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Gwynedd Mercy University seniors Erin Conboy and Michael Griffith attended an international academic conference in Paris, France earlier this month. The conference commemorated the centenary of the Paris Peace Conference held at the end of the First World War.
Erin and Michael, both history with secondary education majors, joined Professor Michael Clinton at the Conference. Professor Clinton presented his paper Transnational Advocacy, International Order, and National Interest: The European Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the League of Nations, 1914-1921 at the conference.
The last day of the conference was held at the Palace of Versailles, where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919. When not attending the conference sessions, the trio visited the attractions in and around Paris.
Erin and Michael attended the conference free of charge as a result of a Presidential Mini-Grant and support from the School of Arts and Sciences. Each year, the Office of the President hosts a Mini-Grant Competition. The competition encourages the development and implementation of creative and innovative projects to improve the success of GMercyU students. Mini-Grants are awarded through the President's Excellence Fund.
Erin and Michael shared their experiences through several blog posts below.
After a long eight-hour flight, Michael and I landed in Paris to meet with Dr. Clinton. Instantly, we were thrown into the fast-paced lifestyle that embodies the city. Switching from metro line to metro line, surrounded by individuals of all different backgrounds, cultures, and the babble of unfamiliar languages, we first arrived at our hostel in the heart of the tenth district of Paris. After unpacking for a little while, Dr. Clinton took us on a walking tour throughout Paris, showing us the many historical and cultural icons located within the beautiful city.
We first ventured over to Notre Dame. Though the spire is missing, and the medieval Catholic cathedral is cloaked in tarps and coverings due to a structural fire that ravaged the building just this past April, the building itself is still absolutely breathtaking. I was so enamored with all of the architecture that surrounded me in the city, but Notre Dame was by far one of my favorite sights to see. The complexity of its construction was awe-inspiring. There is so much detail in the craftsmanship, with so much to observe from afar and up close. At first look, one would notice the sheer stature of the church, standing out against the skyline. And even with some of the stained glass windows now covered or removed as a result of the fire, the windows themselves stand as a marvel, complexly sculpted into beautiful designs. There are three “rose windows,” with one on the south side that contains eighty-four different stained glass panes in four different circles. This particular window stands haunting beautiful shrouded by a mesh curtain, yet it still captivates every person who walks by it.
Across the street, Dr. Clinton led us to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, or “Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation.” On the Île de la Cité, there is a memorial created by architect Georges-Henri Pingusson in the 1950s, built in remembrance of the 200,000 individuals who were deported from France to suffer in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. On June 29, 1962, fifteen urns were placed inside the walls of the memorial, all containing soil and ashes from the major Nazi camps. Upon entering the dimly lit stone chamber by going down a set of stairs, we entered a hexagon-shaped room with a tomb of the unknown in front of us and two hallways that ended with jail cell styled doors. On the pale walls are inscriptions of works from various French authors and philosophers along with the names of Nazi camps. Since neither Michael or I can speak French, Dr. Clinton translated a quote for us by Jean-Paul Sartre: “And the choices that each one made of their life and themselves was authentic since it was done in the presence of death.” And when leaving the memorial, there is an engraved quote that translates to “forgive but never forget.” This was a very sobering and moving piece, to me. Individuals are asked to be silent, which helps to fully immerse one into the stories depicted in the memorial. This helped to stand out in my mind among the busy city that lay just outside its walls.
During our first day, we visited and viewed many other places, too. We gazed upon the Sainte-Chappelle and Place Saint-Michel. We strolled through the grounds of the Louvre, though we did not enter. It was nice to be able to pass through the palace grounds without large amounts of people, as it was closed at the time, and observe the building and the glass pyramid. We made our way to the Arc de Triomphe, where the sky started to turn an ominous gray, leading to a picturesque background for the monument to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories. On our way to the Luxor Obelisk, an astounding Ancient Egyptian obelisk that stands in the middle of the Place de la Concorde we were met with a brief, but a torrential downpour of rain that abruptly changed to hail. We hid in a doorway with two other individuals to escape the storm, which only lasted about fifteen minutes, then continued on our journey. After the rain, the gold point atop of the Obelisk now shone bright in the light of the sun.
We continued our journey down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées leading to the Arc de Triomphe. While there, we happened to arrive at the perfect time and ended up seeing a daily remembrance ceremony for fallen French soldiers above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The whole arc stands as a dedication to the military victories of the French and tribute to the leaders and soldiers. There are romanticized sculptures that represent moments of the French Revolution and nods to the Napoleonic era, inscriptions of great battles and French victories, and also engraved names of military leaders to showcase the triumphs of France. Soon after, we ate at a cafe on Champs-Élysées before retiring to our rooms after such a long day. Despite the jet lag and exhaustion, this day had set a wonderful precedent as to what exquisite and exciting places I would see over the next few days.
The first day in Paris was different and better than I had expected. Erin and I had a half-baked bilingual conversation with a man selling banana-Nutella crepes, I got stuck in a subway car door, and we were greeted on the Champs-Élysées by a hailstorm.
Arriving at noon after a sleepless flight, we and our belongings were shuffled along the city metro system to Gare du Nord, the train station down the street from our hostel. While I knew that we were in Paris, it was difficult to feel someplace different until we arrived underground at Gare du Nord where I could hear the bustle of people speaking in a foreign tongue.
The French language had consumed a good amount of my thoughts in the weeks prior to departure. I don't know French, but I had two semesters of Spanish at Gwynedd and three years of Italian in high school. I recognized some words, sounds, and phrases of the Romance languages, and I could speak them slightly, but now my ears were inundated by a new language. The city was full of people speaking a language I had only ever heard in my private studies against a backdrop of characteristic Parisian architecture. The oddest part about language perhaps was not that I was understanding bits and pieces of French conversation, but that my inner dialogue shifted to Spanish at several points. Language is fascinating to me, so it may be needless to say, but I was actively attempting to train my ears for the majority of this first day.
Once Erin, Dr. Clinton, and I began the first leg of our travels into historic Paris, we walked along the streets to view Sainte-Chappelle, Place Saint-Michel, Notre-Dame, and a restaurant across the street from the Notre-Dame named after Esmerelda, a character from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, among other places pointed out along our journey. These first places were, among other things, architecturally breathtaking. Massive in physical scale and in emotional impact on passersby, it’s clear why Paris is considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The grandeur and (what I view as) romantic self-indulgence that went into the crafting of even the average residential area makes the city unique. It’s no wonder why so many artists and writers have found their way to these streets. One can take an extra moment to recognize something that I view as truly human. The next time you are walking down the street in an old town or city—Philadelphia perhaps—take a moment to consider whose steps you are standing in. Who else admired that building or view? How many people have come from across the world and been in the same place as you? Can you touch the fingerprints on the stone of someone who came decades or centuries prior? What connections do you have to someone who stood in your place? Spend a moment of introspection in these places, and see what you can find out about the world.
