First Impressions of Paris Noir

Below are the first impressions students enrolled in “Sojourners: Black Popular Culture in Paris” at the University of Southern California wrote during their first night in Paris, France after our welcome dinner in Montmartre.

“Arriving in Paris I was surprised by the land. The land has been so greatly impacted by the influence of man for centuries that the aerial view looked like a schematic layout; perfectly straights lines (see attached picture from the airplane). I was surprised by the fog, the cold fog that covered the sky and city. I am interested to learn more about the history of this city and how it became what it is today. In the United States, I frequently feel objectified walking through the streets alone because of my race, my gender or both. As a result, I’m at times guarded and rarely allow myself to connect with strangers. In Paris, I dared to peek again. I noticed other’s eyes for the first time in some time and did not feel like my being was at risk. Of course, there were a few occasions but significantly less than I am used to. This gives me a bit of hope for the state of race and sexual relations in the City of Lights. I am choosing to have an open mind and learn as much as I can about what this city has taught so many other Black radical thinkers about what freedom entails.

I also noticed the architecture of the city. Everything is close, smaller, and generally more conservative than in Los Angeles. I think that this is a nod towards a different national relationship with material things. It encourages me to reexamine what I actually need versus what I am told that I need, whether that be a huge bed,  a huge meal, or even wide streets. With open eyes and heart, I say hello. Rather, bonjour.” –Shernae Hughes

“I arrived in Paris with my dad on Friday morning and after waiting for my luggage for an hour and then driving to the wrong hotel, we were very overwhelmed. However, compared to anything I do in Los Angeles, everything we did in Paris seemed like a grand adventure. On the first night, we unintentionally explored the CDG airport, which is also a train station, a bus station, and a mall. You could get to all of the restaurants without a boarding pass, which is very different from LAX. Also, the Metro here is wonderful. It’s my favorite part of Paris so far. I’ve also noticed that everything, from streets to meals to elevators to cars, is teeny in Paris, except for its attractions and exhibits. My dad and I completely underestimated the size of the Musée d’Orsay. Also, the ground floor here is 0 and there are negative floors. I’m trying to learn French while I’m here. So far I’ve been able to carry out a brief conversation with a woman working in Starbucks (mostly by guessing) and ordering our museum tickets. I have not studied French before and that was my biggest concern in coming here, but many people speak some English. Also, so far hotel breakfast has always featured apple sauce which has apple chunks in it and is really good. The restaurants and cafe’s we have visited are also fantastic. The cheeseburger I had at a cafe across the street from the Tuileries Garden was much better than any I can remember having in the United States. Additionally, there are a lot more Black people in Paris than I expected and it’s quite comforting. During this Maymester, I would like to learn French and learn how to make myself comfortable in a new space. I want to gain greater self-trust and confidence. I’m also very excited to learn more about the influence of Black people in a world that constantly erases our presence from history. I’m excited to see the physical paintings that I’ve loved for years and to look at them as more than just beautiful art. Instead, they would be a piece of my heritage & identity.” –Chasia Elzina Jeffries

“Carrying a suitcase that weighs almost as much as me, wearing my stained sweatshirt that my mom bought in the 1980s, and almost getting hit by more cars than I could count (driving on the wrong side of the road), I stumbled my way through the streets of Paris and into the hotel that will be my home for the next month. As I unpacked my suitcase, I couldn’t help but notice the sirens wailing outside my window…how they remind me of Los Angeles, but sound slightly different. These were my first impressions when I arrived in the City of Lights. I have been to Paris before, which is why the sights of the city were not as awe-inspiring as they once were to my fifteen-year-old eyes. Now, having learned so much more about art, literature, and music, I am excited to learn about the culture that exists here. Our taxi driver on the way to the hotel told us about all of the immigration that has impacted to the city of Paris, so that it is now almost a cultural melting pot with many different nationalities represented. I am so excited to learn about the cultures that are represented here, as well as the motivations for immigration. In addition, what I think I am looking forward to the most is walking through the streets of Paris, eating a baguette, and sipping on wine. Basically, I want to travel around the city through food – and to find the best food that Paris has to offer. From what I know thus far about the city, living in Paris will be quite different than Los Angeles. Navigating my way through a city in which I do not speak the language, will be a barrier that I will have to work through. In addition, using public transportation is not something that I am used to by any means (the Los Angeles metro is not nearly as extensive as the Paris underground railroad). However, even with all of the challenges that I will experience as a visitor to France, I am excited to have the opportunity to do research and study in the City of Lights (and of Love).” –Hanna Adams

“For five years, I have studied the French language and culture, yet I never fully comprehended how much of an impact African Americans had on the City of Lights. I look forward to going to the places where Baldwin created his most notorious pieces, the jazz club where Bechet performed nightly, and how African American migration post World War I and World War II forever left a footprint in Paris. It is going to be incredibly exciting to see black magic sprinkled in one of the most culturally wealthy cities in the world.

