Bienvenue à Paris. Welcome to Paris, France. For many of the 50 of us who went on this trip, it was our first time there, and for some, even their first time in Europe. When we think of Paris, we see romance (whatever that looks like) and the Eiffel Tower in its skeletal glory. This trip, though, gave us an opportunity to venture beyond the safe waters of Singapore and enter a city known for its deep-rooted cultural heritage, and discover that Paris is more than just the city of love (although for some… well, let’s leave it at that).
We remembered our first day there, feeling slightly disappointed that the area where we would be staying was so…pedestrian. There weren’t any of your usual Parisian stereotypes: no jovial Frenchmen in berets serenading the street with accordions, no skinny androgynous people stalking around in all black, cigarettes dangling nonchalantly from their lips as they judged and dismissed you in the span of six seconds. Instead, there were a bunch of burly guys loading cherries and fresh produce off a truck; a young Scout peering at the city map; and an intoxicated, suspiciously dazed Australian who lurched up to us and asked if we were having a party (a dozen bleary-eyed Asian kids squatting around and guarding luggage; some party).
Our hotel was tiny but comfortable; rooms didn’t have toothpaste or showering materials but were bizarrely equipped with hairdryers, and the hallway lights had that annoying habit of switching themselves off when you were only halfway to your room, leaving you to scramble and feel your way in the musty darkness the rest of the way. Many of us had – out of worry, guilt, or peer pressure – brought work to do but we think we can speak for the majority of us when we say we didn’t do anything with our math tutorials except leave them to fester in our respective suitcases.
There was plenty of education to be had, though. The primary purpose of the trip was to attend a series of lectures by lecturers of SciencesPo, one of the leading political science institutions in the world. A wide range of topics was covered, from the history of Paris to the recent financial debacle, to the (frankly) surprisingly engaging discussion on Europe’s dwindling ecological diversity. The variety and interconnectedness of the topics meant that we went away after a week with a density of knowledge about Paris, France, and the European Union that could hardly have been obtained from Wikipedia or even the pages of The Economist. After a morning of lessons, students from SciencesPo would bring us around the city, from le Marais, where a conglomeration of trendy art galleries, Jewish restaurants, and gay bars was sure to make for interesting company; to the cobblestoned streets of Montmartre, home to artists and bohemia (pretentious or otherwise), and their resident football juggler, Iya Traore.
Of course, no trip to Paris would be a trip to Paris without the obligatory tourist visitations to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, etc. We won’t talk about those too much, because if anyone wanted to read about them all they’d need to do would be to check out one of thousands of travel reviews online. For many of us, clichéd as it might sound, the architectural splendour of the spires and arches of the various monuments we visited was sometimes literally breath-taking. For the rest…suffice to say some would find the cost of clambering up hundreds of steps to the top of the Tower prohibitive, and others were more delighted in Shakespeare & Co. and the purported best ice-cream in Paris round the corner than the grandeurs of the cathedral.
Paris isn’t just the solemn grandiosity of its urban landscape, of course. We passed by many things that undoubtedly could make a smile break out immediately: the merry band of octogenarians holding an impromptu gig on the Pont des Arts (more famously known as the Lovers’ Bridge), or the frantic delight of speed-shopping in thrift shops for velvet blazers and vintage skirts, or the sight of rows upon rows of market stalls on a Sunday morning selling whole roasted chickens, pastries, and heaps of strawberries.
On any school trip, the objective is to learn. And we did – we learnt from the professors in SciencesPo about politics and the economy; we learnt from our fantastic student guides about the history and quirks of the neighbourhood; we learnt from what we saw as we walked through the avenues that Parisian drivers couldn’t care less about traffic lights, and that locals are only ever mean to you if you’re American and loud. In fact, many Parisians were quite amused by the idea of Asians in France – we ran into stall owners who greeted us in a variety of languages (one such example was a roast chicken seller who laboriously said “AHH-ree-GAH-TOH” as we left), and most amusingly a security officer who asked us to open our bags with “da kai ni de bao bao” (it took us awhile to understand what he was saying, though). So this was an educational trip, in more ways than one, but it was also always incredibly good fun – and that’s the best kind of trip anyone can ask for.
Of course, we have to thank the teachers that accompanied us on this trip – Ms Angela Chew, Mr Caleb Liu and Ms Fiona Lio, who displayed incredible patience and self-control in putting up with our shenanigans, such as leaving our Metro cards in (the pants we wore the day before) our hotel rooms, or getting left behind on the train (or for some of us, getting off 4 stops later than we were supposed to). Without them, we certainly wouldn’t have made it through a week in Paris alive.
To be honest, Paris is dirty and dangerous and probably the only city where starving to death is considered an art. It’s also souvenir shops that sell boxers designed with the Paris Metro map, the underwhelming fraction of the Mona Lisa you can see from behind dozens of heads and shady restaurants that serve (literally) vomit-inducing pasta, and unscrupulous pickpockets that try to sweet-talk ten euro out of you and lift your phone at the same time. But it’s also meanderingly labyrinthine streets and tiny dogs being walked by tiny grandmas and the smell of a hot cup of coffee and a croissant in the morning. Spending a week during our June holidays in a city this rich with culture, history, and idiosyncrasies, what more could we have asked for?
Additional reporting done by Gaius Ong (14A01B)