors, lecturers, librarians...everyone is on a mission—books to find, theses to write, truths to discover! An unsmiling security officer greets me at the door, searches my bag, and then waves me through the metal detector. I thank him and step into the library's silent lobby. To my left, a tall Scandinavian man with glasses and a briefcase is browsing around the gift shop (in case you aren't tired of books yet by the time you leave the library), and to my right, a large grey sign urges me to discover the Café Est. Straight ahead is a long reception desk. I approach cautiously and ask about the Research Library; one of the librarians directs me to a room marked Orientation des lecteurs—Reader Orientation.

I walk into a small waiting room furnished with a couple of grey leather chairs and a reception desk. Above the desk, an LED sign displays the number 467. After a few seconds, the sign beeps, now showing 468. I take a number and sit down in one of the chairs, looking around the waiting room. There are only a couple of other people here. It must have been busy in the morning for them to be at 468 already!

Before I can get too comfortable, the sign displays my number and a short, bald man appears at the end of an adjoining hallway. He gives me a nod, takes the slip of paper with my number on it, and leads me back to a cubicle. "Research library?" he says in French, sitting down behind his desk and motioning for me to take a seat across from him. I nod. "Your passport?" I hand it to him and he examines it under his desk light. "And the purpose of your visit?" He hands me back my passport. What is this, immigration at the airport? I tell him I am here to do research on Francophonie. "Do you have a reference letter?" he asks. Fortunately, Dr. Hale had forewarned me about this and given me a letter of recommendation that explained my goals at the library. I present the note, which the librarian scans, mumbling to himself, "Oui...oui...d'accord, ça ira." Looking up at me, he says that they will give me a library card and that I should go back to the waiting room and take a ticket to get my picture taken. My picture taken?

I am not in the waiting room long before younger man appears at the end of another hallway and summons me back to a photo booth. He charges me 18 Euros for a card that will allow me to enter the library 15 times before the end of the year. Then he asks to see my passport (didn't we already do this part?) and then snaps my picture.

While the photo processes and the card prints, the librarian pulls out a map of the library and explains how to get around. The research library, called the Rez-de-jardin, is divided into rooms by subject. Rooms K through M contain books on philosophy, history, and social sciences, rooms N and O focus on law, economy, and politics, and P is the audiovisual room. When I tell him that I'm looking for periodicals, the librarian tells me that room P is my best bet. There, I can look at microfilms of pretty much any periodical since its first publication. I thank him and he hands me my library card. With my picture in the corner, birth date, nationality, and address printed on it, it looks like a driver's license. I laugh to myself—I think it's easier to get a driver's license in the US than it is to get a library card in France!

June 18, 2007

I'm yawning as I stumble out the door at 8:30 am, pulling on a jacket and checking to make sure I have my umbrella. Paris is a big city and research is a solitary activity, so to get oriented and meet some people, I have signed up for a one-week general French course at the Alliance Française. The Alliance is a world-wide organization that offers classes in French language, culture, and history, as well as seminars with visiting authors and other special events, such as films and wine tasting. I get to class just as it's starting, and the teacher welcomes me and introduces herself as Antoinette. There are about fifteen other students of varying ages, and as we start conversing about the judicial systems in our countries, I learn that we are almost all from different places. There's a guy and a girl from England, college-aged, three Italian women, a girl from Brazil, one from Turkey, another American, and a woman from Singapore. As I chat with Camilla form Brazil and Sylvia from Singapore, it strikes me as kind of cool that we can't fall back on English at all, because French is the only language we have in common!

colorful side of building
Sarah Weaver

The Pompidou Center

For the rest of the morning, Antoinette ruthlessly corrects our pronunciation (she threatens to throw us par la fenêtre if we make a mistake!) and puts us through exercises in pronouns, verb tenses, and figurative expressions. By the time class is over, I'm starving and could really use a nap. However, I still have lots to do today, so I grab a panini from a boulangerie and find the nearest metro stop, this time to go to the Pompidou Center Library.

The Pompidou Center is located in Les Halles, a magical, labyrinthine neighborhood on the Right Bank with narrow, winding streets that open up into quaint squares and courtyards when you least expect it. In such a picturesque setting, the Pompidou Center looks like it landed on the wrong planet. A gargantuan modern rectangle, all its pipes and plumbing are exposed on the outside and painted bright green, blue, red, or yellow. The museum of modern art takes up most of the building, but part of the first and second floors is reserved for the Bibliothéque Publique d'Information. I get off the metro right at the foot of the building and follow signs to the library entrance, marked by a huge green neon sign. I weave my way through what feels like miles of dividers, intended to organize the lines when thousands of high school and college students come here to study for their exams. Fortunately, there's no line today, and I easily pass through security, up an escalator, and into the library.

