A Reflection on the First Day (of Two Decades)

I spent my first moments of shedding teenagehood with my eyes closed, perched on a plastic chair in the ten square meters of a friend’s Parisian flat. I listened to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, a work on the Music Humanities repertoire, opening my eyes at the final downturn of the imaginary conductor’s baton to stare at his violin, lying carelessly, bow askew, atop a pile of Sciences Po papers.

I confessed to my friend that I never thought this would be a scene that would occur in the progression of my life. I had firmly left music in high school in search of other pursuits, had entered Columbia thinking that I wanted to become fluent in Russian, had never dreamed of being able to speak to someone who went to Sciences Po. But first, rewind. How does one go from the mountaintops of Taiwan to a balcony in Paris, from not knowing what “oui” meant to studying at public French universities, from exiting the music scene three years ago to seeking out Faust at the Opéra Bastille, from suppressing my music deprivation to letting loose someone who could talk about orchestras endlessly?

Paris held so many answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.

As I walked along Pont Royal earlier in the day, it had hit me that life looks quite different now, for sure a more colorful version of the world I was in this same calendar day last year. A group of friends are set to gather at a Japanese-French fusion restaurant—why is this a trend?—once again for the small celebration, but instead of six friends who all go to Columbia, meeting at East Campus to walk to 121th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, this year I am looking forward to an eclectic bunch hailing from Cambridge to Brown to all sorts of other places in between, all of whom will probably lost in the winding Parisian streets around Chateau de l’Eau. Looking at my agenda, it’s evident that schoolwork is just stressful and overwhelming as ever, but still new, exciting, and in a foreign language. Long-distance friendships are still difficult but rewarding, evidenced by the 132 emails in my inbox that deserve thoughtful replies. My culinary network has expanded, made possible after landing a job as a barista at a highly rated boutique, and making brunch for famous cookbook author David Lebovitz. Hot mess express days are covered by the studied nonchalance that French women effortlessly master—my hair has been cut short, my wardrobe drained of color, and the bullet of a vivid red lipstick is all that touches my lips most mornings. If people are products of their environment, I should probably stay in Paris.

My acceptance to study abroad for the academic year came on my birthday last year, which was spectacular news that caused tears of joy in the middle of a Le Pain Quotidien; I had my face in the flowing blond locks of my best friend. It was the hope of being able to return to Paris that kept me trudging through sophomore year, and the confirmation to study abroad was the yes, I did it moment that stood out in my mind, a success I found particularly personally rewarding because of my measly year of French grammar before going to Reid Hall. After papers on papers, and many trips to the embassy, I sat on the two suitcases where I had my life packed up for Paris, had a minor flutter of panic in my chest, and started convincing myself that it was a terrible idea and I had no idea what I was doing all over again—it’s going to be like the first day of being thrown into an all English environment all those years ago, I told myself, and it’s going to be embarrassing and anxiety-inducing and you’re going to be old when this all happens. Fortunately, my experience has been everything but that.

Paris has always helped me to settle into my own skin, starting from when I first popped out of the Vaugirard station for my first day of class at Le Cordon Bleu. Knowing I wanted to return, I promised myself that, the next time I came to Paris, I would be able to communicate. I remembered very clearly the evening when I went home after two particularly smelly practical sessions, pulled up SSOL, and enrolled in a French course for my sophomore fall semester. I recall the excitement of recognizing all of the food vocabulary in Chapter 8 of the textbook upon picking it up from Book Culture, and the thrill of the French language that kept me coming back for more. Perhaps it is because this language was the sixth that I had to learn by book, or perhaps it is its fundamental beauty, but despite the rocky starts accompanied by learning anything new, I knew I wanted to be as eloquent as possible on paper and that this was an attainable goal if I worked hard enough.

What I did not anticipate was that, the combination of acceptance in true outsider-hood in the country, being more of an individual not tied down to any particular institution, and having to get accustomed to new social circles and customs for sure forced out a better version of myself than what came out in the States. I’m still unsure of how much of this is merely the passage of time, really, or if my years at Columbia in New York were what allowed me to get more out of my time at Reid Hall, but I know that this Paris-filled year has been the most important one of my lifetime so far. It feels good to feel my back straighten with confidence as I navigate the winding cobblestone paths, to slow down and look around when the angel atop Bastille glows with the afternoon sun, to have the most exciting conversations at the strangest hours—but the most rewarding sentiment is the understanding that at the end of my three semesters at Reid Hall, I will be able to have another I did it moment, yet another important milestone in my educational experience.

I closed my eyes, and allowed myself to be swept away by Symphony No. 3, playing at the recommendation of both my friend and my Music Humanities professor. I worked on weaving the whirlwind of Parisian memories so far—of full sketchbooks full of dreams, of well-used culinary journals, of fiddles decorating time, of the smell of freshly-baked baguettes wafting through one particular exit on Place des Vosges, of the infinite things to be grateful for—into the melodies there.


Texte Yvonne Hsiao, Columbia College