When I first arrived to Paris, it was astounding to see how small everything is—the cars, the elevators, the bathrooms. Everyone here lives their lives in a very simple manner, whereas people in Los Angeles prefer the larger and more lavish lifestyle. Every street in Paris is filled with history dating back to many centuries, with beautiful architecture to be seen everywhere you go. It is interesting to see that the French keep the traditional apartment building architecture, but the inside of the building is up to date. In other words, the rooms are modern, yet, the building itself retains the traditional Parisian vibes. Moreover, in Los Angeles, it seems that more and more people are adapting a vegan lifestyle, so more restaurants are becoming solely plant-based to keep up with the trend. The French do not care for trends; they just care about sticking to tradition and producing the best food possible without any dietary restrictions. I also enjoy seeing how teenagers like to hang out by the Seine and enjoy life. Everyone in Los Angeles seems rushed all the time and people don’t stop to breathe and enjoy the scenery. Besides this being an intellectual journey, I hope to learn from the Parisian lifestyle and learn how to enjoy life and take it easy. It is easy to forget to take care of oneself, but we should follow in their footsteps and indulge in self-care once in a while. Overall, I look forward to understanding Paris in a more in-depth manner and absorbing the rich history.” –Maria Manjarrez

“Paris is the city millions dream of visiting and I was one of those millions. I’d never been to Europe but recently, that’s changed – I landed in Paris 6 hours ago. In my Uber ride and walk from dinner, I’ve seen American fast food restaurants and American products for sale in the markets. However, as many echoes of America which resonate, it is impossible to deny that I am in the legendary city of Paris. Because of Hollywood, I know what Paris looks like. In fact, I’ve had a strong sense of familiarity as I walked back from dinner this evening. That familiarity is overwhelmed by the sensation of walking in a nation where I don’t understand the national language. For me, Paris is new and it is both exciting and terrifying. One of the truly special aspects of this Maymester is exposure to Parisian sites I would never visit as a tourist. Journeys to Paris would require that I visit the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. With this focus on famous attractions, I would probably never visit Sally Hemming’s home or the Enlightenment sites or the less notable jazz clubs. Not only would I not visit many of the places on our itinerary, I would look at the places I do visit from an entirely different perspective. Without this class, I would instinctively accept the narrative created and published by the majority to attract tourists without looking for the perspective of marginalized groups. I hope this class teaches me how to effectively identify the problems with prevailing theory and seek out alternative narratives.” -Isabel Reed

“Paris is absolutely beautiful and I am so grateful to be here! Since I have arrived I would say one of the main differences I see from LA is the pace. Though Paris is a very busy place, there is this air of tranquility that rests over the city. As I walked home from the welcome dinner I admired the beautiful architecture, the whimsical cafe environment, and the people that filled the streets. I felt like I could relax just a little bit, take a breath and truly enjoy my experience. It was not just about getting from point A to point B, but rather about taking in every moment. In LA there can be so much chaos that we take the little things for granted, but as I walked the streets of Paris today I could see others really living in the moment and enjoying the company of those they were with.

During my trip, I am excited to visit the places that the locals consider home and getting a feel for what makes Paris, Paris in the eyes of Parisians. So aside from gaining new knowledge, while I am here, I hope to learn how to live more in the moment and truly experience things without distraction. For me, this trip is not just about growing as an academic but also growing as an individual. I have already started to gain a new perspective on the world and different cultures, so I am excited to see what the next 3 weeks as in store!” –Ashlee Sausedo