Luckily for me, the Pompidou Center is much less formal than the National Library. There's no access fee and I don't need a card to get in, although visitors are still not permitted to check books out. I find an open computer station and click my way into the library's periodical database. I type "francophonie" into the subject search, hit enter, and am immediately inundated with over 600 direct matches! I guess I have my work cut out for me. Briefly, I speak to a librarian about printing articles. He pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose and instructs me on how to buy a copy card.

people sitting on square with trees and buildings
Sarah Weaver

A view of the square outside the Pompidou Center

Back at the computer, I fall into a rhythm, reading article titles, scanning for relevance, searching for dates that match those of the Francophonie summits. At these meetings, held every few years since 1986 in a different member country, all the important heads-of-state got together to discuss the state of the French-speaking world and what they could do about it. As I search through the database, I discover that the press really didn't have much to say about Francophonie until 1997, when the new Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali formally announced that the OIF would now be a politically-oriented organization.

Six hours and 10 Euros worth of photocopies later, I find my way out of the library and blink in the sunlight, enjoying a great sense of accomplishment. I am finding what I'm looking for! I can't wait to go back to the library tomorrow to continue my discoveries.

June 23, 2007

A  Paris cafe at dusk

A Paris café at dusk

Right across the street from my apartment is Reid Hall, a study abroad base run by Columbia University. I went through their housing service to find my apartment, and since I still don't have my own internet, I head over there to get online. The main doors open up on a quiet courtyard, where ancient trees arch over green benches and a small rose garden perfumes the air. I sit at a table on the sun porch, checking email and browsing through the BnF's online catalog.

In an adjoining room, someone starts to play the piano. They warm up a little bit, winding their way through a few scales before launching into a wistful melody. It sounds like Schubert. Sure enough, at the end of the introduction, a soprano joins in clear, articulate German. My work forgotten, I am in another time and place as I listen. Suddenly, the lied breaks off as abruptly as it started. The soprano is thanking the pianist in English and then running off to class. I hear her exit through another door.

I decide to take the afternoon off from the library and explore the city a little bit with Grace, a girl I met at Reid Hall who goes to Harvard. On Monday, we had gone out to dinner at a crêperie on Rue Montparnasse and really hit it off, so today we are going to check out the Montparnasse Cemetery. We meet at her apartment over on Rue Saint-Michel and then stroll towards the skyscraper of Montparnasse.

When we reach the cemetery, a guard hands us a map and we pause to examine it. "Cool, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are buried over here," Grace says, pointing. "And there's Saint-Saëns," I add. We set out on our quest, searching for names we recognize among the rows and rows of tombs. I have goose bumps as a stone angel stares down at us from atop a headstone and a Virgin Mary gazes up in anguished prayer from another. We find Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baudelaire, and Ionesco and then spend a ridiculous amount of time trying to find Durkheim. "This man just doesn't want to be found!" Grace exclaims as we finally give up. "How hard can this be? It's not like we're looking for a moving target!"

We stop at a café for a drink, and I still have heebie-jeebies halfway through our coffees. Enough cemeteries for me for one day! As we chat about school and France and wine, the dark guy at the next table looks up from his German grammar workbook and asks us where we're from. It turns out he is from Lebanon and is in Paris working for a German automobile parts distributor. Thus the German.

Eiffel Tower
Sarah Weaver

A visit to Paris would not be complete without the Eiffel Tower!

For dinner, we buy galettes from a street vendor and eat as we stroll up Boulevard du Montparnasse. It's about 8:30 and it still looks like afternoon. I always forget about that when I come to stays light out so late and your body clock naturally shifts back. I don't even think about dinner until around 8 or 9. Grace and I pass a movie theater and decide to go see a very educational, French movie, "Shrek le Troisième." Besides the fact that we laugh the whole way through, it actually is pretty educational: the film is in English with French subtitles, but there are jokes that Grace and I laugh at that go completely over the French audience's head. The opposite is true as well; the French think that Pinocchio's nose getting longer is pretty much the funniest thing they've ever seen.

At the end of a relaxing day, I return to my apartment and call my family and my boyfriend. Everyone is glad to know that I am getting habituated to life here in Paris. Can I miss them all and love where I am at the same time, and kind of want to go back but not really? Either way, I still have a long time left in Paris and plenty of adventures waiting for me at the libraries.


Last Updated May 12, 2016