March 9, 2010

Life Is Beautiful: Notes From Paris

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I got up last Wednesday already preparing myself for what has become one of only three school days a week. It’s a 45-minute commute on the metro followed by a 10 minute walk, so by the time I slip on over to Paris 1’s Plastic Arts building, Black Star’s been bumping through my earmuff headphones for long enough and I’m ready to try and understand some damn French.      My prof was sporting her usual Avril Lavigne getup (who, incidentally, was my hopefully future wife when I was 13 — I’ve gotten sidetracked, but still maintain a little ray of hope) and launched into her lecture on Rossellini after a casual glance around the room. Three hours later, Milos and I stumbled out of the classroom behind the sullen-faced French hipsters — they don’t talk to us, doubtlessly intimidated by our cheekbones and fourth grade level French. We won’t be asked to turn anything in for another two months. Until next week, Avril.      You probably hear from your friends abroad that the classes are a joke. Actually, I know you do. But the fact of the matter is that there’s such a discrepancy between American universities and most of the rest of the world that comparisons are totally meaningless. Brushing aside the insane tuition differences — a year at a Parisian public university costs about $1,500, if that — the attitude towards higher education across the pond is one of casual nonchalance compared to the Adderall-bumping intensity that takes place in between Olin and Uris.      I’m not saying any of this as an affront to Cornell and the vast majority of us who work way too hard for a piece of paper and a line on a resume. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m proud of you! Being across the pond the last few months has, however, taught me to get just a little casual. The idea of competition that’s been engrained deep in our bones doesn’t exist in most places, and frankly, it’s for the best. It gives students — everyone, really — the time and patience to think of things other than their Future Place In The World, too often confused with their reason for being. Acting as a consummate example, Paris has embraced the endorsement of every kind of art, from grandiose exhibitions in swooping churches to the natural poetry that occurs at night when the shadows in a tree’s bare branches get caught between a car’s headlights.      The physical city itself shoulders most of the load. Between Haussmann’s yawning boulevards and the surprisingly short stature of most of the buildings, Paris automatically draws the eye to its ornate details. At night, apartments reveal streetlamps hidden during daytime that accentuate the stone curls and flourishes that would otherwise be overlooked and forgotten. Gardens are meticulously manicured, the trees pruned into gorgeous squares and patterns to provide a different kind of portrait while we wait for the leaves to bud. Most surprising, however, is that the living city responds.      People look real good here. I’ve seen 6s turn to 8s after a Parisian transformation. They just know how to dress, we don’t. Whatever. But again, maybe it’s that attention to artistic detail that makes everyone slow down as they cross the river to look out onto the cityscape, or take the time to watch a seasoned pro make a crepe, hands whistling around the batter and griddle to carelessly toss ingredients in before producing a deliciously temporary work of art.      In the end, what really matters is that the lifestyle produces relaxation. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that everything has a context and no one thing is life or death. Regardless of the locale, we’re surrounded by snapshot moments of visual poetry every day — it’s just a matter of getting outside of your own shell of stress to give it a nod. Some of my most beautiful memories at Cornell came at the most unexpected times: Dabrowski deciding to howl at the moon in the middle of the night before classes started, catching Segway Kid’s eye in a moment that captured his supreme indifference or, of course, S.G. catching a volley of vomit that had been launched over the balcony two floors earlier by a damsel in distress. In Paris, it all got summed up the other night as I had just missed the last metro of the night. It was around 2 a.m., I wasn’t sober and was staring down a walk home that would take at least an hour. As the train pulled away, its last car laughing at me, it revealed a couple Frenchies finishing up their graffitied magnum opus: spanning 10 feet in fat purple and green bubble letters, they declared: “poetry is natural; it’s the water for our thirst.”

Original Author: Graham Corrigan