Over the last few weeks, we have shared with you some of the material we would normally tell you about at an open day. Dr Simon Kemp, Tutor in French and Co-Director of Outreach, gave us a video overview of what it’s like to study modern languages at Oxford… but do the current students agree?
We asked three current undergraduates to tell us a little bit about their experience of studying languages with us: Dalveen is in her first year studing Spanish and Linguistics; Alex is in his second year studying French and History; Charlotte also studies French and History and is in her final year. Here they give us a glimpse of what Oxford has been like through their eyes.
Today would have been an Oxford open day, a date we look forward to every year as a chance to meet lots of prospective students and tell them why we think studying languages at Oxford is special. This year, that open day sadly can’t go ahead but some of our current students have come to the rescue!
We know that meeting the undergraduates is one of the best ways to really get a feel for what it’s like to study at Oxford, to feel part of the community and to hear from someone who has been in your shoes not so long ago. We asked eight of our current students some questions that we are frequently asked at open days. They are studying different languages, are at different stages in their degrees, and are at different colleges – we hope this will help you to get a sense of the variety of student experiences here at Oxford. And, of course, we do hope to meet you one day!
This post was written by Charlotte, who studies French at Worcester College. Here, Charlotte tells us about her year abroad in France.
2018 was an exciting time to be in France for a year abroad. Over the summer temperatures rose in France with the thrill of the World Cup. Bars were brimming with enthused fans, roars matched every goal and with each win the streets became crowded with waving flags, trumpets and cheers of “Allez les bleus!”. In Montpellier, French football fans climbed on historic monuments and beeped car horns throughout the night. When I was caught watching a football match on my computer at work my boss sat down and joined!
In Montpellier there was a heatwave, or canicule, that summer so I spent my time between the beach and a natural lake, both of which were easy to get to by the tram system running through the city. It was warm enough to swim in the ocean up until the end of September! Every Friday in August there was a wine festival Les Estivales with live music and a range of food stands, every Wednesday there was a firework display at the beach, and every evening in the park Peyrou students relaxed in the cool evening, sometimes playing sport or dancing to music.
Autumn was an important time for me as I was working in a yacht brokerage, and autumn is the season of boat shows so I got to work on the marketing of several yachts across various regions in the South of France. September is also the season of Les Voiles de St-Tropez, a sailboat race in St.Tropez which attracts yachting teams from across the world to compete in.
Winter in Montpellier is very special. The Christmas markets opened at the beginning of December, and their opening was celebrated by a huge light show which saw historic buildings lit up with dazzling light projections.
Winter season also coincided with the beginning of the gilets jaunes movement in France, an important event which saw the President, Emmanuel Macron, cave to the demands of the protestors. A year later they are still to be seen on the streets of Paris. At a practical level, it meant that there was less food in the supermarket and it was more difficult to drive to places. Some students I met there got involved with the protests, it was a chance to engage in French social and political issues beyond reading about them in Le Monde.
Years abroad are not a holiday – I was working a full-time job! – but they are an opportunity to make the most of local events and culture which is not always possible in Oxford with the workload and tight deadlines. Towns and regions have different personalities throughout the year, and living abroad allows you to see and experience them all, getting to engage with language and culture beyond the textbook.
We have an unusual post on this week’s Adventures on the Bookshelf, but one very much in keeping with the blog’s name as today’s post touches on both adventure and bookshelves! Last week, Frank Egerton gave us a brilliant introduction to the Modern Languages Library at Oxford, the Taylor Institution. Now, continuing the theme of libraries, we are pleased to feature an imaginary interview with Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. This interview comes once again courtesy of Frank, who has imagined Sir Thomas’s responses to some probing questions about his life and his library. The interview has been published in English on the blog Clio – la muse de l’histoire, and Francophiles among you will be pleased to hear that it is also available in a French translation on the blog Le mot juste enanglais. Many thanks to Jonathan Goldberg for inviting us to reblog this fascinating creative insight into the library at the heart of Oxford.
