Tag Archives: Paris

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bastille Day (But Were Too Afraid to Ask)

Paris – July 1789

It is a hot, summer morning in Paris. Like the humidity which lies heavy upon the city, a spirit of unrest stews in the air. Thanks to M. Réveillon’s recent, ill-conceived proposal to the city council on combatting poverty (and the subsequent razing of his factory), rumors and complaints buzz from mouths hungrier for conspiracy than for bread. The word on the street is that a plot is being hatched in the halls of power— though the would-be perpetrators and victims remain unclear. One thing is clear, however: a storm is brewing, and the question on everyone’s lips is not whether, but when it will break upon Paris.

The epicenter in this hive of discontentment is a little neighborhood in the eastern end of the city, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, couched in the shadow of the Bastille— or bastion— which has protected the city gate here since the late 1300s. What is the source of this discord and why does this particular quartier stir like a kicked ants’ nest? To answer “why,” we must first ask “what.”  That is, “What is this fortress of stone standing before us?”

The Bastille

Bastille,_1790_retouchedThe Bastille was constructed as a guard post for the Porte Sainte-Antoine in 1370, during the Hundred Years’ War against the English. Over the centuries, it grew into a rather formidable state prison, though the prisoners kept there were often of the noble or royal variety. Despite the fact that many of these prisoners lived in rather lavish conditions (some even brought their own furniture, held dinner parties, and could even leave during the day as long as they slept there at night), thanks to some of their colorful autobiographies, the Bastille developed an ominous reputation as a place of unspeakable horrors.

While it is true that abuses did occur there, the denizens of the surrounding Faubourg Saint-Antoine seem to have been able only to guess at the atrocities allegedly committed within its walls. In those days, it didn’t take much to be thrown into the Bastille: no judge or jury were required, only a lettre de cachet. In any case, the imposing structure eventually came to be associated with arbitrary authority and the abuse of royal power.

Defecation, Demonstration, and Decapitation

Marquis_de_Sade_portraitOne such prisoner of the Bastille was the “deviant” Marquis de Sade (from whose name we derive the word “sadism” and “sadistic” thanks to his libertine writings on sexuality and even more violent practice of it). Imprisoned by his own mother-in-law’s lettre de cachet, the Marquis was living quite high on the hog within the Bastille.

However, this did not stop him from… ahem… bullshitting a bit:

“He took hold of a long white metal pipe equipped with a little funnel which, when the urge arose, he attached to his bottom— a portable toilet in which he could more conveniently dispatch his excretions down below into the moat. With said instrument Sade formed a kind of bullhorn that he used to harangue the people of the faubourg.

‘Good people! They are slitting the throats of the prisoners in the Bastille! Come immediately to our rescue!’” (Lorànt Deutsch, Metronome)

Faced with the threat of royal troops gathering outside the city, on the morning of July 14, the good people of Paris first stormed the military hospital Les Invalides for guns before setting their sights on the Bastille, which was full of gunpowder.

Now, the governor of the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay, was not about to simply open his gates to the mob amassing outside, but he did allow a delegation of city officials from the Hôtel de Ville (or town hall) entry into the fortress in an attempt to negotiate— and probably buy time for reinforcements. Two more such delegations were forthcoming, but the hoped-for reinforcements, alas, were not.

Eventually, the crowds outside grew restless enough that shots were exchanged. Thus, the first 100 casualties fell to the ground, and the Revolution had begun.

Thanks to some defectors from within the ranks of the Swiss army commanding the defense of the Bastille, the gates were eventually burned down with cannons from Les Invalides (apparently, someone found some gunpowder elsewhere), and the governor was forced to surrender. The Marquis de Sade was saved. However, the poor Marquis de Launay, was not.

Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille - Jean-Baptiste Lallemand
Arrestation du gouverneur de la Bastille – Jean-Baptiste Lallemand

Undismayed by their meager liberation of only seven petty crooks and forgers, the mob exulted in its symbolic triumph over the forces of monarchy and set about dismantling the Bastille within only a few short days, but not before dragging Launay through the streets and decapitating him with a knife (the guillotine still a distant threat on the horizon). The governor’s head affixed to a pike and paraded through the city, the révolutionnaires’ bloodlust, far from being quenched, was only just beginning…

Studying Abroad in France: Housing

Trying to find housing even in the United States can be something of a trial, so arranging a living situation in a foreign country can seem downright impossible, especially if you’re trying to do it before you arrive.

The good news is that most program providers include housing in their cost, so you never have to worry about the hassle of finding your own. However, should you decide to go it alone, there are options, but be warned: it won’t be cheap, and unless you know someone in Paris, it is not an exaggeration to say that locating an apartment in that city really is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.


Like most things in France, universities and their housing departments are administered by a centralised organisation called CNOUS (Le Centre National des Oeuvres Universitaires et Scolaires). This agency oversees everything from scholarships and grants to cafeterias to housing at France’s many public universities. Each major city with a university has a CNOUS presence called CROUS (Centre Régional).

Each CROUS maintains student housing complexes called Cités Universitaires or just Cités-U for short. For example, when I lived in Caen, I lived in the Tilleuls residence on the university campus. Another example is in Paris, where there is a stop on the RER Line B named Cité Universitaire.

Most residences administered by the CNOUS are reserved for students with French government grants, though it’s still your best option as a student for affordable housing since the rent is fixed between 120 EUR – 350 EUR per month, depending on the type of residence you live in.

Host Families

It would be impossible to give an accurate portrayal of what a homestay is like since every family is different, but having been “adopted” by one when I lived in Normandie and having lived with another in Paris when I worked there, I can say that in my personal experience, host families can provide some of the most genuine, authentic experiences of French life.

P1000113It’s true that you will have to decide whether you want to live in such close quarters with strangers, but I still keep in touch with my host family from when I studied abroad four years ago, and I have found that host families can go from being complete strangers to becoming some of your most cherished friends in France.

I will never forget meeting my family in Caen for the first time and being invited to the birthday party of my host mom’s niece, complete with 15-20 people and me, the sole American. Being invited into a family is rare enough as it is, so to experience an extended family celebration was really special for the first time meeting them.

P1000998Then, in Paris two years later, I lived with the same family my friend lived with the year prior. It was a lot of fun making a Fourth of July dinner and then later, a full Thanksgiving dinner for them to share my American culture with them and thank them for taking me in during my time in France.

I would highly recommend a homestay if it’s available to you. Many people opt for something “safer” by sticking with fellow American students in a dorm or apartment, but if you really want a fully immersive experience, go with the homestay. You won’t regret it.

For Paris, check out Homestay-in-Paris.com.

Renting in France

This could be an entire blog post in itself, but suffice it to say, for the first time student in France, I would definitely not recommend trying to find your own property unless you have connections or friends. The inn is always full in Paris, though you might get lucky. Other cities will not be as difficult in terms of locating housing, but France is the queen of catch-22s, and trying to rent an apartment without a French bank account is… tricky to say the least, especially when opening a French bank account often requires a French address!

Should you decide to explore the world of French property for let, as a tenant (un locataire) you’ll usually apply through an agent (un agent immobilier). You can find properties in local newspapers or in estate agents’ windows in the downtown areas of most towns. Be prepared to provide documents ranging from bank statements to letters of reference to proof of employment to income tax returns.

For a more detailed guide on renting in France, take a look at this Expatica article on the subject.

Resize Your Expectations

Keep in mind that North America is a continent of wide-open spaces and frontiers, urban sprawl and endless wilderness. Everything here is bigger than in most other parts of the world– whether that’s cars or streets, food portions or the availability of utilities like electricity and water.

Generally speaking– and especially in crowded cities like Paris– no matter what type of housing you go with, your living space will be considerably smaller. As a student in Caen, I lived in a dorm room that was 9 square meters, a monk’s cell by comparison to my bedroom at home. When real estate is at a premium, you’ll adjust eventually, but for the first-time visitor to France, the sudden size-difference can be a bit claustrophobia-inducing.

