This post was written by Harry Cooperman, a Spring 2015 Reid Hall student.
The image on the screen behind the stage was avant-garde: 212 rolls of string of various colors, coiled around large tubes, each tube inhabiting its own individual space on a rack in Central Park.
A woman from the audience raised her hand, and the artist on stage pointed to her.
“You made this artwork by walking and tracing out 212 paths through Central Park. Did you choose that number because of New York’s area code? Or was there some other reason for it?”
The artist laughed, and then she responded: « Non, c’est un coïncidence. J’ai suivi autant de chemins que j’ai voulu, et c’est au hasard que le numéro des chemins et le code de zone de New York sont les mêmes. » (In other words, it was a coincidence – nothing more.)
Another person raised their hand. The artist pointed to her.
“What was your inspiration for this piece?”
« J’étais inspiré par la question : Quoi constitue un chemin ? L’idée d’un chemin n’est pas seulement dans ce qui constitue un chemin physique. Il y a d’autres types des chemins, et chaque personne traverse un chemin différent le long de leur vie. Dans Central Park, le chemin que je prends un jour pour traverser le parc sera toujours différent que celui que je prends le lendemain. » (In essence, what the artist said was that no two paths are the same – that her work paid homage to the fact that you never walk the same path twice through Central Park. It was an inspiring, Robert-Frost-esque response – the idea of thousands of paths diverging in a Manhattan park.)
“Thank you for that,” the second woman replied, sitting back down.
Observing the event that night, I realized that inside the large conference hall at Reid Hall, a language barrier (and also a cultural barrier) had been shattered. Questions were asked in either English or French, but the responses were always in French. The thing which stood out the most to me, though, was that everyone in the room still could follow the flow of the “conférence.”
Soit en anglais, soit en français, the conference was never above the head of any of the attendees. There was a mutual understanding between everyone in the room that this conference was about different cultures exchanging ideas; but for that to happen, everyone needed to take a step out of their comfort zone and speak or listen to a language that was not their native tongue.
When I decided to come to Paris this semester, I made a promise to myself that I would step outside my comfort zone – like everyone in the room did that night. And over the course of the semester, I’ve tried to do that as much as possible.
The first week of orientation at my program (the Columbia-Penn Reid Hall Program in Paris), I forced myself to sign up for an art class because I knew nothing about art. My first day of class at Paris VII, I introduced myself to as many fellow students as possible (and my professor) in French, because I knew that would be difficult for me to do. The first time I saw a poster for an event sponsored by The Arts Arena – an American cultural organization in Paris – I immediately registered to attend, because I knew that it was a lecture I never would have attended while at Penn.
Stepping out my comfort zone has given me experiences that I never thought I would have had, and has changed me for the better in the process. After attending my first Arts Arena event, I was asked if I could assist at their future events during the semester. Through my art class, I learned a ton about Parisian art culture as I was required to visit a different museum every week. Despite the fact that I’m not very big on going places on my own, I decided to take a weekend trip to Bordeaux myself – and walking around the historic city that gave birth to the Girondins was one of my favorite experiences in Europe this spring.
At Penn, I was so used to sticking to the path I started freshman year: math major, DP writer and editor, pre-law studies, etc. For me, this semester was about taking the paths I wouldn’t normally travel and making the most of it. Going to another country and trying to learn about culture was something I that I couldn’t have seen myself doing before – so I decided to do it when I came to France. And that choice has made all the difference.
Note: All quotes in this story are paraphrased from the person who spoke them, and are not direct quotes.