Notre Dame burned just under two months ago. Its scars are fresh, and Paris clearly remains in mourning. Walled off from the potential pressures of foot traffic, Notre Dame remains standing tall on the Île de la Cité, but it is covered in scaffolding, tarps, and soot. As we walked the idyllic streets around the cathedral, someone was playing Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” on violin. With the resonant sounds of regret and the desire to repair the past, the street musician provided an apt soundtrack for our walk alongside the devastated Parisian monument.
We continued briefly to the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, a memorial constructed from a deportation center during World War II which sent people out of Nazi-occupied Vichy France to concentration camps. Not far from the now-scorched Notre Dame cathedral, this underground memorial is as you would expect: honorable, harrowing, and certainly hopeful that humanity never returns to the horrors of that time. The noise of the Parisian streets above didn't dare enter the memorial which housed a flame for the tomb of the unknown deportee and ashes collected from Nazi camps. It felt colder than a stone carved space could be. There should have been a thick haze over the ground, parting as we and a pair of other visitors walked through it. We were there only a few minutes, during which Dr. Clinton translated some of the quotes and poems of famous French existentialists and World War II Resistance members, but the gravity of such a space tends to take one's thoughts for a longer journey.
As we used the remainder of the day to traverse the Champs-Élysées, we met an after-hours closed Louvre, though we took in all of its external splendor and took photos, catching glimpses of lighting streaking across Paris's northern gray sky. The Champs-Élysées, the city's famous avenue far surpassing any compassion to Broadway or other thoroughfares, was lined with history, traffic, and storefronts. It had a Disney store, which I find to be an important note to make.
Once we reached the Arc de Triomphe, one of Napoleon’s architectural works, at the end of our Champs-Élysées, we found a daily service memorializing the losses of French soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider. It rests at the base of the Arc, and this gathering, along with the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, will strike a chord with anyone, but for me, this made the effects of the War to End All Wars more concrete. The U.S. does not have the same scars from the World Wars as France and its capital. The homefront efforts of Americans was, of course, notable, but France and especially Paris bore deep scars of war. The city thus far has been incredible to explore. In Paris, there is magnificence juxtaposed to solemnity, and melancholy to pride.
As I sit in the hostel writing this, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are playing over the lobby speakers. It’s a nice reminder that, while far from home, it's not entirely dissimilar. This is a place and a culture that I am unfamiliar with, yet the only unfamiliarity I recognize is in the language and historical experiences. The people here, they don’t seem as different as you may expect. I think we generally view other places to be vastly different, perhaps to the extent of expecting complete incompatibility. I can make long lists of the differences (I don’t know how interesting that would be because scarves would be at the top of the list), but there is a pattern consistent across human societies. The differences exist, but our two societies certainly rhyme at least a little bit.
We started our second day in Paris early to see the Panthéon and the Musée du Louvre. On our way to our destinations, we viewed the Institut de France, a cultural and educational center for the city with a rich history dating back to the time of monarchical rule. Dr. Clinton pointed out a statue in memoriam of the French enlightenment philosopher Georges-Jacques Danton, who died in 1794. He was an early leader at the beginning of the French Revolution and was guillotined because he thought that while the king should be dethroned, he should not be killed. We strolled through the Jardin du Luxembourg, or the Luxembourg Gardens, which was a gorgeous, well-maintained garden that seemed to go off into the horizon. There was such an array of plant and vegetative life everywhere you looked. On the grounds also stood a beautiful palace. So many people casually strolled about, sat along the outside of a beautiful fountain, and enjoyed the view of the flowers. It was there that Dr. Clinton ran into two of his colleagues, Mona Siegel and Carl Bouchard, who were also in Paris to be a part of the conference we were attending. They joined us on our visit to the Panthéon, making the experience even more enriching, with three well-versed scholars teaching me more about what lay in front of me.
The Panthéon, which used to be a church in dedication to Saint Genevieve, is covered in astounding secular images. Some were restored, painted with vibrant colors, and some were still in the original, faded paint. With gold trim and accents in the paintings themselves, there was a regal feeling that embodied the room. However, we spent most of our time in the vault of the Panthéon, for underground there are many influential French philosophers, revolutionists, and other important individuals resting encased in magnificent stone tombs. One individual buried in the vault who stood out was Voltaire, a famous French philosopher, Enlightenment thinker, and playwright (at the foot of a statue in front of his tomb sits a drama mask to symbolize this). After parting ways with Dr. Clinton's colleagues, we headed off to the Musée du Louvre.
I have always wanted to go to the Louvre, so I was very excited for this experience, and it most definitely lived up to my expectations. Originally built as a castle by Philippe Auguste to be used for a fortress around 1190, the Louvre has developed much since and is now the world’s largest art museum. With artwork from various ancient societies across the globe, the Middle Ages, and up through the mid-1800s, there is a vast exploration of human history to be observed through the showcased masterpieces. We had the opportunity to see the glass pyramid the day prior, but now we had the time to delve further into the contents within. The museum was mesmerizing. As with almost all the buildings we had seen, I was infatuated by the paintings that had adorned the ceilings. The art that decorated the space above me almost captured my attention more than the art on the walls because of how stunning they were. I also took note of the uniqueness of every room; while one room was painted regally red with Napoleon's crest etched above the massive doorway, another room just down the hall was concealed in marble mimicking the statues within it, and one other room, there was a skylight that took up the entirety of the ceiling, illuminating the paintings hung below. It was so intriguing not knowing what you would walk into when venturing into the next room in the museum.
Among the most famous works of art on display in the Louvre, I had the opportunity to see the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. It was amazing to be able to see such iconic works of art in the flesh, although I did find these pieces to be almost overwhelming with the sheer amount of people trying to see these works. Instead, I very much liked viewing the lesser-known works where I could take the time to view and reflect upon what was in front of me.
I really enjoyed the Roman sculptures and the absolute attention to detail. It is astounding how these artists were able to achieve such astounding likeliness of the human body in mediums such as marble and stone. Dr. Clinton was able to inform me about different interesting aspects of these pieces, such as why it is common to see Roman sculptures without noses or heads. He informed me that this was a common practice of vandalism used as a form of protest. Many of the figures depicted in the sculptures were of gods, goddesses, and political icons. The religious statues were thought to be numinous, meaning that they were thought to possess a strong religious or spiritual quality, which suggested the presence of divinity. By defacing the works of art and removing a body part, it was thought that this would also remove the divine aspect to it. I found this tidbit of information very interesting, as I had always wondered why so many pieces of Roman art that I had seen were damaged in this way.