“There are few greater temptations on earth than to stay permanently at Oxford in meditation, and to read all the books in the Bodleian.” — Hilaire Belloc
The Bodleian Library (“Bodley” or “the Bod”) is the main research library of the University of Oxford and is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It is second in size in the United Kingdom only to the British Library. It serves principally as a reference library. Formally established in 1602, it bears the name of Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, one of the 38 colleges making up the University. In 2000, a number of libraries within the University of Oxford were brought together for administrative purposes under the aegis of what was initially known as Oxford University Library Services (OULS), and since 2010 as the Bodleian Libraries, of which the Bodleian Library is the largest component. Over its various sites the Bod keeps 12 million printed books and allows access to more than 80,000 electronic journal titles. It also keeps ancient documents, manuscripts, papyrus, cards and sketches. Much of the library’s archives were digitized and put online for public access in 2015.
Frank: Don’t ask me how this works but it does. Hello, Sir Thomas.
Sir Thomas: Hello, Frank. It is an honour to meet you.
Frank: The honour’s all mine Sir Thomas. So, for the benefit of our audience, it’s with great pleasure that I’m here to interview Sir Thomas Bodley, after whom the world-famous Bodleian Library was named. Sir Thomas personally paid for and masterminded the library’s refurbishment, the original building having been abandoned and its book collection destroyed during the English Reformation. An outstanding achievement, Sir Thomas, for which the world will always be grateful.
Sir Thomas: It’s kind of you to say so.
Frank: I should mention that earlier I took Sir Thomas on a tour of the library as it is now. First impressions, Sir Thomas?
Sir Thomas: Still recognisable – and I’m always pleased to see the extension at the western end. That happened after my death. It balances the building and provides lots of additional space. I’m intrigued by the glowing glass windows that readers look into on the desks. I’d like to find out more about those and these ebooks you mentioned. No swords, of course.
Frank: No, I think they were banned quite some time ago. No coffee in this part of the building either. And definitely no smoking anywhere. But perhaps—
Sir Thomas: I like to keep abreast of new things. I may not have caught up with ebooks but coffee – well that only came in fifty years after my time. And smoking – I remember Sir Walter [Raleigh] persuading Her Royal Highness [Elizabeth I] to try some. Clouds of smoke and everyone coughing. I think she saw the funny side in the end.
Frank: Now, Sir Thomas, as you know, we’re particularly interested in languages and European culture here – as well as books and libraries —
Sir Thomas: All interconnected.
Frank: Quite! Your experience of Europe came at an early age, Sir Thomas, didn’t it?
Sir Thomas: Yes. I was born on 2nd March 1545 and my first journey to Europe was undertaken in 1555. Dad was a merchant in Exeter who had strong Protestant faith and who’d helped pay for the suppression of a Catholic rebellion in the west country. When Queen Mary [Tudor] came to the throne, our family fled, initially to Frankfurt and from thence to Geneva, where Dad set up a printing business – that must have had some influence on my love of the printed word! Europe seemed then to be the heart of Protestantism – at least where we were. We were with John Knox in Frankfurt and at Geneva I studied Divinity at the feet of Calvin himself – a tireless worker and an inspiration to us all. I also studied Hebrew and Greek. And of course, we were surrounded by people speaking different languages. After Mary died we returned but by then my west country childhood was but a distant memory.
Frank: What memories of Europe you must have had, though.
Sir Thomas: True, but there was something frustrating about being so close to European culture and yet cut off from it by the discipline of the school room. I vowed to go back.
Frank: But first to Oxford, the city that became synonymous with the name of Sir Thomas Bodley.
Sir Thomas: No sooner did we return than I was an undergraduate at Magdalen College. Back on English soil in September 1559 and a matriculated student before the year was out. My studies at the Geneva Academy stood me in good stead. I did well and in 1564 I became a fellow of Merton College. I was its first lecturer in Greek a year later. For a time I thought my career would begin and end in Oxford. But, there’s this restlessness in me – perhaps it was being uprooted at a tender age then glimpsing how huge the world is. Questing, questing – I always wanted more. I tried many different things. Languages were at the heart of things – don’t get me wrong – Greek and in particular Hebrew, the study of which I and another fellow promoted energetically, opening up the knowledge contained in texts written in that language. But then there was a string of other posts alongside my academic life – college bursar, garden master, deputy public orator. What opportunities there were!
