Living and Surprises: The Four Week Mark

Four weeks in and Madame Morio has finally explained the breakdown of grades for our French Grammar class. Although she kept changing how the percentages were divided in her five minute spiel, so it's not really as if any of us came out of class any more sure than before.

Not that any of us are concerned. About 50% of my classmates are real people (post- grads with real life responsibilities aka jobs, children). The other 50% are students abroad, of which 25% are not receiving credit for the class.

And unlike Madame’s percentage breakdown, I, for one, am sure about this division.

It's amazing how quickly the freshness of an environment dissipates, how quickly one adapts when lunged into the unfamiliar. How little time it takes for the new to morph into the norm.

Yet, familiar is a tricky term. Because while my surroundings have shaped into the familiar, it's not as if Paris has become the familiar.  Each day brings with it a surprise, a discovery, a new level of understanding. 

Jardin du Luxembourg
I’m seated on an olive green, metal lawn chair in the Jardin (garden) du Luxembourg. My Paris and Civilization class is meeting in an hour, just down the street from the jardin for an on site visit to Paris's Pantheon (once a church, today a structure that honors great men and women of Paris’s past.)

I've got an interesting view from where I'm seated, a sort of encirclement of structures that tell the story of the progression of the city. The Eiffel Tower, one of the city’s first breaks in modernity, and the Tour Montparnasse, one of central Paris’s few sky scrapers (highly disliked by the majority), loom in view in front of me, however distant. The Pantheon is to my back (although can't be seen from inside of the jardin), the oldest structure of the three.

There’s a blend of people here, from students partaking in their afternoon social hour, to the line of toddlers, connected via the chain of held hands, waddling their way around the perimeter of the central fountain on their afternoon field trip. I'm plugged into my headphones, yet I'm aware of the stillness in the atmosphere-- a stillness of peace.

It's quite relaxing.

There's a large cemetery situated on the street opposite my apartment building. It’s a cemetery mentioned in my Paris guidebook as it contains the grave sites of several notable names. The cemetery’s side green door is always ajar and pedestrians breeze their way in and out of the grounds. 

There’s something about cemeteries that scare me. It’s how real, how tangible death becomes once you're standing over the grounds that hold the remains of those passed on.

But, cutting through the cemetery would halve my walk to class in the morning. Which, you know, could give me five extra minutes on Facebook before setting off for two hours of French Grammar.

I’m not sure if it’s respectful to walk through a cemetery, but I figured I’d attempt crossing through it. And so I stepped in, hesitantly. Except I found I couldn’t move, couldn’t walk further into the cemetery's grounds.

It took me a week to finally muster about the courage to walk through my fear, a week to set foot in and wander through the perimeter of headstones.

There's actually a beauty to the cemetery; a beauty to how quiet it is inside, to the layers of history of people contained inside. It's been four days since my success in crossing through. I've begun to recognize the headstones I pass daily, noticing the few Jewish graves scattered among the many. There was a woman standing by one of the 2010 Jewish headstones yesterday morning—the fuzz of her hair the only part of her that appeared put together. She turned to look at me as I walked by, her eyes puffy behind the circles of her glasses.  

There’s a headstone from the 1800s a few down from the Jewish grave the woman stood at. Another from 1991. 1800 and 1991 never knew each other, were never alive at the same time. Yet the two must have walked the grounds of Paris at some point. It’s a strange concept to think they all share that in common, yet at such different points in the span of the world. It’s odd to think once we pass on, we become joined together within the community of the universe. We all become one of the many, of a cemetery of hundreds, a universe of millions.

A friend had taken me to a cemetery in Melbourne. It was my first time entering a cemetery for the ordinary person, as opposed to state cemeteries for soldiers or famous cemeteries for names well known. My experience at the Melbourne cemetery paralleled the six months since I had lost both of my great- grandparents, my first real connection to death within my family. It's a subject I still find difficult to open about, a subject that, at the time, I had yet to really confront.

And so the Melbourne cemetery had absolutely shocked me. I stood there alone for a while, consumed by the fear that morphed. I eventually calmed down, and spent the time glossing over the headstones of the cemetery, of headstones reading beloved mother and father, wife and husband, grandmother and grandfather. Headstones that read survived by children and grandchildren. 

We all leave this earth at a point. The struggles, the hurt, the pain loses all value, and it’s the love we impart onto others that remains. It’s my takeaway from cemeteries, the all to real reminder of how short life is, but the utmost importance of sucking out the good and beauty life has to offer.  

I'm acutely aware of how precious each moment is here, a definite factor that stems from the fact I have five months remaining in this experience abroad. The awareness of the moment is what channels my appreciation for now. It’s nice to not have the months ahead as my focus, so different from my life in D.C.

I've decided the challenge to myself lies in seeing how much of this mindset I can apply come my return to the states (lies, not actually returning.) My life at school is a constant go, a daily planned out schedule that often leaves out room to breathe. And so how much of my mentality from this life abroad can I apply to my life at home? But the question and the challenge is all for later. 

For now, I'm four weeks in. 

Four weeks into my life abroad; A month of settling in and adapting, adjusting and living. 
Four weeks in and life's pretty darn good.

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