Another piece that caught my attention was an odd sculpture with a young boy strangling a goose. The statue captures one's attention due to its perfect craftsmanship and the strangeness of the image it portrays. It is explained that the piece was mentioned in the sanctuary of the god of medicine Asclepius and that it may have been an allegory for the struggle against sickness and fever. This piece stood out to me due to its uniqueness and execution. Going to the Louvre was an unbelievable and unforgettable experience.
Following our trips, in the evening Dr. Clinton, Michael, and I attended the first part of the conference, “1919: The Paris Peace Conference and the Challenge of a New World Order”, at the German Historical Institute. To prepare for this conference, Dr. Clinton created an independent study course and provided us with books and scholarly articles that focused on the Paris Peace Conference, its leaders, the League of Nations, and more concerning this event. These helped to expand my understanding of a complex event that greatly shaped world history and prepared me to be a part of the conversation presented by those speaking. This first panel introduced the topic of the Paris Peace Conference as seen from its centennial. In reflecting on the conference, Peter Jackson of the University of Glasgow set out the themes to be explored over the next three days. These ideas would be presented through the various scholarly papers the speakers had prepared.
Following him, Eckart Conze of the University of Marburg talked about the experiences of war and challenges of peace between 1919 and 1920. He argued that the conference made Paris the world’s capital, creating a global connection. But globality did not mean unity. The various national leaders promoted their own local interests and problems, which Conze felt led to unforeseen outcomes. Wilson, one of the most famed leaders of the conference, became a global icon at this time. However, that didn’t help to explain his actions and thinking in Paris. Feelings of hatred between nations emerged as a result of the events of 1919. This hatred led to the complete opposite of what the conference stood for: the continuation of war by other means. Because this hatred was not addressed, it worsened international relations and caused further conflict. Conze also focused on the League of Nations and how it failed minority states. The League left the question unresolved of how to deal with different ethnicities and races within states and how to distribute land and address rights.
This second day of visiting Paris felt busier, if possible than the first. At some point, my recollections of the metro rides blended, and the sequence of our journeys became muddled. As it turns out, life goes on and jet lag is very real. I think I subconsciously began to understand French on the metro, what with all the new place names and people chatting as they walked through the concrete halls.
We began our day by visiting the idyllic Luxembourg Gardens. Adjoined to the Luxembourg Palace, the beautiful garden is a scene to behold on any day regardless of the weather, even if it were as gray as today. If I lived in the area, I imagine I’d find a spot to do work at every so often with a cup of coffee. By this point, I had already taken note of the dynamic between buildings and parks in Paris. It seems there has been greenery on almost every block we’ve walked. Paris is a sprawling metropolis, so naturally the browns and grays of the architecture outweigh the greenery, but then there are locales like the Jardin du Luxembourg and small sequestered squares. The Champs-Élysées and several other streets we have already walked are lined with beautifully maintained foliage, once again adding to the atmosphere and the establishment of a unique sense of place
I cannot imagine the planning it took to mold the foliage here into a truly artistic and scenic landscape to accompany such a grand palace. This description of the Gardens is devoid of any mention of the statues or reliefs located throughout the gardens, as well as the massive pool that French ducks seemed to appreciate. I was enjoying our walkthrough just fine, but I could have spent my whole day there alongside the tree lines taking in the fact that I was in this garden surrounded by people I didn’t know and places I never knew existed.
That did not happen though, as we met two of Dr. Clinton’s colleagues, the genial Mona Siegel and Carl Bouchard (both have extensive scholarly credentials on the history of international peace developments and received us incredibly warmly), and together made our way to the Panthéon. Residing in Paris’ Latin Quarter, the former Catholic church modeled after the Roman Pantheon now acts as a secular symbol of human achievement in the form of a mausoleum honoring a number of the greatest French individuals, including Marie Curie, Victor Hugo, and Toussaint Louverture.
The most prominent of those interred in the Panthéon’s crypt may be the critical Enlightenment figure Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet. A statue in front of his burial place depicts a lively figure, one full of emotion and cracking a sly grin, as if to take in all of the tourists passing through admiring his gravesite. Across from Voltaire lies Jean-Jacque Rousseau, the contemporary philosopher who strayed from the typical Enlightenment path. His tomb is perhaps a perfect contrast from the former: where Voltaire has a statue marking his chamber, Rousseau has open space. His tomb instead holds the relief of a lit torch being held by a disembodied hand.
Although we visited the Louvre today and attended the introduction for the Paris 1919 conference, and despite all of our endeavors have been appealing to me, I must admit my mind kept returning to the Panthéon. Its construction in the eighteenth century as a massive church means of course that its centerpiece would be a domed roof, and it remains that way a few centuries later. Original Catholic art remains on the sanctuary’s ceiling, dome, and walls surrounding an imposing display of French Revolution and World War II Resistance figures. The juxtaposition of these secular and religious symbols and ideas made the Panthéon intriguing, as it seemed like an encapsulation of the age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution, two of my favorite topics of study, in a single landmark. The inclusion of Voltaire, Rousseau, and several other French figures who were not affiliated with the Catholic Church, or at one point criticized organized religion as a whole, only accentuates the overtaking of a divine-centered society by a human-centered one.
Once we viewed the Greco-Roman exhibit in the Louvre, I realized that I had been seeing statues of Athena, the Greek goddess of knowledge and wisdom (or Minerva, if you are more familiar with the Roman pantheon) all over Paris and its monumental buildings. The subject of Greece’s Parthenon, Athena must have at some point been adopted as a sponsor for the ideas of the Enlightenment, in which the goddess would have acted perhaps as a guide for the truths of human nature and the wisdom of the period’s philosophers. I could just be prescribing meaning to this, but I like to think that this relationship exists.
Later, after visiting these incredible places, the conference marking the centenary of the Paris Peace Conference and the diplomatic conclusion to World War I began. We made our way to the German Historical Institute in the Marais district via metro and attended the introductory speeches which welcomed just about fifty individuals—historians, published authors, political scientists, and a few students among the attendees.
The first English-speaker of the night, Peter Jackson, discussed the importance of defining the term “order” at the beginning of the conference focused on the formation of the new world order following the Great War. Jackson’s approach was sociological, relying on behavior based in logic to understand the Peace Conference. Each of the logical bases, as described by Jackson, would not have determined the actions of the involved political figures not interactions between these figures, civilians, and their states, but the logic would have been a foundational influencer. Was the Conference, and as well as its leaders, relying on the logic of power distribution? A balanced power structure would effectively promote a cooperative international society since the states would be balanced against each other. A global structure based on the rule of law would similarly been pushed to cooperation due to an international agreement of law, while other logical bases (including the logic of imperialism, race, the economic market, and morality, among others) placed focus elsewhere.