“I was shocked upon first arriving at how helpful people were. I guess being from LA, I haven’t really been in a position where I needed to interact with other people publicly. I drive my car to and from work, staying in my own little bubble. Here I began in a more vulnerable position – not speaking the language, trying to lug a fifty-pound luggage through public transit system. A woman on my flight at the airport waited for me to get my luggage, figured out my transit route, and literally put me on my bus. When I got to the metro, a random man lifted my heavy luggage over the checking for me and when I got off the metro a fellow passenger helped me carry it all the way up the two flights of stairs. While I’ve never tried this social experiment in LA, I have little faith people would be this generous. This was a heartwarming first impression of Paris, especially since most Americans had told me of the unfriendly French reputation. It was lovely to check into my hotel and then go to dinner with our class. I tried escargot for the first and probably only time. The sauce was delicious, but on principle still the idea of snails scares me. I would like to try more local foods, but I’m not putting too much pressure on myself to really enjoy them. After this a few of us climbed to the Sacre Coeur. I had been before years ago with my family, so it was fun to see what parts of the arts district I remembered. The churches in the United States cannot compare to the churches here. Perhaps I will attend mass one of these weeks. I hope to see more of the tourist sights (of course the Eiffel Tower and maybe a day trip to Versailles) and become proficient in my navigation skills! Most of all I hope to come up with a worthy final research piece.” –Jordan Kessler

“I have been to Paris before, but I found that between being older and having done the readings for this class and just finished a seminar paper about James Baldwin, I am seeing the city in a new light. The first thing that jumps out at me is the huge prevalence of African culture. Being a stereotypical fan of Paris, I have always thought primarily of my Parisian experiences through the lens of food. Yet my favorite experiences of food this time are not from the classic brasseries or cafes, or even upscale “French” establishments, but from a couscous place which I returned to the very next day, and a hole in the wall West African restaurant that closes at 8am. My experience with the food was nothing but comfort and deep satisfaction, combined with a peaking interest for a new taste. But while this was true for the food itself, I found that this experience was greatly contributed to by the people, whom I experienced similarly—full of comfort and with a new hip edge.

I also noticed the presence of a cafe, a boulangerie/patisserie, and a tabac on every block, 95% of which were names that I was unfamiliar with; in other words, rather than seeing a Starbucks (which I am embarrassed to say was the first place we rested in) and a McDonalds on every block, they were small businesses that only existed in that place alone. In America it is difficult for these small establishments to last long in the shadow of large corporations, but here it seems to be the other way around.

On another note, I love how amazingly walkable everything is here. I could see myself living here without ever having to set foot in a car, or even the metro (with no time constraints). The greatest joy is to be able to wake up, fall down stairs, walk a block to the nearest boulangerie and rip open a baguette on the way home. That is a life I could get used to.” — Luca Mendoza

“If Los Angeles is home to the stars, bustling with electric energy, then Paris imbues a soft glow that washes over everything. Arriving in the City of Lights felt like walking into the pages of a fairytale—elaborate iron balconies, sidewalk cafes, window boxes, frosting-like architecture. Unlike Los Angeles, or even USC specifically, where buildings are a jumble of styles and cars reign supreme, there is a cohesiveness to Paris and, despite the late hour, there were still people strolling along the streets. I cannot wait to be one of those people myself, walking the city and getting lost, thereby learning its geography. Los Angeles is not an approachable city and despite living there for three years I still can barely navigate its neighborhoods or establish a sense of direction. Paris feels like a mirror world in that respect. I am thrilled to be here for the next three weeks and embrace and, simultaneously, move past the City of Light’s first impression. I have been to Paris before and seen its beauty; I have gone to the typical tourist destinations, climbed the Eiffel Tower, and seen the Mona Lisa in the Lourve. What is so appealing about this Maymester to me, and what I hope to learn about during our time here, is the history that runs parallel to the historical attractions but is often overlooked. Visiting the museums, galleries, and hotels in the coming weeks for the purpose of emphasizing the activities and contributions of African-Americans feels like uncovering a new world that I have never had the chance to learn about. The United States has no lack of racial tensions and historical erasure; France says they have no minorities and all citizens are united under a common French nationality. The cultural importance of coming to Paris to learn about a marginalized group is not lost on me and I’m eager to get started.” –Serena Jarwala

