The Brain Trust of France

“College is the best time of your life. When else are your parents going to spend several thousand dollars a year just for you to go to a strange town and get drunk?”  — David Wood

As a graduate of two directional colleges, Western Illinois followed by Northern Illinois, I’ve always had  some university envy.  My alma maters’ cornfields and their workaday areas of study — elementary education, business administration, agrriculture —  do not measure up to some of the greater institutes of higher learning.

Just thinking about a university called the Sorbonne, right in the city  of Paris, sets my heart aflutter. The Sorbonne, with its elegant name, is the humanities department of the University of Paris, whose history dates back to the Middle Ages.  Our Paris neighborhood, the Latin Quartier, gets its name because  Latin was the language of academia for centuries, right here. On these narrow, winding streets, the world’s greatest intellects, including St. Thomas Aquinas, walked, talked, and taught.

When we chose the Latin Quartier, the center of intellectualism, I imagined we’d see students in tight jeans sitting at tiny cafés, smoking Gauloises, discussing the existential philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre, the feminist mind of Simone de Beuvoir, or arte moderne.

My bubble has been burst.

Students here do wear tight jeans, and they smoke cigarettes. But we’ve seen no evidence of intellectual conversations. Most of their pastimes we’ve observed resemble college life back in 1968 in Macomb, Illinois. Except here, they don’t get in cars and drive to Lake Argyle to drink beer. Instead,  they sit at the Place de Pantheon or on the steps of St. Etienne-du-Mond Church and drink the night away.

Every night, their raucous laughing, shrieking, and alcohol-induced yelling floats through our window until at least three a.m. We’ve also seen some interesting rituals. One late afternoon, we heard a chanting crowd heading our way. Were they shouting, “Liberte! Egalite! Fraternite?” Were they protesting global atrocities? Passing below our window, students marched, laughing and joking. Some had their hair coated with flour— an initiation rite, it seemed. Another day, we passed several bunches of students on the street, all carrying papers. Political idealists handing out leaflets? No. The papers listed challenges in a competition between groups. One contestant, sans pants and tee shirt, and cheered on by his teammates,  went into a shop in his boxers. So much for academic pursuits.

Ecole Polytechnique brainiacs are in the neighborhood, too. E.P. is France’s most prestigious educational establishment, with a 200 year old history. Some Polytechnique-related  projects have been the country’s high speed trains, Ariane rocket launchers, and nuclear reactor systems. Last night, right on our corner,  an E.P. guy rallied a band of his schoolmates wearing their red tee shirts around a parked car at the Bombadier Pub. Shouting  “Allez! Allez! Allez!” they worked as a team to lift the car, carry it into the narrow one-way street, drop it. They cheered triumphantly,then struggled to get it back in place, lifting, setting it down, lifting, setting it down. Finally, the car was put back, just facing the opposite direction. So much for high-level technology.

At cocktail parties all over France, parents are bragging about their offspring. “Oh, our Jean-Jacques is at Polytechnique.” “Our Yvette is studying at the Sorbonne.”  Moms and Dads in the U.S. have sent their offspring here as well.  Plenty of all-American voices rise above the general hubbub. Parents, we’ve seen your young scholars. They look and act a lot like some of the fun-loving knuckleheads I remember out at Lake Argyle.

I guess the rite of passage of college life has its constants.


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