Global Classroom, Visiting Paris by Anna Cogbill

I just got back from a week-long trip to Paris, and I can honestly say it was one of the most memorable and mind-blowing experiences of my life.

I am a huge fan of museums. Everywhere I go, the first thing I do is scope out the local museums, botanical gardens, aquariums, arboretums, and historical sites. In La Rochelle, I was delighted to discover how many museums I had access to, but if I was happy upon arrival in La Rochelle, I was ecstatic when I arrived in Paris. In one week, I visited Musee de l’Orangerie, Musee d’Orsay, Centre Pompidou, The Louvre, Musee Montmartre, The Fragonard Musee de Parfum, and the National Museum of Natural History. Here’s what I learned.

I learned a million little things about art and artists. I learned that Renoir painted flowers on his deathbed because they made him happy, I learned that Henri Rousseau was not initially taken very seriously, due to a combination of his odd compositional choices and the fact that he was self-taught. I learned that Germain Pilon, a French renaissance artist, created a beautiful statue with a gilded gold container on top that once held the heart of Henry II.

All of this is important, because it taught me something bigger, something I thought I already knew, but only became real standing there surrounded by all this history: There have been eons of people before me. There have been an inconceivable number of lives rich with the joy of creation and the pain of loss, with fervent beginnings and emotional endings. Museums are full of ghosts. You can feel the whispers of the hands that painted, sculpted, sketched, built, polished, all resting on their creation and a voice from long ago telling you about it. All of it seems to say, “I was human, and I lived, once.”

It was different, somehow, being so far away from home. It was easier to separate myself from myself and really look around. In a time before my home country, as I know it even existed, people were people. They mourned lost children and loved ones, raged at enemies and injustice, and exalted the simple gift of living. A tapestry woven with monkeys representing an adulterous ex-husband. A painting of the artist’s son playing with his toys. A garden planted then and tended now.

It’s hard to describe exactly what I learned in all those museums, surrounded in a million personal histories and the great history of a nation, because it wasn’t just one thing, and it wasn’t even a million definable separate things. It was learning, at once, that I am not alone – none of us are. How could we be? Our feelings are precedented by centuries of humanity, doing exactly what we do. We hate and love, destroy and create, live, and die. We’re not alone here and we won’t be alone in death.

This is what I learned in Paris. It’s what I’m learning by being in France. People are people everywhere, and they always have been.

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