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The Quotidian Life

Taylor Colvin

Taylor Colvin ’14 in front of I.M. Pei’s Pyramide
du Louvre.

I’m just going to come out and say it: Paris and Baltimore aren’t all that different. As I write this, it is 10:30 in the morning, and I’m sitting in the back of a classroom by the window. Most of my classmates are bleary-eyed as they silently sip their cups of coffee and take notes on the lecture that began 15 minutes ago. An iPhone goes off, and the professor pauses for a moment to shoot a dirty look at the girl who is now frantically digging through her purse to find and silence the offending device. She mumbles a breathy “sorry,” and the professor turns back to the board to resume the lecture.

As a third-year college student, I know this scene as well as the back of my hand. Except that I am not sitting in a classroom at Johns Hopkins. I’m in Paris, studying journalism at Institut d’études politiques, better known as Sciences Po.

Of course as soon as I leave the classroom and venture out into the neighborhood, some of the differences between my Hopkins life and la vie Parisienne become apparent. Sciences Po is in the 6th arrondissement, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. I pass the Louis Vuitton store, Les Deux Magots, and Café de Flore on my walk to school every morning.

Every day, there are moments in Paris when I feel like I’ve stepped off North Charles Street and onto another planet or into a fashion magazine—usually both simultaneously. Before I boarded my Paris-bound plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, I had never seen Christian Louboutin shoes in person. Now I see the trademark red soles and towering stilettos on a daily basis—sometimes on the feet of women old enough to be my grandmother.

And though my Instagram account has benefited tremendously from these vignettes of almost supernatural Parisian splendor, I find myself falling more in love with the less glamorous side of Paris—the side that reminds me of my life back home in Baltimore.

Truthfully, calling Baltimore home is a recent development. I grew up in a town about 40 minutes outside Birdland, and for the first 18 years of my life, it was a city that I only became acquainted with in terms of special occasions—field trips to the aquarium, day trips to the Inner Harbor, and proms at M&T Bank Stadium. It wasn’t until I came to school at Hopkins and got to know the city by way of its beautiful banalities that it really became mine.

In a similar way, I cherish Paris in shades of the everyday grind—missed metro trains, late nights of homework, and trips to the corner market, where the shopkeeper chuckles at my terrible American pronunciation of “Bonsoir, monsieur.”

Of course, it’s not like the incessant rain, dirty subway stations, overpriced cups of burnt coffee, or unspeakably tiny shower stalls will ever make it into the photo album that I put on Facebook or show to my parents when I get home, but that is part of what I love about all of these biting little annoyances. It’s like I’m in on a secret with the city. Everyone with a Google search bar and eyeballs knows what the front of Les Deux Magots looks like, but only I know what it looks like around the corner, with all of the tuxedo- and apron-clad waiters hunched over their BlackBerrys, texting and indulging in a smoke break, because I see them every day on my way to class.

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the shuffle, click, shuffle routine that goes along with being a tourist. For this reason, I think that nothing is so wonderful as inhabiting a city for the first time as a student. Coming to know a place through the lens of academia gives you permission to view things with a discerning eye and a clear purpose.

And being a college student in both Baltimore and Paris, I’ve learned that the tourism boards for both cities got a little carried away when handing out nicknames. Charm City isn’t always so charming, and the moniker City of Light is a little deceptive because it rains here almost every day. But it’s the little imperfections like these that make me feel like I belong here in Paris, and at home in Baltimore.

And sure, there may be some superficial discrepancies between the not-so-twin cities— Paris has the Eiffel Tower, macaroons, red wine, and the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris, while Baltimore has Oriole Park at Camden Yards, crab cakes, Natty Boh, and The Wire television series—but if spending a semester abroad at Sciences Po has taught me anything, it’s that Charm City and the City of Light are farther apart on a map than they actually are in the world.

Watch a slideshow of Taylor’s photos below: