It’s interesting, but being in Paris in a French immersion program makes me desperate not only for the occasional connection with home, but also a deluge of English. Consequently, I troll google news – and the story that struck home today was about the New York Phil playing in Pyongyang. Apparently Kim Jung Il couldn’t make it to the concert – being too busy trying to figure out how to not dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons, presumably. The cited reason was that he couldn’t be bothered to attend since Condoleeza Rice flew to China to bolster the Six-Nation agreement instead of dropping by his country so his starving people would have to be hidden from her.
Obviously I’m worked up about this. When I was in China, the U.S. Ambassador was a little late to a dinner he had scheduled with us because he was working on the Six-Nation talks, and then during the meal we got to talk to him about the situation for more than an hour. So many people in the world are so oppressed, and it makes me mad! The next step is to figure out what to do about it. Public health efforts and other development work is crucial, I believe, but true economic and political freedom is still a work in progress for many, many citizens of the world.
But perhaps music does represent freedom. I think of Shostakovich and his poignant and pointed musical critique of Stalinism on one hand, and the fiercely free and haunting traditional melodies of South Sudan on the other. There is a huge difference in the technical sophistication of the pair, but both ring so strongly of a sacred defiance.
I went to a concert by the Paris city orchestra and chorus yesterday night at St. Sulpice. They played part (thankfully…if it had been four hours long the subway would have stopped running and I wouldn’t have been able to get home) of a Wagner Opera, a Brahms chorale work and Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, (in French, the translation is less charitable – the “Unachieved” Symphony!) but the real treasure of the night was a piece I’d not heard before but LOVED entitled Le Mort de Boris Godunov. It’s fantastic, and Mussorgsky has this same deliciously effective air of defiance. Not only does he break most of the “rules” of western composition, but he also flouts death itself– the piece is a totally beautiful cacophony of joy in the face of sorrow and grief.
It’s hard to believe, but I think it was even more wonderful than all of the lovely food I’ve been eating. My host mother is quite a cook, and she’s also very indulgent. She told me that she loves cooking for me because I like everything, but honestly she’s just incredible. We have 4 and 5 course meals every night, she buys the cheese she knows that I like best, and tonight she made sour cherry soup for me. Heaven will be stocked with this particular dessert, I can tell you, and it knocks the socks off of ambrosia.
My pants don’t seem to be much tighter, however, and that is perhaps because I walk around everywhere. I’ve traipsed through all of the arrondisements (districts) of Paris now – not lost, per se, because I could find where I am on my map if I so desired – but rather, wandering so as to get to know the city. I do this after my classes end at 1 pm, and it has been a fabulous time to think. I also haunt museums! I have unlimited access to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay as a student for only 30 euro, which considering the time I’ve already spent there is a ridiculously low per-hour cost. I probably didn’t think I would say this when I was a freshman, but I am so very thankful for Dr. Brettel’s class now! He structured his art history class as an analysis of the influence Paris had on various painters, and threw in some composers to boot. How perfect, right? It’s sort of the way I felt in Rome, too, when I went right after taking AP European History, which of course included oodles of information about painters, architects and their works.
I have to leave chez moi by before 8 am though, in order to get to class on time – so my night life is a bit restricted. Most diversions don’t even start getting wound up until 11. The four or five times I’ve been out until 2 – the absolute limit since the last subway trains leave the outskirts of Paris on their treks across the city at 1:30 – I have paid dearly the next day. So, coupled with the fact that I’m easily spooked on the metro at night by myself, I’ve learned my lesson. However, I want to fully experience Paris, and one of my friends lives only about 5 minutes away, so when we go out we always try to ride back together. I feel perfectly safe, actually, although one friend had her phone stolen out of her pocket and another had her wallet stolen out of her purse while it was sitting on her feet at a movie theater, and therefore I have doubled my vigilance.
But now, having traveled to Florence, Pisa, London and Oxford over the last few weekends, I appreciate Paris so much more as home. I feel in place now, and it’s nice to have a place that I feel like is mine. My French keeps improving, and it was actually a relief to be back in Paris after Italy and even England for some reason. I have to think sometimes about English words…I had the hardest time thinking of “altruism” the other day.
I got to see ’02 Scholar Sophie Rutenbar in London, which was great. She is a truly remarkable person! I also spent a day with my mentor from my experience in Sudan and his wife and their son and got to see his lab at the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (the British way of saying “public health”) where he is a Fellow. I got to see Chagas under a microscope and see lots of bugs that are responsible for spreading diseases. Oxford was a bit of a whirlwind, but I got to visit the Rhodes Scholars’ Common Room and drink their very fancy glass-bottled, logoed sparkling and still water (and elderberry juice) and eat their brownies. I have now eaten White House brownies (for Presidential Scholars), Ross Perot’s brownies, Mrs. McDermott’s brownies, and the Rhodes Scholars’ brownies. I’m really being honest here – Mrs. McDermott’s taste the best. I also had dinner with one of Sophie’s friends in the Hall at Merton College, the first college at Oxford to admit students. It was BEAUTIFUL. New College at Oxford is apparently where the Harry Potter eating scenes were filmed, and each of the halls is pretty similar. Merton recently had an alum give 10 million pounds for the food services at the college, so as you can imagine the food was quite good, especially for what is essentially a cafeteria. I hope that our trusty dining hall development committee will do just as good a job :)
I miss everyone in Dallas!