The conference will be in full swing tomorrow, and I am looking forward to hearing the many ideas of this group. Most, if not all, of it will be new to me, so I expect to find several things intriguing that could potentially inspire new ways of thinking about the topic at hand and how it affects us moving forward.
Our third day in Paris was mainly centered around the second part of the conference. Beginning at nine o’clock in the morning, Dr. Clinton spoke first on a panel discussing the new rules-based international order that emerged as a result of the war. His paper discussed the European Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the League of Nations. This panel was an excellent start to the discussions that would follow all day. There were so many papers on various topics spanning across different panel sessions that stood out to me.
Surprisingly, as I am not intrigued by statistics and economics, Martin Bemmann of the University of Freiburg spoke eloquently on when the world economy came into being; his presentation ended up being one of my favorites of the day. The Monthly Bulletin of Statistics (MBS) aimed to collect statistics on economic conditions of many leading countries. The League of Nations eventually took over the MBS and contributed to the Supreme Economic Council, leading world economic statistics to emerge post-war. This came as a result of the Paris Peace Conference, where it became apparent that there was an increased need of governments to be able to compare the world’s economic statistics and recognize the emotional needs for countries to come together for peace. The MBS has origins in Great Britain, where it originally assessed the needs of British business. The British asked neighboring countries to help survey, country by country, to create an unbiased survey of economic successes and needs throughout various nations. However, this was a very difficult process due to available technology, lack of knowledge, and, most importantly, a lack of mutual trust among nations. The numbers that emerged from the surveys fueled debate over the social and economic problems that resulted from the war. While the Supreme Economic Council (SEC), made up of Britain, France, the United States, Italy, and Belgium failed after collecting data in the respective fields of food, finance, blockades, communications, raw materials, and shipping in their countries, it still helped to create a permanent framework for the comparison of different countries’ economies. I was not aware of this topic, so I enjoyed being able to learn more about it.
Another paper I found fascinating, another one of my favorites of the entire event, came from Erik Goldstein of Boston University, who argued that the roots of UNESCO and World Heritage sites can be traced back to Versailles. At the time, Great Britain wanted to establish points of origin to various sites and objects of cultural value to keep the post-war peace, especially in areas where boundaries seemed to be ever-changing. The Belgians, who yearned for the return of the “Lamb of God”, created by Jan van Eyck in 1432, and for priceless literary works to be replenished after Germans torched the city of Louvain’s university library during the invasion of Belgium. This was significant, as books were now to be added to treaties and legacy claims, or claims to items taken prior to wars, now existed and were recognized. Great Britain also made claims for their colonies, a strategy taken to appease the colonials and avoid revolt. One item they wished for was the skull of Sultan Mkwawa, who had opposed German colonization, supposedly taken by the Germans. The British wanted to return the skull to the Wahehe people, located in Tanzania, to reward them for helping British forces in the war. However, the skull was not returned by the deadline laid out in Article 246 of the Treaty of Versailles. Interestingly, the British made another request in 1939, but it was not until the 1950s that the skull was found on display in the Bremen museum, identified by a distinct bullet hole in the skull. The British claims were significant as they extended treaty claims outside of the European world. This was also the first international treaty that dealt with the return of human remains, and the last clause of the peace treaty to be fulfilled. These claims and agreements made to return and protect antique objects and cultural places of value helped establish the basis of World Heritage sites. This paper fascinated me and inspired me to further research the topic.
One last paper that stood out to me caused me to reflect upon the histories of wars entirely. John A. Vasquez's paper, “Versailles and the Aftershocks of the First World War: Challenges to an Emerging Order”, argued that multiparty wars have aftershocks, leading to further wars. This, Vasquez concluded, showed Versailles to be “an illusion” immediately. He noted that seven wars could be directly linked to World War I and mainly focused on the Romanian-Czech War to support his ideas, as this was an “aftershock” of the war. These aftershocks were so disruptive that they effectively continued the war even after its alleged end, Vasquez argued. The end of wars, he continued, provided the opportunity for some nations to fight, or renew, their own wars when before they could not. As a result, the post-war structure helped to create opportunities for nations that war peace systems could not eliminate. I found this logic to be very thought-provoking, as it made sense to me that major wars would cause a chain reaction of smaller wars. At war’s end, tensions do not immediately cease, and I thought that Vasquez did an excellent job exemplifying this. The first full day of the conference had gone very well. I was concerned going in that I would not be at the academic caliber to fully understand the topics being discussed, but I followed along with all the papers and talked with the historians in between panel sessions, leading me to have a positive outlook on the day.
After a full day of historical discussion, we headed off to the Musée d’Orsay to end the night. The museum, which used to be a train station, was captivating with so many breathtaking pieces to see. I was most excited to see the works of Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. Their works were exquisite and truly lived up to their titles as masterpieces. Since I was little, I have been fond of Monet. I have always loved the overarching simplicity of Monet’s paintings, but the technical difficulty needed to execute his stylistic works. “The Water Lily Pond”, one of his most recognized oil paintings, possesses such tranquility yet captures the attention of all passing by. I sat on a bench in front of this painting for a while, truly trying to appreciate the work of art entirely. Another one of his paintings, “Lilacs, Grey Weather”, enraptured me as well. The juxtaposition of the bright lilacs against a dull gray overcast in a garden with a figure shrouded by the fog under a tree was mystic and stunning. This painting was one of my favorites of the whole trip. After a long day, it was nice to relax and wander around an art museum and collect my thoughts on the conference.
This first full day of the conference was enlightening and enjoyable. Coming into this, I was unsure of what exactly to expect. I think it’s fairly typical to understand a “historical conference” or “colloquium” to consist of a room full of reserved and highly erudite historians known for their contributions to the production of knowledge and information. Instead, it was a room full of sociable and friendly people, highly skilled in their respective fields, primarily that of history, who were welcoming to a pair of American undergraduates.
Of the many intriguing presentations during this portion of the conference, there were a few standouts which I want to share with anyone reading this. John A. Vasquez, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, discussed what he referred to as the “aftershocks” of World War I. Perhaps the most universally applicable of the lectures presented on the first day, the primary purpose of his conversation was to hypothesize how to avoid future conflict. In this setting and as the topic in his most recent book, the smaller regional conflicts which followed, and resulted from, the Great War were examined. His theory of “contagion” was applied to demonstrate how conflict spreads and how the title “War to End All Wars” was invalid from the start. Reminiscent of the diffusion of ideas or disease, when an opportunity arises (explained in detail in his lecture and book, but essentially the weakening of powerful states), restless groups take advantage, in turn extending the conflict gradually throughout adjacent locales.