Be prepared for shared bathrooms and kitchens, stairs instead of elevators, and radiators and open windows instead of centralised air conditioning and heating. That’s not to say that you’ll be living in second-rate conditions, but it is important to remember that most buildings in France are hundreds of years old, and therefore not built to modern codes or sensibilities.

Whatever your living arrangement, it’s important to keep an open mind and a sense of adventure. The very point of studying abroad is to experience something different from home and to come to appreciate how other people live. With the right attitude and a bit of diligence, you’ll soon be right at home in France.

Studying Abroad in France: Getting Started

Where or What?

The first thing you’ll need to do is decide whether where you study or what you study is more important to you.

If you’re already enrolled at a university in the United States or Canada, you’re probably on some sort of degree track, which means that if you want to graduate on time (whatever that means for you), you’ll have to take certain courses which will count for credit toward your degree. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to limit you too much as to your choices of where you’ll study abroad since with a little research, you can probably find a program that works with your degree in almost any major city in France.

Of course, if you’re really dead set on experiencing Bordeaux or Paris or Strasbourg for themselves, you could just take an extended vacation there, but often your best bet in this sort of situation is to take French language classes since they will almost always count toward a degree back home.

Which Program?

You’ll then have to decide on a program– whether faculty led, independent study, third-party provider, reciprocal exchange… The options can be overwhelming, so your study abroad office on your home university’s campus should be your first stop to gathering information about the programs available to you.

Many times, American universities will have well-established programs with partner institutions abroad, or they will have good working relationships with third-party companies like CEA who provide their own academic programs. For the first time traveler, a program led by a faculty member from your home university or a third-party program provider is a good bet, since they tend to provide more onsite support and planning (CEA, for example, offers all-encompassing package programs for a lump sum which includes pre-departure advising, housing, airport pickup, onsite staff, and more).

For the more seasoned globetrotter, a reciprocal exchange or independent study program will likely give you a more fulfilling experience and can save a lot of money by cutting out services and amenities you may not need if you already know how to live abroad.

Course Approval

Whatever you decide, you’ll need to start applying at least a semester in advance of when you want to study abroad, and you will need to visit your academic advisor at some point in order to get his/her approval for the courses you will take while abroad.

French Press TIP: Be sure to get more classes approved than you will actually take since course schedules can conflict with each other, classes can be dropped based on student interest or professor availability, or other unexpected changes. This will ensure that what you are able to take will still count for credit at home.

The time it takes to plan a semester abroad takes just as much time as you will spend in France once you’re there, so get going early, and brace yourself: it involves a fair amount of legwork, but the rewards are definitely worth it.

Next up: Everything you ever wanted to know about student visas for France

Studying Abroad in France: An Introduction

So you want to study in France?

You’re not alone: In 2011, France hosted approximately 268,000 foreign students of higher education¹. Known for its robust educational system (there are often multiple universities even in smaller French towns), France continues to be a popular destination for both tourists and students alike.

And why not? You’ll be studying at some of the most respected schools in the world surrounded by the rich history of the home of Jeanne d’Arc, Napoléon, Guillaume le Conquérant, Victor Hugo, Claude Monet, Charles de Gaulle, and countless other luminaries from France’s past. Whether you’re going in order to attain the fluency you’ve always dreamed of or you just want to soak in the je ne sais quoi of French culture, studying abroad in France is one of the best decisions you can make for your education and your personal growth.

The process of moving abroad to any country is daunting, but having done so myself twice, I can tell you it’s not as unattainable as it might seem—and it only gets easier with practice. In the next several installments, I’ll explain what it takes to study in France as an American, the French educational system, what to expect from French housing, how the French score their students, the cost of living as a student in France (with some notable perks!), and more.

So, without further ado… allons-y !

