Revisiting Paris

By Julie Clack

In the fall semester course “Revisiting Paris,” students traveled to the French capital to discover the “real” Paris – not just the glamorous European capital known for its decadent food, awe-inspiring art, and iconic scenery.

In the course designed by professor of French and Italian and native Parisian André Benhaïm, students explored modern and contemporary Paris as an urban space, as an object of representation, and as part of French cultural identity.

Using an interdisciplinary approach that incorporated literature, history, sociology, art history, and architecture, students read novels, letters, and memoirs and watched films and documentaries that depicted the City of Light in many different lights. With authors ranging from household names such as Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Charles Baudelaire to contemporary figures such as Faïza Guène or Matthieu Kassovitz, students gained insight on the experiences of real Parisians, from La Belle Époque to the present day.

“While it is slightly more centered on literature and the arts, the course was designed for students interested in a broad range of disciplines,” said Benhaïm. “The goal is to approach ‘Paris’ from a variety of perspectives, that also include gender identity and environmental concerns.”

Many students were aware of the myths surrounding Paris and enrolled in the course to learn more about the actual city and its inhabitants.

“I decided to take ‘Revisiting Paris’ in order to deepen my understanding of the city through a multi-disciplinary approach that examined the city and its effect across various academic disciplines,” said sophomore Sofiia Shapovalova. “As someone who is captivated by the sense of magic cultivated by the way Paris is presented through literature and other medias, I was curious to experience the ‘real’ Paris in both a classroom setting and by conducting my own research during the fall break trip.”

At the start of the semester, students chose a personal project pertaining to Paris. Like the interdisciplinary material studied in the course, the projects covered a vast range of topics, such as sociological studies of bakeries and cafés and the memorial traces of famous artists (Oscar Wilde, Alexandre Dumas, Agnès Varda…). For all of the students, the trip to Paris over fall break brought their topic to life in a way not possible in the library or on a computer.

“Visiting Paris allowed me to observe both the methods of presentation and public perception of the natural sciences in science museums of all types in Paris,” said sophomore Eva Reed, who explored how the natural sciences are presented to the Parisian and global public in the city.

Junior Minh Duong chose to research how socio-economic and ethnic/racial contrasts manifested themselves in specific Metro lines. Upon arriving in the city, however, he realized that he wouldn’t be able to broach this sociological approach in his week-long stay. “I pivoted to a journalistic reportage where I just rode the lines, observed, and drew some common patterns,” he said. “And that's okay! That was my experience of the city!”

Shapovalova’s research took a literary approach, focusing on retracing the steps of Irish writer Oscar Wilde, who frequented and found refuge in Paris during the late 19th century. “Visiting Paris certainly brought my topic to life, as I was able to see the places that Wilde was known to inhabit, ranging from the woodland park he loved to drive through with his lover to the hotel in which he ultimately passed away.”

In addition to pursuing their own research topics, the class visited numerous sights together, including the neighborhoods of the Marais, Belleville and Montmartre, the banks of the Seine River, and under the arcades. They also visited gardens and parks and went to the sites of the 1931 colonial exhibition.

“My favorite memory from the trip were our group dinners! We had a very memorable battle with a raclette which was super fun and delicious,” said Reed.

And like so many people who visit Paris, many students relished roaming the streets aimlessly.

“Besides the tourist attractions, I appreciated everyday life where I didn't feel like a stranger or an outsider,” said Duong. “On the last day of the trip, I took Metro Line 6 to the other side of the city, then walked back to our hotel along the Seine. I saw joggers, kids hanging out, homeless tents under bridges... I was observing, and I felt like I didn't stand out but was rather an ant in the daily happenings of life.”

Shapovalova agreed. “Every day was exciting! Something I particularly enjoyed, however, was how I never seemed to grow tired of walking about the city. An hour-long walk back to the hotel after dinner felt much more like a light stroll, with good company and a beautiful view all along the way. Even the rain in Paris didn’t disturb me as much.”

Upon returning to Princeton, students presented their projects to the class.

“It was so rewarding to see to what extent students had involved themselves into Paris and brought back such personal perspectives on a city that has become a mythical place,” said Benhaïm. “Through the projects, everyone got to revisit Paris as no one else had experienced it.”

As the American writer and Paris frequenter Henry Miller said, “To know Paris is to know a great deal.” And while there will always be more to discover, students in “Revisiting Paris” came away from the fall semester knowing a great deal more about the City of Light. 

Learn more about the course, which is being offered Fall 2024.