Sunday, December 5, 2016
When I was thirteen, my parents and I took a sabbatical to Paris. It was the spring semester of 1983, and my Dad was a computer science professor at the University of Michigan. We were due to stay a little over six months. I was adamantly against the idea.
A semester of eighth grade at an American junior high school in the early 1980s--who could possibly want to miss out on that? As it was, I had hardly any friends. I'd grown apart from most of my friends from elementary school, which ended after eighth grade, and hadn't made many new ones in my first year of junior high. Nevertheless, the prospect of going to France terrified me. For months before our departure in early January, every time my parents started talking about our trip at the dinner table, I always said the same thing: why not just stay in Ann Arbor? My bitching and moaning continued after our arrival. The first couple of weeks we stayed with friends in Meudon while my parents trudged into Paris every day to meet with real estate agents and look at apartments. I'd brought one book with me, and finished it within ten days. It was called "Successful Investing," and my parents had given it to me for Christmas a few weeks earlier. In those days, I was very interested in the stock market.
Mom and Dad found an apartment in the fifteenth arrondissment, not too far south from the Montparnasse tower. The first time I saw it, I declared it a dump within thirty seconds of entering the place. I resolved to tell my parents every night, just before going to bed, that I hated Paris. Every day, I made a point of wearing shirts that said either "Ann Arbor" or "The University of Michigan" on them. I attended school at the Ecole Bilangue, a private school located near the Parc Monceau in the sixteenth. The largest contingent of students was from the United States, but together we made up only about twenty percent of the school. There were no French students, but we did have classmates from pretty much all over the world. I distinctly remember one girl, who was from the Soviet Union, explaining to me what the Armenian Socialist Republic was. She was from Yerevan.
At school we had at least two hours of French a day, and a number of our other classes--including math, art, and physical education, were taught in French. We typically had ninety minutes for lunch, and usually I'd go to a sandwich shop or a cafe with my classmates. They all knew how to order, and taught me handy phrases. At the weekends, we'd meet up sometimes in groups--something I never did with my friends in Ann Arbor. We'd go to O'Kitch--the ersatz McDonalds located on the Champs-Elysees at a time when the American fast-food giant wasn't yet allowed to open a store in France--then check out a movie in the version originale at one of the big cinemas down the street. On one occasion we went roller-skating at La Main Jaune. Some of the kids occasionally threw parties--chaperoned by their parents. My best buddy from those years--a kid named Peter, from Kentucky--showed me how the elevator in the building where one of our friends lived would bounce if you jumped hard enough while going up. We ended up getting trapped in the elevator for about twenty minutes, after which our friend's Dad asked us if we'd been jumping. We of course denied it, then later assumed he'd asked because he'd done the same thing.
Whereas my weekends in Ann Arbor had usually consisted of watching "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island" on television, in Paris I had a lot more freedom. I had a metro pass, and if I was out with friends it was okay if I returned relatively late. Sometimes at the weekend I'd just explore the city by metro. I was fascinated by some of the weirder metro lines, such as the ones which only had two or three stops. I'd ride them from beginning to end. On my way to and from school the metro would rise above the surface in order to cross the Seine, affording us all a view of the Eiffel tower.
|The view from my old ride to school|
In Ann Arbor, much of our time was spent in front of the television. In Paris, we also watched TV sometimes, but a lot less of it. My Dad had started playing backgammon at work with his colleagues, and he bought a game for the apartment and taught my Mom and me how to play. We had round-robin tournaments that went for hours, playing for a half-franc a game. At the weekends we'd sometimes rent a car and drive out to other parts of the country, including Normandy (where I'd spend a summer with a French family three years later), Brittany, and the Loire Valley. Over Eastern break we went down to Tunisia for a week. I bought my Mom some flowers on May Day.
And now I'm on a sabbatical of my own, something I'd frankly been dreaming of ever since I started my academic career in the fall of 1999, when I started an MA. Back then, the idea of going on sabbatical meant a lot of things to me, including the fact that I'd have made it. If you're going on sabbatical, that means you'd managed to somehow clear all of the hurdles: getting into a PhD program, finishing it, finding a tenure-track job, getting tenure, publishing a book, etc. I think it's pretty safe to say that, were it not for my experiences in Paris with my parents, I probably wouldn't be in Moscow right now.
|The Kremlin, from the Patriarch's bridge|
|It's always sunny in Moscow|
|This Turk across empires got his start in Paris|
|From my ride to the archives now|
|On my way home from the archive|
But I think that the biggest changes--the real effects of self-reinvention--will probably become easier to see only later, after I'm back in the US. For now, I just feel the pangs associated with growth, but I recognize the sensation as something I've experienced before.
Are you a Turk across empires? Order a copy today, then get another one for your libarary.
More commentary, photos, and links can be found at the Borderlands Lounge.