Quick Links:

  1. Getting Started
  2. The French Visa Process
  3. French Housing
  4. French Universities
  5. Life as a Student in France


Le Salon du Chocolat

Working at an embassy definitely comes with its perks. Before I headed up to Brussels, I had the opportunity to attend the opening evening of the world-renowned Salon du Chocolat, the largest chocolate convention in the world, held annually right here in Paris. Normally, the public has to pay 13 euros to get in to this event, but thanks to my connections at the embassy, my coworker, who has already attended in years past, kindly passed along her invitation to me. I’ve never been surrounded by so much chocolate in my life, and may I just say–


There wasn’t quite as much chocolate-tasting as I had hoped, but there was champagne to go with it, so it all worked out. I couldn’t tell you much about the dozens of chocolatiers I visited, as I was more interested in looking and tasting rather than buying chocolate, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Now if only we could figure out how to make them worth a thousand tastebuds…

Now here’s a way you can get kids to eat their vegetables…

I’m pretty sure they only looked like sardines… I hope…

The evening concluded with the much-anticipated chocolate fashion show. Now, I’d never been to a fashion show before this one, much less one featuring clothes made with and inspired by chocolate, but I think it’s best not to think too hard about the fact that people get paid to do this stuff. It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “I just wanna eat you up…”


A Long Way to Lorraine

Location of region xy (see filename) in France.It is 9:30 PM, and I am standing at the agreed upon meeting place in the 15th arrondissement, wondering if I really want to go through with this. It is chilly, and I am loathe to set my backpack on the wet sidewalk as the residents of this inconspicuous neighborhood walk past me on their way home to a cozy apartment and a warm bed. I try not to look threatening and suspicious as I linger in the shadows in front of what I think is the correct apartment, wondering whether I really want to go through with this, when my phone buzzes in my pocket.

“I hadn’t anticipated such a traffic jam, so I don’t think I’m going to make it by 10:00 and probably not by 10:30 either!”

I stare at the screen in disbelief.

It is Perceval, my friend Timothé’s brother whom I have never met before but who is supposed to be taking me and an undisclosed number of other friends from Paris to Delut, where Timothé is waiting for us. When Tim invited me to visit his parents’ house in Lorraine for the weekend, I thought it would be a nice getaway from the city to see another region of France, but considering that I have no idea what is going on and that his brother is already almost two hours behind schedule, I am feeling decidedly annoyed by this turn of events.

I weigh my options. It’s a three-hour drive to Lorraine from Paris, and I’m suddenly very reluctant to stick around for another hour in the dark, but I know that if I go back to my apartment, I won’t leave again.

Well, I’m not very well going to stand here and wait for a fourth text message saying he won’t arrive until 11:00. Clearly, somebody has not planned this well, at all, and I was not planning on leaving Paris at the crack of midnight.

This is awkward, but more to the point, this is irritating.

I summon my resolve and call Timothé explaining that I’m already here, but that I think I’m just going to go home since it doesn’t seem to be working out. Regretfully, of course.

But Timothé sounds disappointed. “Ok, but it’s a chance to see a bit of countryside, so…”

Ugh. I hate having to do this.

But suddenly, he starts proffering more information– it’s about time— explaining that his other brother who lives at the aforementioned apartment should be there.

carpe diemI hang up, debating how obligated I am to stick this out, now. But then I remember my GISHWHES photo submission with the carpe diem sign, and something tells me to be flexible and carpe the noctem instead. So, I enter the apartment courtyard and walk up the steps, where Tim’s older brother and his wife graciously welcome me into their tiny apartment.

I give them the usual spiel about working at the embassy, and presently, a tall, demure brunette arrives with her own backpack in tow. There is something vaguely familiar about her, and then I remember that I met Maïté at the Louvre a couple of weeks earlier during a group outing with Timothé and some of his friends. She is soon joined by Faustine, a bright little bundle of French politeness.

Not long afterward, Perceval finally arrives, having been delayed during his drive up to Paris from Clermont-Ferrand in the center of France. Slightly younger than Timothé and with a military crew cut, he pauses only briefly to eat a couple bites before we’re all headed out the door into the drizzle. It takes a while to locate the car, which– as is always the case in Paris– is parked a couple of blocks away. Soon enough, we’re on our way out of the capital and onto the dark ribbon of the A4, heading toward eastern France.