War history is appealing to many, though I’ve always found it irritating (this is coming from a history major). Vasquez went beyond discussing war and instead took a logical approach. I’ve always questioned it as a necessity and as part of human nature. It is true some people may seek conflict, but that must be a vocal minority. Cooperation is challenging to find at times, but the puzzle pieces of the world’s societies do indeed fit together. Noting that territory has been the perennially primary cause of international conflict, Vasquez concluded that borders must be mutually accepted by all parties involved in such decision making. This idea of acceptance to avoid conflict is entirely logical, and can truly be applied to anything. His scientific breakdown of war was clear and supported by both reason and effective evidence. I found his discussion the most accessible, and anyone reading this who finds the desired topic intriguing is not incorrect.
It was at this point after Vasquez’s presentation that I realized I needed a new journal. This was just about 3 PM, with three hours remaining, as well as two full days. To note, I had ten pages left in my pocket-sized book, and the one I bought at the Musèe d'Orsay later in the day has Nuit étoilée sur le Rhône on the cover and is now, at the time of writing this, already half full. If anything else, this souvenir is well worth the hand cramps, and I highly recommend getting notebooks with world-renowned paintings on their covers just to enhance your quality of life.
I’ve always been one to find interest in contradictions, which is why the presentation Volker Prott was appealing to me. Having a well formed, balanced, and inquisitive lecture, Prott’s main thesis revolved around the “fallacy of the new democratic order.” The Paris Peace Conference and the League of Nations was an attempt at creating a new world order, part of which, according to Woodrow Wilson, was to “make the world safe for democracy.” The vague statement by Wilson became a rallying cry for several ethnic groups and colonial territories, but Prott lifted the veil on something I felt but had previously not recognized. Firstly, Prott questioned if Wilson meant that democracy in the American style should permeate the globe or if it should have the ability to develop as an idea, and secondly, how can “making” something happen equate to “democracy”?
Prott called this outright hypocritical autocratic rhetoric, and I must agree. This point, in light of his work and in everyday life, is vital to our understanding of both domestic and international political relations. The rhetoric of the peacemaking period, as well as now, is romantic and seeks to appeal to isolated national unity, rather than acceptance and cooperation. To make the world safe for democracy could mean to equalize opportunity for the growth of ideas, but also to squelch other thought. Wilson may not have had a realistic basis for his words here as they were reactionary to the war, but the concept of foundationless populist emotion-spurring rhetoric has continued throughout the following century and must first be analyzed for its purpose and motivation before being accepted as truth or even viable.
These two discussions were the most mentally stimulating for me, as they advanced my thought process concerning universally applicable ideas the most, but the conference contained a number of other of interesting topics for consideration and further reading: Erik Goldstein’s discussion of world heritage, specifically cultural property in the form of objects, included developments during and after the Paris Peace Conference; Miloš Vec approached the Peace of Paris from the perspective of German lawyers, and provided crucial insights to the nature of the conditions forced on the German state as well as the beliefs concerning international legislative organization of these examined Germans; while not the main point of his lecture, Patrick Houlihan mentioned in his examination of Yamamoto Shinjuru and Catholic globalism how the war accelerated the decline of religion and return to humanism in Europe.
Between sessions, we were able to converse with a number of the participants and other attendees. Feeling no sense of authority or credibility in the presence of professionally proven individuals, both Erin and I were graciously received, seemingly as equals. As I noted, the group was entirely sociable, much to my surprise. No one appeared standoffish whatsoever, which I had hoped, but I did not expect that a single attendee of this conference would neglect conversing or networking with peers even for a short while to instead engage with undergraduates. Thinking about Vasquez’s and Prott’s mentions of acceptance, compromise, and consideration, I was able to appreciate their treatment even more and I want to pay that forward.
The language barrier has been difficult thus far. Many of the conference presentations have been in French, but fluent speech is too quick for me to grasp coherently. I’ve been able to decode street and store signs, posters, and pamphlets from the places we’ve visited, but only at my own pace. Listening to conversations has been helpful for pronunciation, so combining this with the expanding vocabulary is helping more than I thought it would. Though it is incredibly exciting to be in this environment, I do feel isolated. Most of the people I’ve encountered speak English as fluently as they speak French, but it’s frustrating not being able to reciprocate.
Following the informative and fulfilling experience with these individuals on our first full day in Paris, we visited the Musée d’Orsay, the home of a wide variety of works, including impressionist art and, quite notably, the work of Vincent Van Gogh. I, however, was more wholly consumed with that of Claude Monet, the great impressionist whose work is housed on the top floor of the architecturally astounding former train station. 30th Street Station has nothing on its thirty-years elder Musée d’Orsay.
Among Monet’s portraits, social scenes, and landscapes hangs Le Jardin de l'artiste à Giverny. I couldn’t tell you why, but that painting has always transported me somewhere else. Seeing it in person, face-to-face with it for the first and possibly only time, it happened once more. I don’t know where it takes me or for how long, but what I can tell you is that Monet elevated me at the end of this long day, making forget about a lot of things, including visiting the work of Van Gogh.
We continued onto the third day of the conference, prepared to listen to many different topics on the day’s agenda. The first panel addressed citizens in the New International Order. This was by far, in my opinion, the best panel of the entire conference. Making up two of the scholars on the panel were Dr. Clinton’s colleagues who we had met in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Carl Bouchard of the University of Montreal and Mona Siegel of California State University. Mona Siegel’s paper, “A Modern Mulan at the Peace Conference: The Nationalist and Feminist Agenda of Soumay Tcheng”, highlighted Tcheng’s efforts to represent China as the only Allied woman at the Paris Peace Conference with an official title. Revolutionary and fiercely feminist from the start, Tcheng refused to follow typical Chinese tradition and would not let her grandmother bind her feet or let her family choose her husband. When she was younger, she was sent to an American school, where she learned English and continued her schooling in France, where she studied law. Tcheng went to France not only for her schooling but to escape execution, as she had taken part in rebellion against the Chinese state and went as far as being a bomb smuggler for the Republican cause. Due to her education and her revolutionary spirit, Tcheng was the perfect individual to recruit Chinese laborers to help the French cause in the war. This, in turn, helped promote the Chinese cause during the Paris Peace Conference. Tcheng was even nominated to be an official peace delegate, which I found to be astounding for a woman at this time. But, when territory promised to China was to be given to the Japanese instead, the chief Chinese delegate disappeared, hiding away from the political pressure and protesters. Tcheng tracked him down, brought three hundred protesters to the house where he was staying and threatened him until they could speak so she could tell him not to sign the peace treaty. Tcheng was widely respected and had a major impact on the Chinese story at the Paris Peace Conference. Even further, she eventually received her law degree from the University of Paris and continued to promote revolutionary ideas. Siegel put forth a strong female narrative from the time of 1919, when strong female characters often get overlooked or forgotten. This paper awed me; I was so intrigued by Siegel’s findings that I could barely even take notes, not wanting to miss a single moment. Overall, this was my absolute favorite piece of the entire conference.
