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 Back to SummaryTheo Lim - Student Advisor Profile

Stanford in Paris, Winter 2011-12

MAJOR: Civil Engineering

MINORS: Urban Studies, Architectural Design

“The amazing thing about this city is not just the Eiffel Tower, or Montmartre, or the Champs-Elysées. The amazing thing is that every little street and alleyway has its own history; someone famous lived here, another worked there, another had his morning coffee at that little café on the corner. I may not have the most exciting life, but here I’m sharing the spirit of the greatest city in the world.” - Michel, taxi driver

As the taxi pulled away from La Fondation, my dormitory for the past three months and eleven days, I realized how quickly Paris had come to feel like home. It wasn’t postcard Paris by any means; as we drove along Rue du Jordan in the dark, dewy morning, I could glimpse the silhouettes of a few sans-abri curled up in storefronts and doorways. The narrow cobblestone streets of the 14th Arrondissement, the grimy platform of the RER station, the balding lawns of Parc Montsouris - these places were familiar, even welcoming. And the moments - staring dumbfounded by the massive wall of cheese at the crowded grocery store; chatting with the proud confectioner at the Sunday market at Grenelle; shivering in the line that snaked out the door of the local bakery just to grab the best baguette tradi in the neighborhood - these moments bound such otherwise ordinary places close to my heart. My new friends and acquaintances, they accepted me as one of their own; “Il est des notres,” they had sung together: He is one of us.

I wanted to spend my time developing my other interests while experiencing Paris, not just living in it. The staff at the Stanford Center offered to help me create an adapted curriculum for a structural engineering course in Paris; I politely declined. I told them that I wanted to explore music composition, and so instead they paired me with a fantastic French-Albanian pop star-turned professor who helped me to achieve an emotional and melodic precision in musical composition that I previously thought impossible.

My study abroad experience revealed the real Paris to me. This was the honest, tangible, human Paris, not the Paris of the movies or of cruise ship tours or of glossy visitors’ brochures, but rather the Paris of cold winter nights and warm baguettes, of early morning espresso and late trains, of rowdy Friday nights and silent walks on Sunday mornings. Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to delve into the community, to live like a local, to share in the spirit of one of the greatest places on the planet.

There were few overtly academic reasons for me to spend a quarter studying abroad in Paris. The single engineering course offered by the Stanford Center was one which I had already taken; the architecture course regularly offered was out of rotation.

Which was perfect. I wanted to spend my time developing my other interests while experiencing Paris, not just living in it. The staff at the Stanford Center offered to help me create an adapted curriculum for a structural engineering course in Paris; I politely declined. I told them that I wanted to explore music composition, and so instead they paired me with a fantastic French-Albanian pop star-turned professor who helped me to achieve an emotional and melodic precision in musical composition that I previously thought impossible.

With increased social confidence and command of the French language came warmer interactions with storekeepers, waiters, vendors, and taxi drivers: Even without perfect French, most of the people I met were warm and welcoming if I first began speaking in their tongue: stares would turn to smiles as soon as I asked a question or started a conversation in French.

Courses and events at the Stanford Center helped to not only educate me in economics, language, and culture, but they introduced me to a new way of thinking and new perspectives on life. Learning about the Eurozone crisis in the was far more captivating from within the Eurozone, especially from professors who had many times been advisors to French and EU financial ministers. The enthusiasm and flexibility with which my French Language professor approached his subject made it infinitely more interesting and applicable, especially when our discussions dove into the less-often discussed realms of political controversies, scandals, slang and vulgar language. (Not that I used any of it, of course not!) As the quarter progressed, I found myself looking forward more and more to French class: when surrounded by French speakers on a daily basis, I yearned more and more for a stronger command of their language.

And with a stronger command of the French language came increased social confidence. As a resident of the dormitory (rather than a homestay), I had to put a little more effort than other Stanford students into making friends and engaging others socially. But eventually, I did make a number of francophone and anglophone friends: one even brought me along to stay with his family in the countryside. With increased social confidence and command of the French language came warmer interactions with storekeepers, waiters, vendors, and taxi drivers: Even without perfect French, most of the people I met were warm and welcoming if I first began speaking in their tongue: stares would turn to smiles as soon as I asked a question or started a conversation in French.

Indeed, I soon discovered that the gesture of approaching locals in their own language is a powerful message, not just of communication, but a deliberate entreaty to be accepted into their culture, on their terms. No, my French wasn’t perfect, and my grammar was abysmal; yes, I made some hilarious errors (note: excité does not mean excited in the Anglophone sense); but in the end, the joy of being accepted in foreign culture was both exhilarating and humbling. “Il est des notres” - He is one of us. That is all I could have asked for during the three most transformative months of my life.

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