By this point, it is about 11:00 P.M., so most of us fall asleep during the uneventful drive, broken only occasionally by the blindingly bright lights of the tollbooths along the autoroute. Eventually, we arrive at a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. I glance at my phone, which cheerily informs me that it is 3:00 in the morning. Fortunately, Timothé is waiting in the warm glow of the open door, and as we head upstairs, I am pleased to find myself appointed with a queen-sized bed in a spacious heated bedroom all to myself, a step up from my cramped, chilly apartment in Paris.

The next morning dawns grey and wet, but in the light of day, I find myself in a charming country house deep in the heart of the Lorraine countryside. The childhood home of Tim’s father, the house served as a vacation home during Tim’s childhood, even though he grew up near Toulouse, far to the southwest.

With its enormous backyard, outer wall, and servants’ quarters, this home feels like a veritable mansion compared to my crowded quarters in Paris. As we explore the pigeonnier (the pigeon house) in the corner of the yard, now empty save for a bit of dilapidated furniture and cobwebs, Timothé explains rather excitedly that the house was built in 1776, the same year as my country’s revolution. Supposedly, there are some WWII-era American rations somewhere in the attic from when our soldiers took refuge in the house during the war, but they’ve been misplaced, much to my chagrin. Returning to the large living room with its roaring fireplace and solid, wooden floor, I can’t help but be reminded of the La Madeleine restaurants I’ve visited back in the States, but this time, it’s for real.

DSCN0529 DSCN0544

Tim wants to show us the countryside, so despite the rain, we pile into the small car and set off along winding country lanes to the various villages in the surrounding area. I can’t help but think that it’s not so different from driving through the Texas countryside on my way to and from college, but everything here is softer and greener, and there are small mountains in the distance. We stop in a tiny village to look at a church built in the thirteenth century before heading on to the forests of Verdun, where you can still see the trenches, command posts, and bomb holes from World War I.

Church in Delut
The church of St. Martin in Delut

Tim tells me that there are even areas where it is forbidden to walk because there are still unexploded bomb shells in the forest even now, almost a century after the war.


DSCN0472 DSCN0497

The history in this land is palpable. Not to mention that today is November 11, Armistice Day, the commemoration of the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918. Everywhere I look, there is a cemetery, or a memorial, or the abandoned ruins of a long-destroyed village. As I look at pictures of the horrors of World War I at the Verdun Ossuary, I can’t help but feel grateful that I have not been witness to such a hellish age in person– only across the centuries in photographs. As tranquil and picturesque as this country is today, it is impossible to forget that it is an ancient land marked by violence. Happily, after millennia of fighting in this contested region between France and Germany, the two European nations have achieved a peace long feared impossible. As I look east across the battle-scarred hills, it is hard to imagine our Germanic neighbors of today crossing that border in tanks and bombers. Hopefully, the only thing crossing, unhindered, between France and Germany will be cars and TGVs and ICEs.

Myself, Timothé, and Maïté on an old bunker

DSCN0506 DSCN0509

 The day is coming to a close as we drive back to the house, and all around us, crimson-kissed clouds are drifting like smoke while the setting sun glows like the fire of cannons beyond the hills. Yet there is no thunder, no refugees, no wreckage strewn along the road. Now, all is quiet and still, as the French countryside should be, and I consider myself blessed once again to have visited a new and beautiful part of this country I love.

A Short Trip to Chartres

P1000878It is a chilly November morning, and the skies hang heavy and low with clouds. The weather is typical for this time of year in Northern France, but it has not deterred me from making a mini pilgrimage an hour southwest of Paris to the tiny town of Chartres.

As I step out of the train station, the fabled cathedral looms in the distance, its mismatched spires shrouded in mist like two great mountain peaks towering over the town.

Since the 4th century, there has been a church on this site, but the current cathedral is the fifth to be constructed after the previous structures burned down at various times in history. The present church was built between 1194 and 1250 and is considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture due to the remarkably short window of time it took to complete it. Whereas most cathedrals took centuries to erect, Notre Dame de Chartres was finished in a little over fifty years.

