Musings on Dance Performance, “Volver”

This past week, my fellow francophiles and I here in Paris attended the contemporary dance performance Volver at the handsome Palais de Chaillot-Trocadéro performance hall, centered on the interaction between an individual and place, specifically regarding immigration and the difficulty in uniting identity with place. While some expressions and verb tenses were certainly lost in translation, a general message came through: adjusting to a new way of life can be difficult.4-apres-un-spectacle-de-danse-au-palais-de-chaillot-trocadero

Après un spectacle de musique et de danse au Palais de Chaillot, Trocadéro

My abroad experience has been my first exposure to learning how to live as part of another culture, not merely to visit. While my Sewanee soul would love to wish everyone a lovely morning in passing, doing so in France is generally a social faux pas. Subtleties like saying hello, asking for the bill, and when to cross the street are all relatively superficial, yet require some thought and gradual acclimatization all the same.

After attending Volver, I found myself comparing my own cultural assimilation experience with that of others coming from extremely varied backgrounds.  For those coming to a foreign country with little or no knowledge of cultural differences, I can only imagine how intimidating everyday interactions must be. When one adds a racial or religious component to this change, it really makes my abroad adjustments seem mild at most.

As an American, I find myself consuming, sharing, and participating in much of the same pop culture as Europeans. While I am a foreigner here, France is not totally foreign. France has a knowledge of America, American life, and American culture that has consistently surprised me throughout my stay. I have found that our political affairs, music, films, literature, language, etc. seem to hold a significant influence on French culture. The posters decorating métro stations bare many American actors’ faces, the music being played in cafés is so often American pop, and the similarities continue. As my language barrier lessens, I become more aware of the similarities between the two cultures and the impact of living in a time of globalization and instant communication.

As I exited the métro and made my way home following the Volver performance, I passed the same group of displaced foreigners that I pass every time I leave my metro stop, and for the first time I considered the utter unfamiliarity that these individuals face on a daily basis. While I don’t wish to get into the politics of immigration in France, I certainly felt a sense of empathy for these men, women, and children that I had not considered before. While I experience hints of homesickness, I know that I will return home and anything I find myself longing for will be waiting for me in January. For these families living on the streets, they likely don’t have that promise of a return to normalcy. They aren’t living in a country that is necessarily interested in their homeland. The posters in the métro do not show familiar faces. The lyrics to pop songs are not those to which they can sing along.

A dose of perspective came with the performance of last week, and while I am physically far from home, I have a cultural safety net simply because I am American, and that is something to find comfort in.

–Tess Steele

Parallels between Sewanee and Paris

A quintessential component of Sewanee, and perhaps its very essence, is its location nestled on the Cumberland Plateau. Acres of forests, trails, streams, mountains, caves, and scenic lookouts beckon contemplation of nature’s beauty. The presence of that which remains hardly touched by mankind is a consistent object of adoration, fascination, and education at Sewanee; one can escape the material world and lose herself in nature.

This phenomenon is seemingly nonexistent in Paris, and yet there is a striking similarity between Sewanee’s relationship with nature and Paris’s relationship with mankind. Sewanee celebrates the grandeur of the natural world; one is reminded of her smallness amongst the vastness of the cosmos. Paris celebrates the grandeur of humanity; the city is a manifestation of thousands of years of human accomplishments, triumphs, and failures. The wilderness of Sewanee and the metropolis of Paris, while seeming opposites, both encourage a deeper reflection of one’s place in the world.

This parallel occurred to me during a walk to the Louvre this week. While strolling down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, I casually glanced over my shoulder and the Panthéon was in my direct line of sight. There I was, hardly taking note of my surroundings and merely focusing on getting to class on time, and on a street away was a neoclassical masterpiece and the burial place of some of the most influential intellectuals in French history (Hugo, Zola, Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie Curie, and others). Stumbling upon the Panthéon (our group wil return there soon for a more formal encounter) is by no means a casual event, but in Paris it is a part of daily life. The Panthéon is just one of hundreds of historically relevant sites throughout the city, and it is easy to get lost amongst them.

1.le Panthéon sur la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève à Paris

Le panthéon sur la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève à Paris.