The next panel was almost entirely in French, as the event allowed for papers to be in English or French, and since Michael nor I understand the language, Dr. Clinton suggested that we go to the Musée National Picasso-Paris. The museum, which was right around the corner from the German Historical Institute, holds the world’s largest collection of Pablo Picasso’s work. The abstract works created an ethereal environment that I never wanted to leave. It was amazing being surrounded by so many of Picasso’s works of art. There were so many different paintings, sketches, photographs, drawings, and sculptures to admire, it was almost overwhelming. My favorite collection was “Picasso, Interior night”, which focused works that reflect and drew inspiration upon the night, dreams, and nightmares. Alongside Picasso’s work, abstract sculptures and mobiles of Alexander Calder, originally from Pennsylvania, also appeared. They fit seamlessly along with the art hung throughout the museum. I wish I could have spent my whole day strolling throughout the museum, but we returned for the remainder of the day’s panels.
Following the conclusion of the conference of the day, we took the metro to go visit the Eiffel Tower. The sheer size of the Eiffel Tower incomprehensible. Dr. Clinton informed me that originally, the Eiffel Tower was only built to be the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair and meant to be taken down. However, it became extremely popular and stayed in place, despite its original intentions, becoming one of the most iconic architectural pieces in France. Our timing was impeccable, as a storm had just passed causing there to be almost no line to go up the monument.
Though we were not able to go to the very top of the tower, as it was shut down temporarily, we went up to the second tier observation deck. The aerial view of the city was absolutely unbelievable. I find it amazing how a metropolitan city in such a modernized world as Paris has held on to so many older buildings and palaces, providing a look into the buildings and architectural styles of the past. The skyline is not littered with skyscrapers, providing for an even more aesthetically pleasing view. Looking down upon all the places we visited allowed me to take in the beauty of everything I had experienced thus far. It was such an incredible, unforgettable experience standing on the Eiffel Tower taking in the view of Paris in its entirety. Seeing new wonders each day always leaves me exhausted, but I could not wait to see what was in store for me tomorrow.
Resuming the conference Friday morning, I was looking forward to the continued sharing of ideas. The first panel of the day, focusing on the role of citizens in the making of the new world order, was one of the most, if not the most, interesting of the entire conference. I was looking forward to this panel after previously meeting Carl Bouchard and Mona Siegel, both presenting during this session, and they far surpassed expectations. Despite Carl’s presenting in French, the following question-and-answer discussion portion shed light on his topic and made me interested to read more of his work (After researching more work from his bibliography, it appears that his work could also help me in furthering my acquisition of French).
Siegel’s, however, was in English and was one of the standout presentations of the entire conference. Narrowing the focus of her most recent work to a single individual, she discussed the efforts of Chinese political activist Soumay Tcheng during an era in which the actions of influential women have been mostly ignored. Accompanying the Chinese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the revolutionary Tcheng became a notable figure in Western media and an influential participant within the Chinese diplomacy who aided in the prevention of China’s signing of the Versailles Treaty, thereby supporting Chinese revolutionary efforts. It goes without writing that the topic continues with greater depth than I have explained here. My interest here carries from Tcheng’s politics to her feminism, all of which was discussed by Siegel in her presentation as well as in her upcoming book Peace On Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women’s Rights after the First World War.
The next panel was mostly in French, and so we took the opportunity to walk to the Musée National Picasso-Paris. Housed in a beautiful building constructed in the 1600s, a vast collection of Pablo Picasso’s lifelong work is presented alongside that of similar artists. Any fan of creative abstractions and Surrealism would exist in a state beyond elation when within the museum. I am aware of and admire the uniqueness and insight of Picasso, though his skill with any of his preferred media is a consequence of his pure mastery of realism. His ability to breakdown visuals to their basic form while maintaining emotional appeals is unmatched, and the adept curation of all of Picasso’s stylizations fulfill this within each exhibit.
Following the conference, we made our way via metro across Paris to the Eiffel Tower. My first view of the world-famous monument came when crossing the Seine to the Left Bank. Of course, I’ve seen photos of the Eiffel Tower, but the scale of it from the ground was previously unimaginable. I find it accurate now in the phrase “you have to see it to believe it.” Lucky for us, the stormy sky began to clear upon arrival, and we were able to ascend the tower unimpeded. As we embarked on the elevator ride up the tower, I caught glimpses of the city skyline disappearing below us, and upon our arrival the viewing deck, I looked out over a city I never thought I’d visit.
I find it difficult and ineffective to put words to the experience of looking out over miles of buildings and hills and people. It was breathtaking, and not because the wind was doubly as powerful up there than on the ground. When taking pictures, I thought my phone was going to be ripped from my hands by a gust, but this did not come close to ruining the experience. I would have been just as happy with the day if that had happened. The day’s weather had cleared, but only around the Eiffel Tower. Through the breaking clouds beyond the Jardins du Trocadéro and La Défense, sunbeams lit Paris’s northern suburbs and hillside.
Throughout these past few days, I’ve noticed a sense of scale and monumentality which I had never recognized before that manifested an ephemeral but reoccurring calmness. I believe the first time I felt this was as we passed by Notre Dame: its towers dwarfed the Île de la Cité not because of their size, but because of their powerful shadows. The Panthéon, however, did rely on scale. The dome was meant to establish a sense of divine greatness in an attempt to separate the church from the profane world. The harmonies of the devout and choirs would have made voices resonate to their god, but now it stands as a monument to humanity’s capabilities. At the Musée d’Orsay, there is a glass clock through which visitors can view Paris to the northeast. Not tall enough to surpass the rows of buildings across the Seine, one can easily view the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the distance atop the Montmartre. There was a resounding peace in standing high above the Champ de Mars overlooking all of the locales we had previously visited and those we can never have time to see. The setting sun and rolling storm began to darken Paris, but the distant golden light was reflected across the recently dampened city. A few hundred feet below us, life went on as evening fell upon Paris.
