Maroon over Paris

Like the tree that heralded its arrival, the University roots in France grow.

By Katherine Muhlenkamp

Photography by David Muhlenkamp

Even in late June, the streets of Paris’s 13th arrondissement are lined with students. Carrying bookbags and clutching satchels, they step off the Réseau Express Régional and head toward the Bibliothèque nationale de France or Gibert Joseph bookstore. Walking down rue Thomas Mann, some veer right, to the campus of the Université Denis Diderot Paris VII. A smaller number turn left, breezing through a gated entrance and past a gold sign emblazoned “University of Chicago.”

Inside the gate lies the University’s Center in Paris. It encompasses the ground floors of three buildings that press up against the River Seine and share a small courtyard. On this Monday morning, undergraduates in the summer program greet one another with a casual “bonjour” as they maneuver around the courtyard’s pink and purple flowers, lush greenery, and towering tree. The maple was a gift to the University from the mayor of the 13th arrondissement to mark the center’s 2003 opening. The tree “was big then,” says Administrative Director Sébastien Greppo. “Now it’s really big.”

A Lincoln statue in progress at the Center in Paris includes a nod to Barack Obama.

Crossing the courtyard, the handful of students—the College summer program averages ten or 15 participants while the academic-year sessions accommodate up to 75—filter into a classroom that looks immediately European: black chairs, smooth wood tables, streamlined coat hangers. It’s a few minutes past nine, and the students settle in for an intermediate-level French writing class. The course provides intense language instruction, preparing students for an upcoming Rabelais class to be conducted entirely in French. A highlight of the course—taught by French cultural and literary historian Philippe Desan, the Howard L. Willett professor in Romance languages and literatures, the history of culture, and the College—is a weeklong visit to l’Abbaye de Seuilly, a former monastery in central France where François Rabelais began his studies in the 16th century.

While the writing class is in session, Greppo walks briskly from building to building. In the courtyard he stops to greet a man in a blue baseball cap who sits before a half-finished statue of Abraham Lincoln. Building on the work of sculptor Henri Marquet, Vincent Charra adheres a mosaic of purple, brown, azure, and bright blue tiles to the lower half of Lincoln’s body.

Commissioned to mark Lincoln’s 200th birthday this year, the public statue was already in the works when the founder of the Paris-Chicago Committee approached Romance-languages professor Françoise Meltzer, the center’s 2008–09 academic director, about placing the statue in the center’s courtyard. Several Paris locations were considered, but because Illinois was Lincoln’s longtime home and Chicago is a sister city to Paris, the University’s headquarters seemed an ideal site for the whimsical work. Design details include the phrase “Yes we can” running along Lincoln’s right shoulder—a nod to former Law School lecturer Barack Obama—as well as a maroon hat. Today Charra focuses intently, pacing himself to finish the statue for its official unveiling this October.

As he attaches blocks of color to the concrete sculpture, the students exit one building and file into another. They’re about to begin phonetics class with Isabelle Foltête, one of two full-time faculty members (the other, Sylvie Garnier, is spending the summer preparing a grammar book for advanced French-language students.)

Each student sits before a computer, wearing headphones while repeating words and phrases. At the front of the classroom, Foltête tutors a male student. Then she rises from her seat to introduce the next exercise: reading questions and answers aloud in groups of two (“Je peux prendre ce DVD? Bien sûr prends-le.” “Ce livre, je le mets où? Mettez-le sur mon bureau”). Haltingly, the students begin. Stressing syllables and sounds, rapping on the desk for emphasis, Foltête has them repeat the sentences over and over.

After class the undergraduate cadre convenes in the foyer. “Tonight we’ll have a late dinner,” says one student, while the others nod in agreement. Academics are the center’s first priority, but “the students bond because they’re here together,” says Meltzer. “This is a place for them to experience Europe. On weekends they go to Barcelona; they go to Rome.”

The center also serves as a catalyst for academic pursuits throughout Europe. Comparative-literature doctoral candidate Jonathan Ullyot—one of several graduate students researching and writing there this summer—frequently takes advantage of his proximity to the rest of the continent. While the undergraduates head into the city, he stays in his upstairs office preparing a paper for the upcoming Second International Deleuze Studies Conference in Cologne. As Meltzer says: “The center is our home in Paris, our home in France, and our home in Europe.”

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