A personal Parisian experience cut short by crisis
April 1, 2020
About six hours before I was supposed to leave France, I rode the metro for the last time with a stack of moving boxes under my arm. An old lady standing next to me noticed what I was carrying and asked me if I was departing the country, and when I told her I was, she smiled sadly and shook her head. “I haven’t seen this many people leave Paris in a long time,” she said, “probably since World War Two.”
Though I’m only a freshman in college, it certainly felt like she was right. When I arrived in Paris last August for my year abroad, I was forced to grow accustomed to the hordes of tourists being herded around the monuments near my campus, or the Parisians pushing you onto the subway at rush hour, or how thick and smoky the air felt when at a crowded bar. The Paris I left behind was a different being entirely—this Paris was deserted, left alone to the natives, who eyed you suspiciously in the metro, as if they could spot the coronavirus hidden in your bones if they looked hard enough.
It seemed unreal that I even had to leave at all. I was studying at New York University in Paris and the University of Paris, and both schools used vague language in all of their email correspondence up until the penultimate moment. The staff ensured students that they were “monitoring the situation carefully” and “had the students’ best interests at heart.” As of just over two weeks ago, I wasn’t concerned about going home. I renewed my gym membership and my public transport pass. Booked a bus ticket to Amsterdam for 11 euros. Finally found a youth hostel to stay in for our spring break trip to Greece. Concerns about coronavirus were at the periphery, something nobody wanted to yet acknowledge.
The first emails from NYU assured students that they were looking out for us. Then they closed the NYU Florence campus and gave students a week to evacuate. NYU Paris told us we were safe, but could choose to leave if we wanted. I refused. The staff at the school was miserably out of the loop. One day I was meeting with one of our Student Liaisons and Program Directors, who promised me that NYU would never kick us out of the dorms. Exactly four minutes after our meeting ended, NYU sent an email closing all academic centers at every campus and strongly requesting all students to return to America, where lessons would commence for the rest of the semester online. But yet I stayed, reluctant to pay housing fees for a dormitory that I would not even be living in.
About three nights later, my friends and I were sitting in my friend’s dorm room listening to jazz and hanging out. Around 2 a.m. Paris time, my friend Zoe got a notification that President Trump was closing US borders to all those coming from Europe within 48 hours. Pandemonium erupted. Although we could return as US citizens, there was still concern that when France inevitably closed its borders, we could be stuck here until our visas expired. Flight costs skyrocketed and people panicked. Zoe booked a flight home that left at 7 a.m., leaving her about four hours to pack up a year of her life, say goodbye, get to the airport, and go through customs. NYU Paris emailed everyone and said they were closing the dorms and that there would be croissants in the lounge.
Last August, it took me about a week to pack for my year abroad in France. It took me 45 minutes to pack it all up and leave. I booked a $2,500 flight back to Chicago, charged it to NYU, and left to fly back to Chicago at 3:30 a.m. the following day. Customs took six hours.
Now I’m home and taking classes online through Zoom on Paris time, which means my classes are at 2:00 a.m., 3:45 a.m., 6:15 a.m., and 9:00 a.m. Chicago time. I stare at my professors in a 1 inch by 1 inch box on my computer and hear the tinny sound of their voices talk to me about Voltaire and Rousseau through my headphone speakers. In my Cultural Foundations class, we used to spend all class period looking at art in museums like the Louvre, or take day trips to castles in Normandy to talk about Medieval Art. Now I look at PDFs. In my French class, we used to do scavenger hunts through the Old Jewish Quarter of Paris and end up in libraries and cafés older than America, where we would chat with French people about love and food and politics. Now I submit a recording of me reading French poetry to my professor who emails me back my grade.
Don’t get me wrong. I could not be more grateful for the six months I got to spend immersed in such a beautiful country. But everytime I close my computer screen after these half-hearted lessons, I can’t help but think of what I’m missing. I think of things I can never get back. Hearing Parisians chant La Marseille at soccer games. Picnicking in the park next to my dormitory with friends, watching the swans make their lazy circles in the lake. I think of Ratface at the bar down the street, who cheered “Americans!” whenever we came in. The employee at the gym who said “Bon workout, tous les doux” as Zoe and I ran on the treadmill. The Kiloshop thrift store in the third arrondissement where I bought my favorite sweater. The volunteer crossing guard who would take little French kids by the hand and skip with them across the street on the way to school. The bookshop that would write poems into the flaps of every book you bought. The smell of fresh bread. My french friend that invited me over to watch the Paris St. Germain game, who I had to tell I actually moved back to America. College students gathering at the foot of the Pantheon to smoke. Fresh produce. Seeing Parisians partying in their apartments by the lights in their windows at night. The old man selling books on the Seine. Everything. Everything.
I, for the first time, developed pride in a country I had no blood affiliation with. And then suddenly it was gone. I will never have the chance to be 18 and left alone to explore Paris alongside my friends again. I’m going to get my journalism degree and be broke for the rest of my life. I won’t be able to afford a crepe, let alone a plane ticket. But I cannot get over the fact that two weeks ago, I was living in Paris. I haven’t even unpacked my suitcase—I think a part of me is convinced that if it’s still sitting unopened by the foot of my bed, I’d always be ready, and I could go back.
This column was written by DGN alum and former Omega News Editor Katherine Gross, who attended NYU Paris for the 2019/2020 school year.