By Muheez Busari
I have settled in well in Paris. It’s been quite exciting, and a novel experience since my arrival in the popular city of love, literature and fashion opulence/gaiety. I stay with a friend in the centre of Paris, around Gare du Nord. My location is a strategic train station for international and domestic arrivals and departures for multitudes of travellers within Europe and around France. I usually refer to Gare du Nord as the gate to the city of Paris. As an Nigerian student arriving, for the first time in Paris, a European capital, I was stunned by the large number of Africans milling around this famous city that I thought I had arrived in Dakar instead of Paris. I had expected a sea of reflective Caucasian pale skins in their multitudes rather an all too familiar skin shade kept my gaze at ease, but not without some surprises. I had to make a double-check on my travel documents to re-confirm the visa as well as reconcile the tickets with my rather strange port of arrival. It cost me 30hrs plus to get accustomed to the mélange of human population in Paris. Before arriving here, I had set some objectives for myself; to learn as much about the city through literature and film, to ultimately polish my French, “fignoler” as the French would say and to explore the city with the excitement of basking in its charm and century-old glory. My perceptions were informed largely by thousands of tales told, and re-told by friends and family over time, “sejour au Paris”.
I am actually sitting in the “jardin” at an old Parisian building “san doute” on Rue de Chevreuse off Boulevard Montparnasse with a cup of coffee as I write you this letter. Its popularly known as REIDHALL and is actually shared by a number of Universities, mostly American and British institutions. Hence there are lots of students around. Our range of courses for the spring term centres around writers who have lived in Paris(as an abode of exile, diaspora or as emigres from the maghreb), been influenced by the sheer poetry of the city, or just got literary inspirations from hopping in and about famous cafes, Rues, Boulevards and places within and around Paris in the late 19th to the 20th century. The likes of Baudelaire, Emile Zola, James Joyce, Jean Rhys, Ernest Hemingway, Julio Cortazar, Ezra Pound, Tahar Ben Jalloun etc. I am studying literary portrayals of the city and its inhabitants in awe-inspiring prose writings. And this, more often than not, gives me an idea on the next part of Paris to visit.
Although classes hold just twice in a week, I always don my tourist toga each Sunday to explore, discover and practice my spoken-French. Armed with a city map and a little pocket-book of Paris History and Sights, I assume the character of a “flaneur” visiting the several cafes, boulevards, places which writers who were exiled Paris frequented. I get off the Metro from Gare du Nord to explore the Notre Dame Cathedral and her Gargoyles, to Shakespeare & Company book shop, a shop frequented by Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald and Pound as written in A Moveable Feast. The “Quartier Latin”, famous for its student life, is home to a number of higher education establishments. It’s situated around the left bank of the River Seine. Interestingly, the place is ironic because it has a preponderance of Greek bistros and cafes rather than a Latin identity as its name suggests. Walking all the way along the Seine leads to Pont Neuf, where I stand on a cold windy bridge, to watch tourist boat rides below, while my skin yearns for the tenacious African sun which outshines the tame European sun. I make little chit-chats with Parisians and tourists. There are lots of artists and impressionists on the great boulevards and Rues. With brush strokes and swipes on canvas or virgin white paper, they strive to bring to life beauty and brawn of nature around them. Looking around I grasp how great and aspiring writers have drunk the scenery of this city and amazed at their sheer ability to re-live the settings. At times I sit in “Le Jardin Luxembourg” to inhale the blue sky and feel the greener and transport myself in time and space to 19th century Paris, while reading a novel. Often times, it becomes a literary epiphany, and I get the exhilaration of living in the same city and mingling with archetypes of the characters and subject-matters of the talented writers I study weekly, never mind the considerable change in the times(era).
I am undergoing a metamorphosis with each exploratory walk in Paris. I have discovered that within this opulence and historic beauty are different peoples of diverse nationalities and each one is trying to come to terms with his own encounter with life in the city of Love, Literature and “Haute Couture”. The Babel of voices on the “rues’ and “gares” makes me strain my ears with the hope of gleaning a phrase in my mother tongue, perhaps for assurance that I have roots, firm roots somewhere in the world. Did these writers undergo this feeling of mine? My French is getting better.My next port of call, for my Sunday “loisirs”, will be “La Musee du Louvre” and “Le Jardin Tuileries”. Next will be “Basilica a Montmatre” or “Le Tour Eiffel” and spontaneous kilometres of city strolls. Perhaps, someday all of these wanderings might form materials for an account of my life and times as a student in Paris.
Muheez Busari is a Nigerian student studying for a dual literature MA at the University of Kent, Canterbury and Paris campuses.