“France has been confusing. I have spent two days here so far—one in Paris, the other in Sceaux—but I have not yet believed myself to be living a real life here. I presently feel in love with Paris, but not in any colloquial sense, not in the way that I fell in love with this city the last time, the first time, I was here. My love then was of a more romantic sort, programmed by all the false movies and books and songs I had consumed. I now feel a love, or at least appreciation, for the history of Paris that I am constantly subject to, both the beautiful and the ugly—yet lately the histories I once revered as beautiful have begun to appear to me less so by the day. I love to watch people move, listen to them speak. I consider myself an avid observer, and my only advantage as one, if any, is that I am so physically small that often I am unobtrusive and can observe things as they are, as they have been. I have not been able to understand much of what I have seen or heard here in Paris, and perhaps that is why I am so in love with and confused by the city. It is unfathomable to me that the Parsians walking down Champs-Élysées actually live here. Some of them walk past La Seine to get to Monoprix. Others circle the Arc de Triomphe to get to school. I am awed by how they have incorporated Paris into their being; the landscape seems to have wholly shaped how they move and what they think or do or are. The brilliant structures, which tower everywhere, also awe me. I am also forced, then, to remember the sheer age of Paris: I am reminded that this city is much older than Irvine or Los Angeles or most of the places I have come to know. Throughout the course of this trip, I hope to learn how to better be aware of my own movement and space. I want to learn about the rich history of Paris Noir (something often overlooked by the Western-centric emphases of Paris) and how it, although a continent away, has unknowingly shaped my upbringing and way of being. I want, if only for myself, to know what I am thinking and why.” –Ryan Nhu

“Yesterday I landed at Charles de Gaulle to a clouded, grey landscape which struggled to stand out from my monotonous hometown of Burbank, California. With all sixty pounds on my back, I made my way underground to the RER, headed to the city center with no friends, no place to stay, and nothing more than “Bonjour” in my vocabulary. The waves of foreign conversations and the unending grey sky seemed to consume me, and I became homesick.

Today, however, I woke up to a technicolor city. The grey sky now appeared to glimmer with different shades, granting slivers of sunlight to the cobbled sidewalk like my own yellow brick road. Not much happened in between these two impressions of Paris. I mostly walked. But this late-night time spent strolling alongside the Seine taught me about the city’s rhythm: its crowds of high-schoolers sharing wine atop a shipping crate, its film museum full of cinephiles of all shapes and sizes, its unavoidable history, and its light. The lanterns switched on in the 12th District around 9:30, and they showed me a city that no longer overwhelmed or terrified me. Rather, the lights illuminated all the specific nooks and crannies which I had missed under the monotonous cloud-cover. Now I could see that the music I had been bouncing along to all night had truly come from a single street performer, adorned with a Santa Claus-like beard. Now I could see the shimmering in the ripples of the previously-black Seine. Now I could see a Paris which called out to me instead of talking over me. I’m excited to call back.” –Lucas Bohlinger

“This Maymester is all about immersion in cultures and experiences foreign to myself. I had never been to France prior to this study, nor had I been exposed to more than the bare minimum with regards to African Americans creators in Paris. I look forward to the traditional tourist attractions of Paris–the Eiffel tower, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe–but I am also enthusiastic about the chance to learn how this city encouraged African American art and creativity in a way that the United States traditionally has not. Our tours through museums and exhibits will focus on groups routinely overlooked by history, especially the history perpetrated by white America. Having been in Paris for several days, there are a few things that have stood out to me. Even on the plane ride over the city, I could not stop focusing on how green this city is. There are grass and trees incorporated in the city in a way I have never seen in the United States, and especially not in Los Angeles. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to focus more on things like the nature and the architecture of a locale. French architecture is remarkable. Each building tells a story, and to walk down the streets of Paris is to encounter countless human experiences. But the most surprising thing about France has been the people. People here dress in all different styles, wear all different shoes, and come from all different colors, yet they mix and blend in a manner societally frowned upon in the States. I have never seen so many mix-race groups of friends. Though I am aware of tensions that occur here, specifically those surrounding freedom of religion for those of Middle-Eastern descent, on the surface there is a melding of cultures that is unique to the rigidity of the upper-middle class USC campus from which I hail. In truth, the main commonality between French people is that everyone here smokes. In fact, many aspects of French culture remind me of my grandparents’ hometown of Lima, Peru. The European architecture, the way street cleaners pick up trash, and the constant fumes of nicotine all echo through both cities. I was not expecting France to so resemble South America, but then again France has yet to fulfill my stereotypical American expectations.” –Marisa Johnson

“I haven’t been in Paris for long – I arrived last night around 9pm, and then lazily took an Uber when I should have taken the metro. (Is it called the metro here? I will see today, I guess.) My first impression was amazement at the fact that it was still light out at that time, when the latest the sun will set in Los Angeles is 7:30pm. The light is great for a tourist like me, so I’m glad for it.