Frank: And friendships,
Sir Thomas: Certainly – one especially. At Oxford I got to know Sir Henry Savile – a cultured and steadfast man who would teach me so much when I started the library project at the end of the century.
Frank: But before that, travel and diplomacy.
Sir Thomas: Travel, yes. I’d never forgotten the vow I made when I returned in 1559. Here’s what I wrote in my autobiography: “I waxed desirous to travel beyond the seas, for attaining to the knowledge of some special modern tongues, and for the increase of my experience in the managing of affairs…” I journeyed to France then to Germany and Italy, learning French, Italian and Spanish. I spent over four years in those countries. The languages fascinated me but so too did new skills I could use in the service of our nation. Under the patronage of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Sir Francis Walsingham, I became a gentleman usher to the Queen and a member of parliament – though the latter was, sad to say, the least well executed of my duties. From 1585 until 1598, when I threw in the towel, my life was devoted to diplomacy and discrete negotiation—
Sir Thomas: We never thought of it in those terms. Not like your James Bond—
Frank: James Bond?
Sir Thomas: I told you I like to keep up with things – though there are so many..
Frank: So not quite James Bond.
Sir Thomas: Though I did have an impact on world events, I like to think, at least to begin with. When I was sent, alone, with letters from the Queen to Henry III of France after he had been forced to flee Paris, I was charged with “extraordinary secrecy”. Though I say it myself – and I did say it in my autobiography – the outcome benefitted not only Henry but “all the Protestants in France”. If only things had continued that way. There was meeting Ann, of course, and getting married, which were the greatest events of that period but then for nine years I lived in the Hague, not always with Ann beside me, endlessly trying to persuade the United Provinces first to support the Queen’s war with Spain and secondly to pay her vast sums of money for the privilege. Neither side would give way. I was caught between a rock and a hard place. Talk about the woes of being a middle manager!
Frank: I know just what you mean!
Sir Thomas: Listen to this – one of the Queen’s secretaries writing in 1594: “…her majesty hath had just cause these many years to have expected a grateful offer from the States of some yearly portion of the great sums by her majesty expended…” She wanted a return on her investment, and they claimed they thought she’d simply been doing them a good turn. It was impossible. And then there was the intrigue at court. I couldn’t abide it any longer.
Frank: In your own words, “I concluded…to set up my staff at the Library door in Oxford; being thoroughly persuaded that…I could not busy myself to better purpose than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students.”
Sir Thomas: I’d been lucky to escape with my head! And so I turned to a project that I’d had in mind for some years. When I was at Oxford as a student and young academic, there was no university library – the manuscripts that Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, had donated had all been snatched under a law passed byKing Edward VI and scattered to the four winds. Imagine that. Many were said to have been reused by bookbinders to cover less “superstitious” publications. They were priceless classical texts. Because I’d been most fortunate in my marriage – Ann was a widow, whose first husband made millions at today’s prices out of buying and selling pilchards—
Sir Thomas: Like sardines, only tastier. We didn’t have children, so it seemed only right that the money should be used for the good of future generations of students. With invaluable advice from Sir Henry, I arranged for the old building to be refurbished and persuaded my acquaintances to donate books and bought others through booksellers who travelled to Paris and Frankfurt – and even to Italy – to find them. As Sir Francis Bacon said of the library, it was an “Ark to save learning from deluge”. We collected European texts mainly but also books in Arabic and Persian – one two in Chinese, though no one could read them then.
Frank: People considered Chinese books to be curiosities, didn’t they, and of no real value?
Sir Thomas: I didn’t – someone had taken all that trouble to write those characters, and someone else had paid them to do so. Who could know what wisdom the books contained? But I did know that one day a scholar would come to Oxford who would unlock their secrets. Soon we had scholars visiting from beyond our shores – twenty-two in the first two years. In 1610 I made an agreement with the Stationers Company, whereby they would give the library a free copy of every book they registered.
Frank: Which is still in place today – though many of the copies are now given as ebooks.
Sir Thomas: Ebooks again! Well, like every library, we were soon running out of space, so I had to pay for an extension. A proud moment in the library was when King James visited – I’d been knighted for my services the year before. But towards the end of the project and before the next, much bigger extension could be built, I knew that my time was near and I passed over on 29th January 1613. And here I am.
Frank: And here you are indeed. And very much still here in Oxford is your library for which the whole world thanks you. Sir Thomas Bodley – library legend!
Sir Thomas: Thank you for inviting me! It’s been a pleasure. Now, when we get to the green room you must tell me about these ebooks…
Author Bio: Francis (Frank) Egerton is an author and a librarian and manager for the Bodleian libraries (Oxford). He also teaches and tutors on a number of University of Oxford creative writing programmes. He has a BA (Hons) Oxon and MA Oxon (English Literature and Language). His original qualification was as an Associate of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but he abandoned his job as a land agent to read English at Oxford. He reviewed fiction and non-fiction for newspapers including The Times and the Financial Times from 1995–2008. His first novel, The Lock, was published in paperback in 2003 and his second, Invisible, in 2010. The ebook version of The Lock reached the finals of the Independent eBook Awards in Santa Barbara in 2002. In The Times [of London] review of Invisible, Kate Saunders commented on “the author’s lively wit and acute understanding of the emotional landscape.”
Today’s post was written by Frank Egerton, who is a writer and the Operations Manager of the Reader Services Team at the Taylor Institution Library. The Taylor Institution (affectionately known as ‘The Taylorian’ by our students and staff) is the University’s centre for the study of Modern European languages and literatures, other than English. As well as its West and East European collections, the library houses collections for Linguistics, Film Studies, and Women’s Studies. Here, Frank tells us more about this incredible resource.
I started work at the Taylor Institution Library on 5th January 2009. As I approach the building ten years later and look up at its classical columns, its statuary and its almost unimaginably massive windows, I continue to think (how could I not?), How lucky I am to work here.
Yet I’m also aware that all that architecture might seem unreal – think Downton Abbey or National Trust – and at worst, forbidding.
It is my job and that of my Reader Services team to make the experience of the building and its amazing collections welcoming, friendly and fulfilling.
More on the present later, but first, history.
It’s a common misconception that the Taylor Institution is part of the Ashmolean Museum. Well it is, on the outside, but inside, the library is totally separate. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the University had two bequests, one for an art gallery, the other for a centre dedicated to the study of modern European languages. The solution was to run an architectural competition for the best design of a single building that accommodated both spaces. This was won by CR Cockerell and his building was completed in 1844.
The money for the institution and its library had come from another architect, Sir Robert Taylor, who had travelled in Europe and who had amassed a magnificent collection of architectural books written in Italian, French and English, which the library now holds.
Not that getting the money was easy. Taylor died in 1788, having stipulated that the University would only receive his bequest if his son, resplendently named Michael Angelo Taylor, died without a male heir. While this did eventually happen, Michael Angelo also tried to overturn his father’s will – despite being one of the richest men in London.
That the money came to the University and the Taylor Institution was built has benefitted generations of scholars for over 170 years.
In the 1930s an extension – which is now our Teaching Collection – was built in the Art Deco style. It was formally opened by the Prince of Wales – who went on to become King Edward VIII, before abdicating. You can see photographs of the future king and all the senior academics of the day outside our lecture hall.
The original collection of books was partly created by donations, just as the original Bodleian Library had been at the end of the sixteenth century. Last year I was thrilled to come across a book that my great-great-great grandfather had given in 1849.
Since then, our collections have grown enormously – in fact, they have outgrown our building! In total, we have some 750,000 items (books, journals, a rapidly growing collection of DVDs, and… a lock of Goethe’s hair). But only half of these are kept in the building. The rest being at the Bodleian’s Book Storage Facility, some 40 miles from Oxford. (The Taylorian is one of the Bodleian Libraries.) Nevertheless, these books aren’t mothballed but can be ordered using the University’s online catalogue, SOLO (feel free to explore it). If the order is placed before 10.30 am on a weekday, it will arrive at around 2 pm that afternoon and most of our offsite books can be borrowed just as if they had been collected from our bookshelves.
Our bookshelves… As you can imagine, there are quite a lot of those. Sometimes I look along just a bay of them and I am overwhelmed by how many books there are. All that knowledge, all those ideas, all those opportunities for learning… In stacks and rooms reached by stairs that remind you of the library in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose…
Which is where the librarians come in. The Subject and Reader Services teams work together to make sense of the collections for our readers and to help them find what they need for their studies or research. The Taylor has a deserved reputation for the friendliness of its staff, their knowledge and their willingness to go the extra mile. One of the most important messages we aim to get across at inductions is that library staff are always there to help.
Our subject librarians also curate and expand our outstanding collections, buying new books, of course, but also ebooks and ejournals, and electronic resources. Not to mention putting together exhibitions of works from our special collections, arranging talks and teaching courses on how to access information and digital scholarship.
I’ve mentioned that you can get an impression of the richness of our collections by browsing the University library catalogue, SOLO, but for a deeper understanding of what they contain you can check out our website and, above all, the tremendous online guides that our subject consultants have created for their particular language. Here you will find not just information about what is available in Oxford but open (freely available) resources and websites.
Yet for all the convenience of the digital age, the Taylor Institution Library remains the human heart of Modern Languages research, teaching and learning. It contains quiet spaces, lecture rooms, a common room and corridors which are alive with discussion. Its staff are there to welcome, to help and to unlock the possibilities of its world-class collections.
For regular updates follow us on Twitter (@TAYOxford).
If there are any teachers reading the blog, you may also be interested in our ‘Sir Robert Taylor Society Conference’ – an annual conference for MFL teachers held each September in Oxford, and named after the founder of the library. More information is available here.
A few weeks ago we published a blog post written by one of the winners of the Lidl prizes for German, Cecilia. Today’s post was written by another winner: Anna won the Lidl prize for the best performance in the examination after the first year of all students studying German from scratch. Here she tells us what it’s like to study German as a beginners’ language at Oxford, and how she sued her prize money to further her study of German.
By the end of year 12 I knew that I wanted to study French at university, but felt an additional beginners’ language would be quite exciting and a bit of a change from what I was used to. I considered Russian or Italian for a while but ultimately settled on German; it seemed to complement French well while still being a new challenge (the Cyrillic alphabet seemed just a little too scary) and I liked the idea of the complicated yet logical grammar system.
My first year studying German has been such a great experience; I arrived knowing only a few basic words and now feel I have a very strong foundation in German grammar to take into my second year. The course is fast-paced yet comprehensive, with a lot of contact hours and long (but manageable) lists of vocabulary to learn, but it was all absolutely worth it; it’s amazing to see how far I’ve come in a relatively short space of time. Additionally, the teaching style at Oxford means that you spend a lot of time with your coursemates, which is especially true for beginners’ German (and indeed any other beginners’ language); there were seven of us on the course and we would see each other for class every day, so we all ended up really close which was a lovely support system during exams or if we had a particularly difficult translation task.
I came to Oxford from a very average state school; the feeling of ‘impostor syndrome’ was very real before I arrived and I was worried I’d be miles behind everyone else. However, I’ve really enjoyed being pushed academically and crucially have never felt that my educational background has hindered me in any way. Winning the Lidl prize for best performance in beginners’ German was quite a surprise but I’m so grateful for it and overall feel that I’ve done myself proud.
The prize money has helped to fund my summer travels – I went to Heidelberg for two weeks with one of my classmates to do a language course. It was really beneficial to have a familiar face in class and someone at the same level to speak German with; we even went out for cocktails one night and didn’t speak a word of English! There were also plenty of opportunities to practise our German with others – we met lots of fellow students from all over the world, and Germans are generally quite accepting of learners and let you muddle through (and then correct your mistakes, which is a bit embarrassing but very helpful).
I couldn’t recommend studying German at university more to anyone who enjoys modern languages, whether it’s following an A-Level qualification or starting from scratch. For those considering the latter, don’t be put off by the daunting prospect of reaching A-Level standard within a year – it’s definitely achievable and more rewarding than you could ever imagine.
