Monday, June 9, 2014

Paris: The Highlights Reel

I don't even know where to begin.

I'm tired, sick (I knew it would happen), and probably not formulating coherent sentences given the combination of those two factors, but I feel so happy and grateful for the experience I had this past week.

Along with a group of 13 other students, I spent the last week on a study tour in Paris hosted by the George Washington University debate team and the French Embassy. The students on the trip represent the best debaters and speakers of the Lafayette Debate tournament, a competition hosted in Washington DC in the Spring about French and American issues, and our trip included both tourist activities and meetings with relevant political and industry figures who deal with French culture and cultural protection.

There are a lot of things I could say about this trip. I could explain how lucky we are to have met the people we met, see the things we saw, and learn so much about French cultural and politics. I could describe the beautiful city that is Paris, and all of its nooks, crannies, and unusually large amount of Japanese restaurants. But in typical Kristen fashion, I think the best way I can commemorate my experience in Paris is to share a short (ha... as if I could write something short) recollection of my favorite moments and experiences.

This is the Paris highlight reel. Everything we did could be considered a highlight, but these experiences make up the best of the best, or more suitably the crème de la crème.

Climbing la Tour Eiffel

This had the potential to go horribly, horribly wrong.

When we went to the Eiffel tower, we had been awake for over 24 hours, my feet were bleeding, and the sun was setting. We were paying 5 euros to climb up stairs and waited 20 minutes to do so. We'd also just eaten crepes (really only said that to include the picture below). Like I said... things could have gone horribly wrong.

But our climb up the Eiffel tower was not only a fantastic workout (woot!) and a scenic adventure, but also our first real introduction to Paris.

And boy, was it beautiful. While I have my gripes about Paris, including its costliness and the fact that the metro only runs until 2am, nobody could say that Paris isn't beautiful. The city quite literally sparkles. And while we climbed up the Eiffel tower at 11 at night, the tower itself was quite literally sparkling too.

Not a bad welcome to Paris at all.

Visiting Champagne

In my mind this was the best day of the trip.

Now this one might be a shocker given that people who know me well know that I'm not exactly a huge drinker. I am equally surprised that an entire day focused on drinking could be so enjoyable.

But ohmygoodness Champagne was just too cool. We got up early and took a train out to Champagne, passing through the beautiful French countryside, and immediately proceeded to one of my favorite meetings we had on the trip. We spent the morning discussing geographic indicators and laws surrounding the use of the word "champagne" as a label for sparkling wines, leaving me absolutely convinced in the value of protecting cultural entities.

After our meeting, we had tasting number one, and then headed out to lunch in a fantastic restaurant built inside of an old bank.

Enter champagne tastings number two, three, and four. I was a particular fan of number two, but as a non-drinker, even I found all of this champagne delicious. We made fantastic conversation and learned all about the proper way to drink and pair champagne

This lunch was crazy. It was one of those moments in life in which you can't help but look around and ask yourself how you got there. How did I get so lucky as to be eating such great food with such great people in such a beautiful place? Who am I to learn about all these cultural policies when I feel like they're so distant from me? 

Our trip to Champagne reminded me that being informed, even about something that seems distant from you, is always a worthy pursuit. It reminded me to find value in things I never thought I could, and to absorb knowledge as openly as I can because there are so many wonderful things to learn.

Anyways, onto champagne tasting five and six. After lunch we went to a small local champagne maker's house and he showed us around his champagne production facilities. We saw his cellar, his wine press, and every element of his business, which was a humbling and intriguing experience. His champagnes by the way, A++.

After wishing goodbye to the first grower, we made our way over to Champagne's largest champagne grower and distributor. Unlike the first distributor we visited, this champagnery (making it a word) was giant to say the least. It took us an hour to tour the cellars and learn about the process of making champagne, but our tour guide was enthusiastic and eclectic, and the premises were beautiful.

And of course, the tour was followed with tastings number seven, eight, and nine. Obviously.

I've been a lot of beautiful places in my life and done a lot of wonderful things, but the trip to Champagne was one of the most simultaneously relaxing and educational things I have ever done. Everywhere we went was quaint and elegant, and even I became a true champagne fan.

The École de guerre gala

This was the most special night of my life.

I went to six formal proms in high school, I've been to galas, operas, and special events, and this was by far the most impressive and incredible event I have ever been to.

For a little bit of background, the Ecole de guerre is France's war school, where esteemed generals and military commanders return from their military jobs to learn about high level military tactics, strategy, etc. Students at Ecole de guerre are on average 35 and represent some of the best of the best in the French military, coming from South Africa, Britain, Lithuania, and other countries around the world.

They also happened to have entered a team (a fantastic team!) in the Lafayette debate tournament. The debaters we met in Washington were not only wonderful and incredibly competent, debating in their second language, but were kind enough to allow us to tour their school and invite us to their military ball, the equivalent of prom for esteemed war heroes. Casual.

I honestly don't even know how to start describing how magical this evening was. Held at Napoleon's tomb, the gala featured endless champagne, some of the best food we had in Paris, and a host of esteemed men and women accompanied by their significant others who were all dressed to the nines in stunning gowns and uniforms.

The gala was also attended by Anatoly Karpov, the current chess world champion, who played chess against several French military generals. Considering that several students in our group are chess junkies, this was a total treat.

It's hard to put into words how lucky you can feel in the twinkle of lights bouncing off of champagne glasses in the hands of some of the most accomplished military figures in France. In the company of some of my new favorite people, in my favorite dress, I have never felt more like royalty while also feeling so humbled by the surrealism of my surroundings.

While I hope the people of Ecole de guerre know how grateful I, and all of us, are to have been able to attend their gala, I know that I will never be able to fully articulate how honestly magical this experience was. I'll say this though: sitting in the back of a cab watching the city whiz by on our way back from the gala was one of the happiest moments in my life. That night was absolute bliss.

Destroying Musée du Louvre

 I say destroying because if you can't tell from the picture above... that's exactly what we did. I'll be the first to admit that I am not exactly a museum junky. I would love to respect art more than I do, but I find it difficult to really appreciate the value in most art, and museums make me absurdly tired. We're talking crawling on the ground dragging myself by my elbows tired.

We went to the Louvre on a free day and split up into groups, and I'm not sure what the other group did, but the fine gentlemen I was with and I wandered through the Egyptian exhibit and the statue garden. The statue garden was my favorite part of the Louvre last time I visited, and I did really like the Egyptian exhibit, but it was the endless fun of mimicking statues that made our visit so enjoyable. As you can see, we exhibited some pretty refined skills.

While after a week of learning about culture, we may not have done our best to be cultural ambassadors, I have never laughed as hard as I did the day we went to the Louvre. Besides for a comically horrible lunch experience after our museum adventure, our adventures in the statue garden were so much fun and a nice reminder that sometimes it's okay to loosen the ties and goof around.

The Lafayette Debate Cultural Ambassadors 

As we were told before we left for Paris, the value of this trip was not in the expense of a trip to Paris, but in the wealth of opportunities afforded to us by our connection with the French government. 

While I hope what I have written above reflects how true that statement is, I believe that even this explanation of what made my week in Paris so special is incomplete. 

Not to be trite, but a place is just a place. No matter how much gold you paint a hall with, it is still just a building, albeit one with gold leaf everything. Paris is just a city filled with things to do and see, and like every other city, is nothing more until filled with memories to color those places and things. The memories I made on this trip are studded with beautiful buildings and fantastic meals, but are underscored entirely by the group of people I was with. 

For the sake of the privacy (and your time - I told you I can't do short), I will not describe each and every person on this trip and how wonderful they are. I could do so for hours, as our group was filled with so many unique, impressive, and genuinely kind students, but it was our group as a collective that is responsible for the happiness I feel while reflecting on my week in Paris. 

I've had a lot of mixed feelings about the debate community, my relationship to people within that community, and my ability to feel close to others in general recently, and a week with the students on this trip was nothing if not a reminder of how wonderful people can be. How at nineteen or twenty four, it is possible to have accomplished more and acquired more perspective than some adults ever do. How comedy can come from sharing an experience together without being forced at the expense of others. How being to close to someone doesn't require ten years of friendship, but rather just the feeling that you are accepted and understood.

The group of people I got to spend this past week with were introduced to the people we visited as being among the brightest students in America, and while I have no doubt that this is true, they are also some of the warmest and most genuine people I have met. While I don't know how to fully thank any of these people individually for the small bits of faith in humanity they have each restored in me, I would like to thank them as best as I can collectively for genuinely being truly good humans, and for filling Paris with so many memories that will bring me as much happiness for years to come as they did while we were making them. 

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