The uber was more complicated than I thought it’d be. The driver didn’t speak English, and the one thing I’ve learned here for sure thus far is that I don’t know a lick of French, and my Spanish won’t help me at all. (As soon as I get the chance, I’m going to memorize as much as I possibly can.) However, when I got in the Uber, one of the three passengers spoke English fairly well, and so we talked. She hates Paris – says the city is too dirty, too crowded. She says everyone studies English but it’s not taken seriously here, just as it is not in the United States. She and her two friends were traveling for a judo team.

In Paris, I hope to better my French skills, master Scalar, and simply expose myself to more black literature and culture. On Saturday before my flight, I had to get fingerprinted for a job and the person fingerprinting me, a young black woman, asked me about this class in Paris. I explained the subject matter to her, and she said – “They had to fly you all the way to Paris to learn about black people?” I laughed, but thought it was telling. This will be the first class I’ve taken that’s focused on black culture and history, and it is crazy, in a sense, that I have to come to Paris to learn about black people in an academic context. I’m hoping that the primary thing I learn here is how to take the historical lens I’ve learned here and apply it to what I’ve already learned in the United States.” –Brianna Johnson

“From the moment I stepped out into the nightlife in France, I could tell it was fairly different from what I am used to. Immediately, people lingering by doors approached me, chirping, “Taxi? Taxi?” I even heard one driver calling out to me, “Nihao! Nihao!” which I decided to only take minor offense to. In Los Angeles, even with my luggage and bags, I could fit in as a native, but, here, there was nowhere to hide. I stuck out like a sore thumb that screamed “TOURIST” everywhere I went. However, as if to prove that I can survive in this foreign country–and to save a lot of money–I decided to take public transportation to get to the hotel. I stopped by many information booths and asked guides where I should be going and where to buy tickets. Right around the airport, they were all almost fluent and said they could speak English if that is what I preferred. However, after taking the first train out from right next to the airport to where I had to switch from train to bus in the middle of Paris, there were less and less people that spoke English. At the stop, three people directed me to the wrong place or pointed me to another person that might know more English. I could tell that they were a bit irritated that I did not know any French and struggled to explain or understand me. I decided to take matters into my own hands and pulled up my google maps and came the rest of the way here. From what I can see, people seem to be more genuine and down to earth, but, definitely, the language barrier is not helpful in surviving in Paris. From this Maymester, I hope to fully immerse myself in French culture by exploring more than just the tourist locations and getting to know our group, but going places that are a bit off the road and engaging with native French people. I want to do some people watching and try to read into the similarities and differences between Los Angeles and Paris. I hope I can also pick up a little French because I am definitely going to need it here. I am so excited for all the adventures to come!” –Megan Ryu

“On Wednesday the 9th I was living in an apartment by USC studying for a final, and by the night of Saturday the 12th I had moved out, finished my sophomore year of college, and taken a grueling layover to Paris CDG through Reykjavík. A few noteworthy moments through all the noise of the past few days: my sister turned 24, I ran into the ocean alone and fully clothed, and I was briefly planning on delaying my flight to Paris to follow a woman named Jenna through Iceland, who I had just met on the flight there.

Anyways – the point is that I’m frazzled, tired and confused. But I have already picked up on a rhythm to Paris that is really interesting and unique, and also very different from Los Angeles. For example, the hotel where I stayed last night was called Austin’s Hotel: it had only 5 rooms, and in the lobby, which was about 150 square feet, Austin himself greeted and handed the keys to all of the patrons. The elevator was barely big enough for me, and the hallways were thin and not completely symmetrical. I ate that night at a very small restaurant down a narrow one way pavestone street. The man at the counter took my order and then made the food himself. I speak french fluently, but I must have still looked out of place; everyone I met asked me what I was doing there.

It feels like the city was built out many many years ago in slow motion, so everything squeezed together before it expanded farther away from the city center. Here, you have no choice but to be in the nitty-gritty, like you’re always finding yourself in some special corner of the city. I am very excited to keep exploring this city in small and big ways over the course of this month, and hopefully feel like I am a small part of the fabric that holds this city together: to find more little pockets of history, where people have squeezed there way in.” –Elon Wertman

This is our class story. Stay tuned!