This post was written by Cecilia, who is studying German sole at Wadham College. Earlier this summer Cecilia was named one of the first recipients of our new Lidl Prizes: awards that have been generously donated by Lidl to promote and celebrate the study of German language and culture. In this post, Cecilia tells us how she used her prize to fund a trip to Gemany.
I was really grateful to win the Lidl prize for academic achievement in German sole this summer; it enabled me to experience Germany in a whole new way. With my prize money, I visited friends in Detmold, in the north of Germany, and Eisenach, a town in the former GDR. I then took a train to Munich, where I stayed with a friend I’d met at Oxford, and even visited Austria for the first time, venturing to Salzburg. I was fascinated by the way in which the language and culture differs across German speaking countries.
My first stop was Detmold, where I spent a few days staying with a teacher who had visited my school while I was doing my A-levels. I was really interested in the way in which my Gastfamilie did their bit for the environment. Just by accompanying them on their weekly shop, I got to see Detmold’s Bio-Supermarkt and a shop that used no plastic whatsoever! Whilst I am yet to come across such shops where I live in Hull, I am determined to follow Germany’s good influence and reduce my own plastic use.
I then took the train to Eisenach, where I stayed with a girl whom I know through a mutual friend. Far from the green smoothies and kale I had been eating in Detmold, I was able to try much more traditional food, with the Grandad even teaching me how to make Rinderroulade and Thüringer Klöße. I also enjoyed going to school with my Gastschwester, who is studying for her Abitur. I even learnt about Effi Briest, a text which I loved studying in first year, sharing ideas with students in German about this iconic read! But most interesting of all in my time in Eisenach was having the opportunity to hear about life in the GDR. Practically knowing Das Leben der Anderen off by heart from my A-level studies, I was keen to hear my Gastfamilie’s first-hand accounts of the system. I was particularly surprised by my Gastschwester’s remark that she sometimes wished the wall still stood today.
Different again was my time in Munich. I spent the week staying with my friend from university, who is doing a tech internship there. I really enjoyed being part of a flat share; it made me look forward to my year abroad where I’ll be living with German speakers who are my age! It was really interesting to chat with these students and young professionals about everything from relationships and their volunteering to European politics. The Bavarian countryside was really beautiful and completely different to anything I had seen before in Germany. Reading Schiller by Lake Starnberg was definitely a highlight of my trip. I even got the chance to make a fleeting visit to Salzburg, which made me realise I’d love to get to know Austria better.
This week we’re highlighting a number of videos that offer glimpses of German at Oxford. German is one of our bigger languages and is currently offered at twenty-three colleges (although not all colleges will offer German in combination with every other language or subject). For a list of which colleges offer the different language and subject combinations, see here.
First, we hear from Prof. Almut Suerbaum, Fellow in Tutor in German at Somerville College. Prof. Suerbaum teaches a range of topics as part of the undergraduate degree. These include: German language; German literature, specialising in medieval culture; religious writing, medieval drama and prose narrative, gender, and theory of translation.
Next, we can hear from two students: Martha studied German and History, also at Somerville College, and graduated last year; Nyasha studies German at St John’s College.
We’re very grateful to Somerville and St John’s for putting these videos together, and we hope they have given you an insight into German at Oxford and perhaps whet your appetite for more!
Last week, we heard from Hector, one of our undergraduates in French and Spanish. Hector spent his year abroad last year in Chile and Paris. You can read about his Chilean adventures here and here. When we left off last week, Hector was telling us about his stay in Paris, where he lived in five very different areas of the city. Today, we bring you the final instalment in his year abroad adventure.
My stay in Paris was nothing if not diverse: next stop, the 10th arrondissement* A.K.A. l’Entrepôt (‘The Warehouse’). Famous for containing the tranquil Canal Saint-Martin and two of the busiest train stations in Europe, Gare du Nord and Gare de l’Est, I could feel the vibrations of the trains through the floor of the ground-floor studio apartment I was renting from an out-of-town colleague. There is a significant Hindu diaspora in the 10th, which celebrated the birth of Ganesha in magnificent style with the Ganesh Caturthi festival and street procession in August.
