Returning to Paris and being part of the city

Author: Sean Kelley

Class at Musée des Arts Forains
Sean Kelley's class at Musée des Arts Forains.

Sean Kelley ’24 is an anthropology and French major with a minor in theology. In the summer of 2023, he traveled to Paris as part of the study abroad program with support from the Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures (CSLC) and a Nanovic Institute grant. He shared his story with Nanovic Navigator about learning how to be part of the city and overcoming personal and cultural challenges.

It is a great honor to say that I was the intern for the Paris Study Abroad Program this summer. Last year, I participated in the program, and this year, I returned as a leader, in the classroom and out. This was thanks in large part to the generous funding from the Nanovic Institute. My role consisted of meeting the students at the airport, purchasing metro passes, helping organize class outings, and being the first to communicate with students. My supervisors made sure to point out that not only was the job itself important but the experience of Paris was a crucial part of the summer’s agenda.

Every morning, the sun would pour through my window in the apartment of my homestay—that and the noise of a next-door elementary school playground. From there, I would walk from my apartment in the 5th Arrondissement of Paris to Place de la Bastille. This walk would help me wake up slowly, with music playing and the sun warming my soul. I would arrive at the Accent Center, which hosted our classes, and take a seat in the back. From there, I would help organize lunch for the students, and we would adventure into the city for an outing; or if I had my druthers, a park to read in. These were our typical class days, but the summer also included museum visit days. Those days were wonderful because I was able to participate in the learning experience right alongside the students. We were treated to incredible private tours of Versailles, Musée des Arts Forains, and more. The day-to-day for me would always end with a lovely run down the banks of the river Seine or reading a book in the park.

Sean Kelley with Lebanese ice cream
Sean Kelley with delicious Lebanese ice cream from Bachir.

It all never became mundane, however, because Paris is the perfect backdrop for a summer of growth. The thing that surprised me most about this year, contrary to my previous experience, was how my French improved. I was a lot more confident communicating with Parisians, and even if they did not respond in French, I still knew that I had put my best foot forward. Last year, I was so bummed when my French was greeted with unamused English. This summer, however, I knew that this type of response was a helping hand that many Parisians wanted to extend. What surprised me was the beauty of French directness. I knew that if someone commented positively on my spoken French, they meant it.

This whole trip was invaluable to my personal growth. I had hoped it would change me in big, sweeping realizations, but truthfully, it did not. The change came in the small moments—the times when I realized that if I tried my best, even if a conversation or interaction went negatively, at least I controlled what I could. These were moments of great triumph for me. Last summer I had such an excellent time, but I was constantly worried about how to make everybody happy. This summer, I will admit that I continued that trend but with less frequency. It was this small growth that I could be proud of. I would reflect on moments that would upset me last year and look past them this year. Remembering that I can control only one person in this world: me.

Tour de France
Watching the Tour de France as it passes Place de Jean d'Arc.

If I were to give a single piece of advice to someone taking this trip next year, I would say to never assume the worst in others. We are so afraid of those we do not understand, and when in a foreign country with a different language, it is easy to assume everyone has it out for you.

My hope and advice would be to look past the moments when you feel like an outsider. Cling to those moments where there has been an invitation to be a part of the city’s interior. I have never felt more like a part of the city than when sitting along the Seine reading a book. Find the city’s subtle invitations.

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