Think of Paris, and images materialize of sublime art and cosmopolitan sophistication. “We all romanticize the culture, and it’s fine to do that,” says Bruno Perreau, the Cynthia L. Reed Professor and associate professor of French studies. “But we also need to add different layers and rethink the connection between myth and reality,” he says.
In search of this connection, Perreau brought seven students to Paris for the annual January Scholars in France program, offered during MIT’s independent activities period. Chosen through a competitive process, the January Scholars students are among the best in MIT's French studies and language program, and spoke exclusively in French during their stay in Paris. For their travels, the students receive airfare, lodging in a youth hostel, transportation and meals, courtesy of the French Initiatives Endowment Fund.
Led by expert local guides, the group pursued a theme, “Paris et la rue” (Paris and the street), which took them beyond the usual tourist spots and into lesser-known residential and business neighborhoods. During walking tours, the students peeled back layers of history, learned about city planning past and present, and glimpsed behind-the-scenes views of workaday, contemporary Paris. They explored the history of street revolutions in 18th and 19th century Paris, issues of public transportation, new architectural projects, and street art. It was an itinerary that encouraged students “to encounter aspects of Parisian life they couldn’t have imagined,” says Perreau.
Another side of Paris
“We got to learn about things like the design process behind the trash cans and the type of barricades built by revolting Parisians from the 17th straight through to the 20th century,” recounts Anelise Newman, a junior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science.
“We saw parts of the city, like the business sector and the atelier and works of Raymond Moretti … and most importantly, we got to interact with Parisians not as tourists, but as students who were genuinely interested in learning the culture and mastering the language,” says Newman, who also wrote a blog post for MIT Admissions about the trip.
Unexpected episodes enlivened and enriched their daily tours. In a visit to the 13th arrondissement, which began in the 19th century as a factory district and is now home to public housing and a vibrant Asian population, the group took in the many giant murals plastered on the sides of buildings.
“We triggered reactions from locals, who argued with us about their favorite or most hated pieces of public art,” recalls Perreau. “Students were surprised about how attached people were to their personal visions of the city.”
At La Defense, a sprawling business district dotted by high-rises with a subterranean infrastructure for highways, parking, and the Metro, the group found unexpected adventure. The city’s chief archivist and a security detail opened a series of locked doors, and descending a stairway with flashlights, revealed a hidden area.
“We were taken underground to see the atelier and works of Raymond Moretti, a sculptor who passed away 13 years ago,” says Rebecca Grekin, a chemical engineering major. “We felt so privileged to be invited into a place that was normally off limits.”
Perreau, who likened the concealed cavern to “a cathedral or grotto,” was astonished to find himself face to face with a gigantic sculpture nicknamed “the monster” because of the roar from nearby subway trains.
“We had this feeling of being explorers,” he says. “I saw another side of Paris that had been concealed from me, even after having lived there for years.”
Pulling back the curtain
Even at some of the more glittery Parisian venues, MIT travelers were able to pull back the curtain and gain unusual perspectives. During a private tour of the Palais Garnier, home to the Paris Opera Ballet, the troupe’s star dancer, Germain Louvet, showed them spaces normally inaccessible to the public: a fake ceiling behind which gentleman from high society once chose dancers with whom to consort, and in the basement, a tank full of water intended in the 19th century to douse fires, but now full of koi fish.
“I grew up dancing in Accra, Ghana and was obsessed by the Paris ballet,” says Sefa Yakpo, a senior double majoring in management science and French. “So first I couldn’t believe I was standing backstage with the étoile (star), and later I was literally speechless when we went out to a café with him and learned about his life,” she says.
To top off this prized experience, the group attended a performance the following night of the ballet Don Quixote at the Bastille Opera, where they witnessed a once-in-a lifetime crowning of a female star dancer.
Yakpo, who had worked in Paris the previous summer for a consultant firm, felt as if she was seeing the city for the first time. “I walked on very familiar streets, but peeling off layers of history and understanding the politics and culture of these places showed me how a city can have many different faces,” she says.
One of Perreau’s goals was to “shift students’ perceptions of Paris and France, to build new understanding” while having fun together and enjoying the many riches the city has to offer. “There is something about pleasure at the heart of the program,” he says.
Perreau may have succeeded in ways he didn’t anticipate. Grekin returned to Boston determined to continue the French experience. “I am going to keep practicing the language with a friend I made on the trip, and start going to the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” she says.
Safpo found the Paris sojourn a balm for the soul. “At MIT, where at times facts and solving problems make life seem clinical, you can forget to embrace something just because it’s beautiful,” she says. “Music, dance, art — things that touch us — are like magic, and Paris reminded me of the importance of that.”