I have attempted to make a conscious effort to take in my surroundings and contemplate the importance of place.  Seeing the same monuments, artworks, cathedrals, and streets as millions of others before me makes me realize my contingency in the grand scheme of human existence. The city is a synthesis of so many different periods of human history. Egyptian artwork in the Louvre stands near baroque and rococo rooms used by 17th and 18th century kings, and all of this is being captured by iPhone cameras. There is no one time period that defines the city, and as the past is celebrated, the city is evolving constantly. The city’s fast rhythm makes the influence of Paris throughout history daunting and difficult to understand. The city, like nature, evolves and changes over time, ensuring that there is always a new facet to discover, and as the semester continues I will eagerly continue my exploration.

-Tess Steele


Sophie explique le théâtre dans la rue


La troupe après le spectacle dans la rue.6-a-la-maison-de-balzac


À la maison de Balzac.


Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine.


Breaux et Caroline with tee-shirts and medals from “We Run Paris 2016”.


Week 4 Update

This past week concluded my fourth week in Paris, and after nearly a month of adjusting to life abroad, I can confidently say that I have suffered no more than 28 hours without eating a baguette and have only gone the wrong direction on the metro twice. Call me Parisian.

In all seriousness, the greatest challenge of navigating the city has had far less to do with Google Maps than with the newfound loss of my awareness of my surroundings. Language is taken for granted until its familiarity, that ability to give you security, confidence, and understanding, vanishes. My linguistic insecurity reveals itself daily. Is the woman yelling on the metro trying to tell me something important, or perhaps just fussing at her son on the phone? Did the waiter just inform me that I ordered a 50 euro bottle of wine instead of the five euro glass? Passivity ceases to be an option when I am a foreigner. Everyday interactions get more complex, and I am forced to be an active participant in my environment, yet it is this necessity to submerge myself in French culture that allows me to understand and appreciate it.

Listening to the couple chatting beside me at a cafe, exchanging stories with my host mother, or simply taking in everyday scenes of Parisian life provides ample opportunity to celebrate progress in my French studies and actively gage my comprehension. It is an interesting balance of confusion, excitement, and growth that is now becoming my norm, and as my French improves these everyday confrontations with the language become a source of intrigue and anticipation.

I have discovered firsthand that the language of love can sound irresistibly seductive, or like a dreadful attempt at communication whilst gargling. While I gravitate towards the latter of the two (though with less frequency than in August), I have come to appreciate the art of well spoken French, thus attending a production of Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes served as a delightful manifestation of the beauties of Classical French verse in a seventeenth-century comedy.

As a class, my fellow students and I read a Molière theatrical masterpiece, a play which is both social commentary on French society of the 17th century and an extraordinary demonstration of the refinement of the language. Following a discussion of L’Ecole des femmes, we explored the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the hauntingly gothic final resting place of Molière and scores of other cultural, artistic, and historical icons. Dusk was beginning her descent over the sky, early impressions of autumn hung in the air, and leaves eerily rustled as we mulled over literature amongst the tombs, in typical Sewanee fashion.

1.devant les tombes de Molière et de La Fontaine

The gothic romanticizing came to an end with a hop on the metro, and soon we were at the Théâtre de la Tempête near the château de Vincennes for an evening of Molière. Hearing the same words that I myself had struggled to pronounce effortlessly flow from the actors’ lips elevated my appreciation for L’Ecole des femmes. There was a musical quality to the delivery, and I realized “Oh, that is how French verse is supposed to sound!” The production bought not only the language to life, but also the culture, with many a sexual suggestion, dramatic flair, and a heavy dose of French humor.

Screen Shot 2016-10-03 at 11.48.00 AMWhile I am by no means fluent after a night at the theatre, these cultural experiences are necessary if one is to not just learn the language, but to learn the culture. French history does not live in textbooks; it is visible on the streets of the city, in the museums, the architecture, the churches, and in the people.  Transforming the works of previous generations from words on a page to conversation, while certainly not always easy, is why I am a student of the humanities, and the chance to contextualize French culture in the country itself is worth getting a little lost on the metro for.

– Tess Steele

3.Tess Steele devant la tombe de Delacroix, Cimetière du Père-Lachaise