Although fire destroyed the former churches, this cathedral narrowly escaped destruction by Allied bombers during World War II. According to Wikipedia:

All the glass from the cathedral was removed in 1939 just before the Germans invaded France, and it was cleaned after the War and re-leaded before replacing.

While the city suffered heavy damage by bombing in the course of World War II, the cathedral was spared by an American Army officer who challenged the order to destroy it.[18]

Colonel Welborn Barton Griffith, Jr. questioned the strategy of destroying the cathedral and volunteered to go behind enemy lines to find out whether the German Army was occupying the cathedral and using it as an observation post. With a single enlisted soldier to assist, Griffith proceeded to the cathedral and confirmed that the Germans were not using it. After he returned from his reconnaissance, he reported that the cathedral was clear of enemy troops. The order to destroy the cathedral was withdrawn, and the Allies later liberated the area. Griffith was killed in action on 16 August 1944, in the town of Lèves, near Chartres.

A short walk later, and I’m standing in front of the church craning my neck up.

And up.
And up…

Those towers are 371 ft. and 344 ft., respectively. The bell towers of Notre Dame in Paris (226 ft.) are nothing compared to this giant of a cathedral, and boy, did I feel it as I climbed the spiral staircase inside. I was the only soul in the steeple that day, which was nice when I wanted to catch my breath and chart my progress by peering out the small windows along the way.

P1000905 P1000920 P1000909When I reached the top, I was slightly terrified to look over the edge. The stone balustrade only came up to my waist, and it would have been all too easy to pitch over the wall in a moment of vertigo. On top of that, it was bitterly cold, and I was afraid my numb fingers were going to drop my umbrella or camera. I slowly made my way around the narrow walkway, hoping that the car-sized bells behind me wouldn’t suddenly ring to life and send me plummeting to my death.


In the distance, I could see the train station, while all around me, the chimeras crawled along the tower, regarding me, a solitary intruder into their cold, stony domain.

P1000914 P1000913P1000917

As I descended the spiral staircase (much easier than going up!), I poked my head into a few of the open chambers along the way, but they were empty.

Given the incendiary history of this church, you can never be too prepared.

Once I was back inside the church, I sat in the dark and prayed for a while before the restoration crews started banging away on their scaffolding which covered the entire transept. I walked around slowly, consulting my Rick Steves book while I pondered the original stained glass windows and the immense choir screen full of statues depicting the life of Mary and the Passion of Christ.


The north transept rose window.
The south transept rose window.
The signs of the Zodiac with the months of the year, represented in allegorical form.
The famous Belle Verrière or Blue Virgin of Chartres. The blue coloring is obtained by adding cobalt to the glass.

In a quiet corner behind the choir, there is a chapel with the Sancta Camisa— the holy tunic– allegedly worn by the Virgin Mary during Jesus’ nativity. It was the center of pilgrimages to Chartres during the Medieval period, though whether the tunic actually belonged to Mary, much less that she was wearing it on the first Christmas Eve, I’m not entirely sure.


Before leaving the church, I stopped to admire the statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, where this elderly lady was praying. The statue has been venerated since medieval times by pregnant women who seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother for their unborn children.

P1000901 P1000900 P1000904

And finally, before I headed back to Paris, I stopped at the nearby center for the history and heritage of stained glass windows, where I learned how to read medieval church windows. You normally start at the bottom and work your way from left to right up to the top. Here are a couple of famous Bible stories (click for a larger image you can zoom) and some closeups of the life of Joseph.

The Prodigal Son
The Life of Noah

Here, I have arranged the pictures as if reassembling the window, so scroll down and work your way up to the top to “read” the story of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat the way a medieval peasant would!

P1000929 P1000928 P1000927 P1000926

I was lucky that I was alone in the church at this time of year, but should you happen to visit Paris, a day trip to Chartres would be well worth your time. I’d love to hear your impressions of the cathedral as well!