How I became an academic: my year in Paris at the ENS

As I mentioned in my last blog post,the last thing I did in the second year of my PhD was to apply to spend a year as a guest of the French state. I applied to become a pensionnaire étranger at the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm in Paris. I wasn’t sure why I was applying – I operated under the cover that I would go and work in the LaTTiCe Lab under Catherine Fuchs. She wrote a letter of support for my application, engaging me in her projects studying the links between literature and cognition.

The application was a long-shot. I was not one of the “in crowd” in the Department of French at the University of Toronto – I wasn’t literary and the sort of linguistics I was interested in – cognitive pragmatics and sociolinguistics – wasn’t really in vogue that time, so I asked one of last coursework professors, Dr Philippe Martin, whether he would write a letter of support and use his tuyaux in the French system, given that he was a professor at the University of Aix en Provence. My friendship with Philippe will play a huge part of the next blog post I will write about how I wrote my thesis during the last two years of my doctoral studies.

Well, to make a long story short, Philippe Martin’s support convinced Catherine Fuchs that I would be a good addition to her lab, and I was received in the office of the department chair, Dr Paul Perron (the man who was executor of Michel Foucault’s final testament, amongst many other laurels). Paul and I sat together – he in his exquisitely tailored suit and my 21-year-old self in shorts and an orange t-shirt with a pair of rollerblades hanging off my waist. We were quite the pair, sitting facing one another on the beautiful leather couch in Paul’s office. He came straight to the point: “Alexandre, on vous a choisi pour le poste à l’École Normale. Félicitations.” And so it was done – I was going to Paris, and I was going in style. The French government would pay me the equivalent of $2000 per month in today’s currency and a paid-for apartment in the heart of the city. As well, I would join the élite international fraternity of normaliens, that is to say people who have been accepted in the ENS through one of their concours.

I boarded my flight to Paris on a late August evening and, with my two large suitcases in tow, spent a few hours of quiet, thinking of how Canada was disappearing behind me and a new life in Paris was assembling itself behind my eyes, in my imagination. I was seated near the plane’s engines, and their rumble lulled me into a deep, transformative sleep. Those hours of slumber were populated by intense dreams full of vibrant hues and surreal vignettes featuring the people that I know. The truth was that I had not been very happy during the six months prior to my leaving for France. I had dated someone, Charlotte, who was a tall, pretty French woman and it had ended badly. To enter that relationship, I had to ignore the interest of someone else, a Canadian model and fencer named Lilly, whom I really liked. I chose Charlotte because she was French and sophisticated. Honestly, I was an idiot – I should have stuck with Lilly. Lilly was elegant, beautiful and heartfelt. She understood my passion for fencing and my obsession with culture and fashion. Charlotte did not. She was an intellectual through and through – she found many of my interests affected and criticised me liberally. It was very unpleasant. At the end of the Charlotte experience, I dated another model, Heather who was sincerity incarnate – she had the most ravishing strawberry blond hair and crystal-blue eyes. She supported me and wanted me to succeed – she loved my intense, broody artistic self and supported me when I was down in one of my funks. Heather was stylish, brilliant and lithe. I was very fashionable and arrogant – I really thought that I had all the answers. I had met her at the York Fencing Club, in which I had been practicing in the year prior to my going to France. She was great and we decided to continue our relationship long-distance whilst I was in Paris.

These relationships had marked me and I hadn’t been the best boyfriend. I was seeking something – I wasn’t sure what. I was unhappy with what I was studying. I felt like I wanted to write but had no inspiration. I felt that I had great ideas to share, but couldn’t find the words or the mental scaffolding that would enable me to express them. I was angst-ridden and selfish. I felt useless in graduate school – aimless and small.

So, it was these unhappy thoughts that drifted behind me, a dark wake that made me and those around me unhappy, very unhappy. I was tortured by the tragedy in my childhood, I was anguished by an upbringing in which I chased ephemera and wasn’t true to my fundamental artistic inspiration. I was confused by the intense materialism I had engaged in, being fashionable, going to fashionable clubs and criticising those who chose not to share my obsessions. I went to Paris to escape and to find myself.

And I did – or at least I started to.

Paris was a magical whirlwind of intense experiences for me. I went to visit Catherine Fuchs and she could tell that my interest in cognitive science was secondary to the spiritual quest that I was on and she basically told me that I wasn’t bound by my agreement to her lab – there weren’t any resources involved and that she felt I should have a year in which I experienced the City of Lights – a year of fencing, walking and discovery. I left her office feeling very light and fleet of foot. She had liberated me from the terrible weight of my sense of duty and set me free to learn things as they came.

That is what I did – I attended lectures all over Paris. I spent countless hours strolling hours strolling through its avenues and peering over walls into beautiful gardens. Paris is a city of closed doors and any time spent there is only as rich as the doors at which you dare to knock or push open. I can say that I probably walked in every quarter of Paris. I made extraordinary friends, and saw extraordinary things.

