By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French
The Croft Magazine // Xander Brett pens the first of his weekly series 'Letters from Paris', detailing student life in the world's culture capital.
20th September, 2020
The French are convinced their way of life is best. If the visitor numbers are anything to go by, millions agree. Each year the streets of Paris are filled by curious tourists, inquisitive artists and pleasure-seeking gourmands. They come to find love, to write, to paint, to photograph, to discover and to uncover. Creatives mix with politicians, young students with old refugees. Paris is the world’s cultural, culinary and romantic capital. Concurrently, it’s the political heart of France and its empire. Now linked to our island by train, France is our closest neighbour, and yet it’s a country so many of us still know so little about.
I’ve been exiled to Paris for a year, studying History of Art at the Sorbonne III, the section of the former University of Paris that, I’m reliably informed, is for the artistics amongst us… not that I’m particularly one of those, being more an art historian than an artist. Still, the Sorbonne will be a bastion of academic thought amidst the more frivolous delights of this city. I’ve been here but a week, yet my routine has been rehearsed for a lifetime. Living in Paris is a dream. I’m reminded of the film An Education, though I hope my outcome will be more fortunate than Jenny’s. When I first came here I, like her, was entranced by the elegant simplicity of this city’s buildings and residents. It seemed at once alive, yet equally refined. Paris is France. France is Paris. To be Parisian is to be as French as they come. Like Italy and Spain, France is a nation of fragmented identities. Paris and the Île de France region is exactly that: an island of pure Frenchness in a diverse – often divided – landscape.
I’m speaking to you from my apartment on the Île Saint-Louis. I’m in the sixteenth sector of the fourth arrondissement. I’m just a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame and the Hôtel de Ville, and written large across the gate opposing me is printed the French devise: ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité.’ Small French and European flags hang loosely from the École de Garçons, and outside the Église Saint-Louis-en-l’Île, there’s a church party in full swing.This desk is where, until May, I’ll share the politics and culture of France with you. Letters from Paris has been called a rip-off Letter from America. I, indeed, am a rip-off Alistair Cooke. Yet, like Mr Cooke, my love of France is as concrete as his love of America. My predispositions, too, are as far entrenched. My desire to discover - and to be proved wrong - is as equally determined.
I’ve been coming to France since I was small, visiting my grandparents in the Gers départment. I’ve travelled across France, from Normandy to the Alps. But, each year, I experience the same sting of excitement when I set foot on French soil. Sure, Britain’s individuality makes every country foreign. But France’s difference is particularly striking, and it never leaves you, however often you come. I’ve no doubt that, even over the course of a year, that initial excitement won’t dissipate. I hope I can share it with you, too. As we explore France, may your preconceptions be challenged. And may mine.
Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.