At the very end of this day, a new person came to stay in the same hostel room as me. Luca, an Argentinean, knew minimal English. My two semesters of Spanish prepared me for this moment for speaking with a Spanish-speaker; however, my excitement made me tongue-tied and immediately didn’t know if I should write about this or not out of sheer embarrassment. I was able to communicate in Spanish for basic introductions and to gauge our language capabilities, and with the information that he knew little English and some French, I decided to use a translation app so we could speak in our two native tongues and listen successfully. It was an enjoyable experience for the both of us, or at least an entertaining one full of laughs. It’s been difficult to experiment with language out in the rush of a restaurant or in a line for a monument, but in such a personal atmosphere, we had fun with it. I still feel isolated since it has been difficult to communicate effectively, but the puzzle is genuinely enjoyable. Language-learning is important, yet many Americans (myself included) know only English to a significant degree and a vastly smaller percentage of the population (also like myself) can understand and the basic stages of foreign languages. Language is simply audible symbolism for meaning and emotions, but language barriers can divide us as a society which is supposedly becoming more closely connected though communication every day.
Technology allows this, as I experienced, but there does not need to be an iPhone middleman. Luca and I spoke briefly through our iMiddleman, but we both could communicate slightly without aid. That is where the emotional connection existed. The ability to directly communicate, either globally, as the discourse of the Paris Peace Conference prefers, or casually, can be achieved with greater technological advancements, but the human connection of working out thoughts in another language was a wonderful and challenging experience. Enhanced language-learning can help us develop tolerance and patience within ourselves, as well as in gaining a wider worldview. With the ability to directly communicate between all people, a wider international society based on equal treatment and understanding can become an achievable reality.
To conclude the conference, the organizers planned for the final sessions to actually be held at the Palace of Versailles, where the most famous treaty resulting from the Paris Peace Conference was signed. Unfortunately, the majority of the discussions this day were in French, so I could not follow along. But while there, I got to explore the palace grounds. The elegance and beauty of the palace was astonishing. It’s no wonder that the line to get inside was hours long. Upon arrival, one is greeted by gleaming gold accents everywhere. A magnificent golden gate lines the entrance and gold trim line the top of the entire building. To my utter surprise, those who attended the conference were given a private tour of the grounds after la Château de Versailles closed for the evening. This was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one I will never forget.
Our tour guide spoke in French to our group, so I took the time to truly appreciate all the details of each room I was in and allowed myself to be captivated by its charm. It is so difficult to put into words the beauty and glamor that consume every room. Similar to the Louvre, each room was distinctly unique and offer so much to look at. We roamed through the King’s bedroom. Housing Louis XIV in 1701 until his death in 1715, the room his covered top to bottom in red and gold, I’m sure to symbolize his royalty. Above the bed, there was a piece of art that caught my attention. It stood as an allegory that France was watching over the king as he slept. In another room, a replica of one of the more famous paintings of Napoleon Bonaparte, “Le Premier Consul Passe Les Alpes, 20 Mai 1800”, is showcased on the wall in a grand fashion. While in the painting he is riding on a white stallion, Dr. Clinton was quick to point out that this was probably unrealistic and a more romanticized depiction of the scene that occurred. As Napoleon was crossing the Alps, it was more likely that he instead was riding on a mule, rather than an expensive horse, as it would be too dangerous of a trek for a horse. Secular figures were painted on almost every ceiling that I saw, again stealing my attention.
Perhaps the most famous room in the Palace, we got to also see the Hall of Mirrors. It was here that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, ending the First World War. Thirty paintings span the ceiling of the Hall of Mirrors alone, illustrating scenes of the various successes of France. There are 357 mirrors that reflect the artistry in the room. Numerous chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, refracting and redirecting the light that pours through the large windows. The golden trim that lines the ceiling and the golden cherub lighting fixtures add on to the exorbitant sophistication of the room. I was left speechless at the splendor surrounding me. Attached to the Hall of Mirrors stand the Peace and War Room. While they are symmetrical, they represent different themes. The War Room provides a tribute to French military victories, while the Peace Room showcases the benefits of peace brought among France. Both rooms were equally as impressive, encased in gold and marble showcasing sculptures and paintings alike. How fantastic it was to end the conference in the same space that the Peacemakers signed the treaty, this was insurmountable.
To make the evening even more picturesque, as Dr. Clinton and I wandered off from the group with a handful of people, we wandered to a window overlooking the Royal Chapel. At that moment, after the Palace gates were closed, someone had decided to play the Great Organ that sat across the large room from us. The music flowed and rang through the halls as the handful of us fell silent in awe at the unscripted, impromptu performance. I could not think of a more perfect ending to such an extraordinary day. As we took our bus back to Paris, with the city life whizzing past my window, I could not believe how lucky I was to have been able to experience this.
The final portion of our conference was to be held at la Château de Versailles, the meeting place for the signing of the treaty resulting from the 1919 la Conférence de la Paix de Paris between Germany and the World War I Allies. The structure, established in the 1620s by King Louis XIII, was originally a hunting lodge, but, in the following decades, was expanded to include the château, palace, and garden. A home of vast grandeur, it has a long history of its own (if I may anthropomorphize a building) that is worth looking into.
A change from the previous days, we traveled to the town of Versailles by bus from Paris, allowing us to sit back and take in the city without worrying about navigating the metro. Though it runs the same as other big cities, watching Paris operate during the early morning was special. Seeing people go about their lives, wondering what goes on here, and knowing that everyone has their own stories makes any experience in the city exciting. I hadn’t been able to enjoy the architecture of the average streets or thought about what daily life here could be like since I've normally just focused on where we were going. Now traveling by bus, I could take in the breathing city rather than just the landmarks.
The conference itself was primarily in French on this day, but parts of the question-and-answer periods were in English. From what little I could understand, it seems the conversations were a fulfilling conclusion to the week. I could be misinterpreting everything I heard though, because I still cannot distinguish most words from one another. In speaking with a few more of the attendees, the main takeaway from this day was simply being at the Château de Versailles.
Photos cannot do the scale of the palace or its grounds justice. With an iPhone camera, you don’t see the reflections of sunlight off the golden trim lining the building or the windows, and you especially cannot appreciate without being there the beauty of its most famous room: le Galerie des Glaces. Lined with mirrors, statues, ornaments, and paintings, the Hall of Mirrors was illuminated by the setting sun, and (maybe I am putting too much into this, but) it carried the exhausted weight of the post-war peace efforts. The location for the Versailles Treaty’s signing, the pressures of the preceding four years would have carried into the room with every individual who entered its threshold.
Looking out the same window as the peacemakers—and innumerable royals, politicians, and aristocrats—and seeing a deliberately extravagant garden overlooking a vast wooded landscape, it was a challenge not to feel on top of the world. The figures who formulated the treaty must have felt the same. The Hall of Mirrors, as well as Versailles in general, was a symbolic meeting place for the signing of the treaty. A half-century earlier, it housed the declaration of the German Empire after the Franco-Prussian War. Now, it was used for a punitive German treaty. If you look into the 1919 conference, you will recognize how symbolic retribution is rampant.