One of the highlights was the year I spent fencing for the Racing Club de France on their Division II and III teams, as alternate. It turns out that French fencing teams are allowed a foreigner as alternate and I had appeared very conveniently at their door just as the selection was being made. They chose me to fencing for both D2 and D3 teams, as needed. This meant a lot to me – first, it meant that I would not have to pay the normally gigantic fee associated with fencing at the RCF; second it meant that I would make a set of French friends that included some of the best fencers in the world – several members of the French national team. I also met several people who would become my lifelong friends and who have later on found me on Facebook and with whom I now enjoy a consistent connection. I fenced at the RCF four or five nights a week and enoyed every minute – from the cedar-closet lockers to the marble shower, to the wall of windows in the Salle d’Armes which overlooked the Champ de Mars that led up to the Eiffel Tower. I traveled all over France with the RCF, fencing in different cities on the weekends, discovering la France des Français. I will never forget that year, nor will I forget those friendships – I am forever in the debt of the Maître Jeanny, head coach of RCF Escrime who opened those possibilities to me and accepted me as a brother at arms with the other members of the RCF. They became a family for me and that feeling of normalcy that I enjoyed around them began to pull me out of my narcissistic haze and back into the reality of being a part of society. I started to realise that I wanted to be in the world of relationships, and friends and beers after practice, and girlfriends and marriages and apartments and houses. Not just a weird brilliant monastic scholar. I realised that the monastic lifestyle and professorial asceticism that I had affected were nothing but a cloak and a shield to keep the possibility of having a real life at bay – a real life with all of the challenges and raw feelings and insecurities and potential for pain that come with it .

I spent an awful lot of my time at the ENS reading and walking. My relationship with Heather ended at Christmas and I started dating Kimberly, a truly gorgeous American political science PhD candidate from Princeton who was spending a year living at the ENS but studying at the École Polytechnique. She and I were both far too broody and self-involved for that relationship to be healthy. We felt deeply for one another, but we also were far too intense and it ended up being a negative experience for both of us. I miss Kimberly with her high cheekbones, her jade-green eyes and sandy brown hair. She was an inch taller than me and absolutely brilliant. She and I would argue late into the night about many arcane points, over a bottle (or two) of wine and then greet the dawn by falling asleep in a pile on the floor. Like I said, it was intense but ill-fated and didn’t last.

The one thing that Kimberly and I did share was the World Cup. In 1998, France won the World Cup of Football on its own turf and the City of Paris erupted into a three day party of wild and rambunctious celebration. It was unbelievable. The city shut down as people streamed in and out of the metro, not paying for their tickets and the ticketeers allowing them in without question. Cafés and bistros exploded in expressions of neighbourhood joy and offered free goodies to passersby. For three days, stodgy, stuffy classist, segregated France was aflame with solidarity. It was so beautiful to see… but I could also see that it wouldn’t last. That there would be a come-down period and then a return to the old separations of the past. And things return to normal. But I saw something during those three days of glory that marked me: I saw what could happen if the population was united and mobilised and set free behind an ideal of solidarity and hope. Amazing things can happen. I promised myself that one of my life-goals would be to help this creative, striving, egalitarian energy to be released in my home country of Canada.

If you are thinking that my time in Paris wasn’t very academic, you are absolutely right. I read an awful lot and spent countless hours in cafés and parks thinking. I thought through my childhood, my countless fears and insecurities and my inability to find happiness or contentment in my studies or in my relationships. I wondered why I was unkind to my parents, why I had rejected spirituality, why I had taken a dark path that could only have led to nihilism in the end. I wondered. I wondered. I wondered.

In Spring, toward the end of my time in Paris, a friend of mine, Andrew who was a sniper in the Canadian Army came to visit me whilst on furlough. He had joined the York Fencing Club while a student at York and we had been the same team for year. We had grown close – he was half Italian and half Croatian and felt the world deeply, much as I did. His visit for a few days marked me. We walked and talked, made ourselves sandwiches and drank some wine. I tried to show him my Paris, knowing that he would understand, and he did. At one point, he insisted that I take him to Notre Dame Cathedral and we both took the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I scoffed at the thought when he asked me to accompany him in doing this, but this cynicism turned into stark anxiety as I waiting in line to enter one of the glass booths set up for the purpose. Everyone looked so calm and serene, waiting their turn to enter the booth and unburden themselves of their sins to God. I didn’t know if I believed in God, and I felt dirty for having taken so many pot-shots at the Church during my last several years of smart-ass smugness and condescension. Something happened to me in that queue – something snapped. I felt a dam break and emotion rush out. I felt an acute pain, real and powerful and as I approached the podium, as I helped the crippled African man into the both and promised to hold his canes as he confessed, as I felt the warm light streaming in on my face – something opened in me. I confessed, and then walked Andrew back to metro. He disappeared into its dark tube, and I walked away in to the fading light of an early Parisian evening – the feeling of openness and lightness didn’t go away.

Something had changed in me and I knew that I had to change my own life to match it. I felt as though I had rediscovered the path that I felt I was walkign when I was a boy. When I was carefree and full of joy at the simple pleasures of life. When I respected and loved my father and was sensitive to the exquisite emotions that dance across my mother’s face of restraint. I no longer felt I had to put up an intellectual front – that I could be open and kind to people and compassionate.

The truth was that Paris had opened a door in my heart. A door that when opened could no longer be closed. A door that opened on the path back to becoming human. A path that would be a life-journey, a challenge, a roller-coaster. A path that would be painful at times and raw at others. What was important, however, was that it was the path back to reality – to having a real life. A life of service, of connection and contact.

I flew back from Paris saturated by French thought, culture and food. I had gained 20 lbs, but I felt incredibly light. I didn’t know where my journey would take me, but I finally felt as though i were on the right path.

I felt deliberate and purposeful.

And I will tell you how that affected the last two years of my PhD in my next blog post. This one has already grown too long…

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  1. Alex,

    Your most recent blog posts have inspired me. I am not even sure if they truly “inspired”, as I am quite motivated in my current day-to-day life; the posts opened something in me. Something that I have long recognized but foolishly shot down.

    Thank you, good sir, thank you.

  2. Enjoyable! I have many questions and a few comments but I will reserve them for later -After the next blog. I must say I admire your courage and honesty to open-up and share your journey through the mind-fields of life with us, thank you.

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