October 11, 2007

Bonjour Cornell

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There will be moments, while studying abroad, when you wonder how the hell you ever thought you could live in another country for an entire semester. It will happen when you find yourself stranded at 1:30 AM in a slightly menacing neighborhood, cursing the miscommunication that lead you to believe that the Metro would be running till 2:00. Your classes, which you’ve heard should be a breeze, are conducted in a language of which you can only understand 50% when you’re paying 100% attention. And a cruel irony, which seems to be the theme of your life at this point, assures that the better your accent gets, the more people assume you understand their rapid-fire speech. Unfortunately, the two aren’t always correlated.
Confident that I would be immune to such “culture shock” when I came to Paris, I was horrified to find myself knee-deep in it. However, I knew well enough that to call up my parents and beg for a one-way ticket back to the states was not the answer. I decided instead to give myself a little break and explore the parts of Paris that, when navigated skillfully, require little to no comprehension of the French language.
For good reason, Paris is considered one of the performing arts capitals of the world. Every week there is an inexhaustible supply of films, ballets, operas, and concerts from which to choose that will suit every taste. Luckily for expats like myself, Parisians happen to love American movies.
This is how I found myself at a showing of “King of California” one Monday morning. Apart from basking in my re-found appreciation for the English language, I enjoyed making an anthropological study out of an American film playing in France.
For starters, I noticed that the subtitles did not always correspond with the dialogue. Many things were poorly translated, or were simply untranslatable between the two languages. It was a shame for the majority of the audience, since they missed out on some pretty funny lines. But I realized that even if our idiomatic expressions could have been exchanged for French ones, the Parisians wouldn’t have necessarily found the jokes humorous. The French, being French, could not have understood the subtle social commentary being made on American culture.
My little study turned into a brief existential crisis. If the French don’t get what’s on in an American setting with the aid of subtitles, how did that bode for my own understanding of all things French? How was I ever going to “be on the inside”, if mastering the language was just half the battle? Damn it, what was the point of studying abroad anyway?
It was a horrible thought – but I wasn’t about to give up, not just yet. In other words, I wasn’t going to leave Paris before seeing the ballet. I was lucky enough to go to a performance that featured dancers from six different ballet schools located in the US, England, Western and Eastern Europe. A pair from each country performed two pas de deux, one classical and one modern, which amounted to a performance that transcended both time and borders.
It was exactly what I needed to jumpstart me out of my funk. Without the mingling of cultures, the exchange of ideas, and yes, the learning of other languages, there would be no ballet for the world to enjoy.
The ballet as we know it today is a perfect example of the proverbial cultural melting pot. The technical language of ballet is French, while it’s Russia that seems to turn out the best dancers. And these dancers in turn participate in ballet companies all over the world (the current star of the American Ballet Theater, Irina Kolesnikova, hails from St. Petersburg). The companies may have a nationality attached to them, but it’s just a name. In reality, the ballet schools are borderless.
And unlike film, there are no inside jokes in a ballet (at least none that I caught on to…). It’s an art form that can be appreciated and admired by a person from any culture and of any language.
And so, my faith in this cosmopolitan world and my ability to get along in it restored by the arts (as always), I will continue to struggle on, push myself to read, speak, and think in French. Maybe something cross-culturally-productive will come of my semester in Paris. We can only hope.