To continue my previous obsession, the Versailles Palace was decorated with neo-classicism in mind and therefore shows signs of Greco-Roman ideas all across its walls and ceilings. Constructed during the Baroque period and before the Enlightenment, much of the art replaces religious symbolism with the Greco-Roman pantheon of gods and French monarchs as their divine successors. There are, of course, allusions to the divine right of kings, but, from what I noticed, Christian symbols exist primarily in the oldest parts of Versailles.
The rooms of Louis XV’s daughters on the ground floor are expectedly lavish, though at the end of the first hallway, there is, if I recall correctly, the only floor-to-ceiling image of an individual in this section of the chateau. This painting is not of a king or Napoleon (whose floor-to-ceiling vestige hangs in the opposite wing), but Athena. Many neo-classical statues are on the facade of the palace, but few of the statues are of distinguishable characters. Hermes, with his helmet and caduceus, and Artemis, with her quiver and game, are notable, but Athena’s depiction outdoes the others. Where they have a few of their respective symbols and others are entirely nondescript, Athena dawns her characteristic helmet, shield and spear, a breastplate, and is accompanied by an owl. The details are easily distinguishable compared to the other figures, as if she was given more attention, or as if I want this idea to be correct.
I note all of this here because in the center of the Hall of Mirrors, there is a magnificent ceiling painting: Le Roi gouverne par Lui-même, or The King governs by himself. A number of the Greco-Roman gods are depicted surrounding Louis XIV, but Athena is the only one to be directly involved in state affairs. Seeming to receive some secret knowledge directly from the god of wisdom, it's clearly related to the divine right of kings used commonly by Christian kingdoms, but here, in the center of the Hall of Mirrors and created in 1661, it shows the French transition to secularism, as I discussed previously.
Besides the significance of signing the Versailles Treaty in the center of the Hall of Mirrors, I am curious if any of the political figures there in 1919 noticed this. Standing there myself, in the same space as those people and countless others, I wonder if they considered what it meant to conclude that portion of negotiations directly under Athena’s guidance. I find it easy to argue many figures in France that year would have perceived themselves as direct successors to this line of special knowledge.
Our last night in France had us ride back to Paris along the Seine, past the Eiffel Tower and Bastille, through the evening streets of Paris, to the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis. Just as the three of us began our first full day in Paris with Carl Bouchard and Mona Siegel, we closed our final full day with them at dinner at Place Sainte Catherine. While the experience of visiting Paris was incredible and unforgettable, the truly great part of this journey was meeting some wonderful individuals. It’s something I’ll never get back in the same capacity. Reading the work of these incredible people can bridge the gap, but I’ll always look back on the week fondly. Sharing the experience with a variety of unfamiliar people made this all worthwhile; I think that says a lot, considering the historical and cultural richness of Paris.
Our trip was coming to an end, and while I was eager to see my family and friends again, to feel a sense of familiarity after being abroad, I was sad that I would have to leave such an incredible country. We only had a few hours before we had to travel to the airport to fly back home, so Dr. Clinton planned for the three of us to travel to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, or the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris. This is a massive functioning Roman Catholic church that matches the charm of the city. There was a long line outside the door of individuals waiting to get inside. By the entrance, a man was busking singing the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”, adding to the religious atmosphere.
While the church was magnificent, it was the view of the city that grabbed my attention. Sitting atop Montmartre, you can see an impressive view of the city. So many people had gathered on the stairs in front of the Basilica it was hard to get to the top, but the view was incredible. While you couldn’t see as much if you were atop of the Eiffel Tower, the city was dwarfed beneath us. As this was a high tourist area, the number of people was overwhelming. But even more overwhelming was the number of sketch artists and painters that scattered the sidewalks only a few streets away from the Basilica. What seemed to be a central destination for amateur artists, easels littered the streets, tents showcasing paintings for sale, and people getting their portraits etched into paper surrounded me on every side. I truly enjoyed how much art, both professional and otherwise I had been able to see this week.
As we descended back down the hill of Montmartre, I took one last glance at the city that had housed me for the past week. I couldn’t ever imagine having an experience like I had this week. For the first time, I had left the country, flew eight hours, stayed in a hostel with roommates from around the globe, and roamed about one of the most famous cities in the world, absorbing the culture and appreciating so many of the wonders that Paris has to offer. Not only did I get to enjoy the sights of Paris, but I got to engage in a world-class academic conference where I felt almost equal to great scholars, which will most definitely help me in my field of study. As I am getting ready to leave, I cannot help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for Gwynedd Mercy President Deanne D’Emilio, the Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences Lisa McGarry, and, of course, Dr. Clinton, for providing me with such an incredible and unbelievable experience.
I looked forward to experiencing yet another day in Paris, but I was disappointed with having just a few hours remaining before our return flight to Newark. I had gotten into a routine of having a small breakfast and coffee as I revised my writing and reflected on my experiences in the hostel lobby. The enjoyment I had the entire week was bottled up, and I didn’t want to forget anything about it after this final day. The early morning hours helped with reflection and meditation, but this morning was different. With the conference having concluded, I had more time to remember everywhere we’ve been and everyone I’ve met. Photos are great for holding onto these feelings, but they can only encapsulate parts of an experience.
Our itinerary had come to its final stop: Le Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Atop Montmartre, Paris’ northern hill, the massive basilica provides a view of Paris matched only by the Eiffel Tower. Montmartre also houses a historic district known for its tendency to house a boundless artistic and politically restless community, giving reason for the state to support the Catholic church’s construction.
We explored Montmartre for a bit, traveling through the Place du Tertre, a traditional gathering place for artists, and more recently, for tourists and merchants. The square had a folksy atmosphere, almost archaic, but infinitely vibrant. While portrait painters were abundant and indefatigable in trying to reel in the interested tourists among the crowd, some of the landscape paintings on display by their creators were simply incredible. I would have gladly purchased one if I wasn’t concerned about transporting it in my suitcase. There is something special about viewing artwork in which one can recognize each brushstroke and ridge of the paint. Some of the greatest work in the world have this, and the “imperfections” cannot be translated perfectly through photos or scans. The same can be applied to Paris as a whole. The city’s beauty and history precedes itself, but it cannot be fully appreciated through photos or books.
It was odd standing on the top of the stairs just in front of the Sacré-Cœur and seeing so many people with their backs to the rest of overcast Paris. From where I was, it seemed that many passersby were paying little mind to the timeless panorama behind them. I imagine that many of them were from Paris or the surrounding area, but the majority were clearly visitors. Knowing that this was our final stop in Paris, everything felt severely ephemeral. We were there to bid adieu (that’s French) to the city, and soon, the other visitors would do the same. From where we stood on Montmartre, I couldn’t see the Eiffel Tower or La Défense, but I was just fine with gazing across the Paris rooftops.