For the month of September, I rented an attic room in a coloc (‘flat-share’) on rue d’Aboukir, named after Napoleon’s victory over the Turks during the Egyptian Campaign. The 2nd arrondissement is one of the most typical of Haussmann’s 19th-century renovation of Paris, featuring wide boulevards, small parks, and neoclassical façades. My French-Portuguese housemate, an investment banker by profession, was sports mad and introduced me to the delights of the Top 14 French rugby union league, on the condition that I support his team which, being from the Gironde, was Bordeaux-Bègles.
There’s a reason Paris is the most popular tourist destination in the world, but it’s not the picture-postcard clichés of the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, or Louvre. Rather, it is joie de vivre. Far from the stereotype of being blasé, Parisians know what matters: they eat well, drink well, and invest their time in worthwhile pleasures – be they higher or lower. Although I did experience a good number of quartiers, they were all rive droite (on the right bank of the river). Hopefully it won’t be long before the rive gauche (the left bank) is on the itinerary.
Last year on Adventures on the Bookshelf, we heard from one of our students, Hector, who was on his year abroad in Chile. Because he studies both French and Spanish, Hector split his year abroad between French- and Spanish-speaking countries. Over the next two weeks, Hector tells us more about the French part of his year abroad, spent in Paris…
It was not by design that I ended up living in five different Paris quartiers* over the summer of my third year abroad. But it gave me an insight into the City of Light which I wouldn’t otherwise have had, even with my excursions by day as a runner-people-watcher, and by night as a keen flâneur**. After a year teaching English in Chile for the Spanish half of my degree, the French half was immediately indispensable as I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to my first digs.
These were a single room on the fourth floor of a hostel on Boulevard Barbès, in the 18th of the 20 Parisian arrondissements***. My colleagues at the production company at which I was interning, HENRY TV on Place de la République, were somewhat shocked when I told them where I was living, since the area can be ‘chaud’**** come nightfall. Sure, I saw (and heard) a certain amount of that from my window on Friday evenings, but variety is the spice of life in the 18th: the African markets of the Goutte d’Or are cheek by jowl with such iconic sights as Montmartre, the Sacré Cœur, and the Moulin Rouge.
The African theme continued at my next residence: flat-sitting for friends in the Grandes-Carrières quarter, also in the northern 18th arrondissement, where there is a significant population of Senegalese origin. It was in a Senegalese restaurant when my parents were visiting that we enjoyed our best ever dining experience. Instead of just talking amongst ourselves, as is the norm when going out for an average meal in the UK, we were engaged in conversation and banter over delicious fare by other diners keen to share their culture with us, an unusual addition to the clientele.
As well as flat-sitting, my third pied à terre involved cat-sitting and plant-sitting for friends on holiday in Italy. The Parisian-born cats, Attila and Maurice, though initially somewhat sceptical of me on arrival – as were their human counterparts – warmed to me, and Attila even became quite affectionate despite his war-like name. The flat’s central location in Le Marais (‘The Marsh’) of the 3rd arrondissement, offers far more than its name might suggest. One of the most historic and traditionally aristocratic parts of Paris, the Marais now boasts vibrant LGBTQ+, Jewish, and East Asian communities, as well as plenty of trendy bars and some of the only remaining medieval architecture in the city.
Check back next week to hear about the rest of Hector’s Parisian adventures….
Explanation of vocabulary * quartier: Each arrondissement (see below) is split into quarters, or ‘quartiers’. There are also historical ‘quartiers’, which often do not map onto the administrative ‘quartiers’ – it all adds to the fun of navigating the city!
** flâneur: a stroller or walker. This comes from the verb ‘flâner’, meaning to stroll or saunter. The ‘flâneur’ became a famous figure in the nineteenth century, associated with people watching and urban exploration.
*** arrondissement: Paris is split into twenty administrative districts, called ‘arrondissements’
**** chaud: this can have several meanings in French, but in this context it means that the area can be a bit risky
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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