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An American professor in Paris

by Tom Byers, professor and director of The Commonwealth Center for Humanities and Society last modified Jul 14, 2010 07:08 AM

In the spring of this year, I was honored to be a Chair Dupront Visiting Professor at the University of Paris IV: the Sorbonne.

An American professor in Paris

Tom Byers, right, at a Paris bookstore.

My visit was arranged by an alumna of the U.S. Department of State sponsored summer Institute on Contemporary American Literature, which we have hosted at UofL for nine of the past 12 years. In Paris, I offered a short course on contemporary American literature, and lectured to both student and faculty groups on a wide variety of literature and film topics. I also delivered papers at conferences in Dublin and in Kazan, Russia, and gave invited lectures at the Complutense University in Madrid and at the Paul Klee Museum in Berne, Switzerland. I had the time of my life.

I love cities, and I think Paris may be the greatest of them all. Among the classic pleasures, of course, are the almond croissants and the dangerously inexpensive wine, the fine, reasonable restaurants seemingly on every block, and the abundance of great art museums. Beyond that, it's a great place to be a professor and a book hound. Paris is full of superb independent bookstores, not to mention the used book sellers along the Seine. You only have to look in the bookstore windows to realize that this may be the world's most intellectual city: where else would the hot new titles on display be the latest offerings in philosophy?

Beyond that, Paris is a feast for the eye (unlike Dublin which, with its live music all day long and its population of poets and storytellers, seems to me a city for the ear). Of course Paris is full of fascinating art from all periods, from the Venus de Milo to the witty stenciled graffiti of Miss.Tic. It's also a great work of art in itself; the streets are beautiful and relentlessly interesting. And the Parisians do, to my eyes, have the greatest sense of style in the world. It's even the best place I know of (except maybe New York) to go to the movies-in small theatres, usually literally underground, with red plush seats, showing an incredible range including, every day, a number of Hollywood films from the classic era.

Finally, though, of all the pleasures the city offers, there is nothing — except being entertained by Parisians in their apartments — that is better than just taking a walk in any one of the city's many great (and constantly more diverse) neighborhoods. On Valentine's Day, the day before my birthday, I had a couple of hours for such a walk. I went to the Marais, east of the Centre Pompidou, one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, full of traditional Jewish bakeries, new gay clubs, and fine boutiques and art galleries. In a place that is almost never dull, this was a surprisingly uneventful walk, which actually left me the time to feel a little lonely — until the end. On the way to the metro to go back to my apartment, I began to hear Chinese music, and almost immediately was face to face with a Chinese New Year's parade, complete with throbbing drums and circling dragons. After it passed, in the square where I planned to catch the metro, there was, for no discernible reason, a traditional French brass band playing on a street corner.  Charmed by their presence (and by the bass drummer's memorable smile) I stood and listened until — lo and behold — another parade came by, this one for Carnival, with Samba Schools, floats, huge puppets, and bands from all over Central and South America. I knew all of this wasn't really for my birthday — but a man can dream, can't he? — especially in Paris.

 

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