Final Thoughts


How does one begin to conclude the end of something incredible?

In all my blog posts, I have tried very hard not to romanticize Paris or the exchange experience. But I think the time for critique and for the cynicism so in vogue with intellectuals is over. Paris simply is. It exists for our interpretation. I will try to assign descriptors, but any attempt will inevitably fall short.

As much as the time for critique has passed, it is not yet time for critical reflection. With one week of class remaining, and two weeks left in France, I can barely start to describe the incredible things I have experienced this month, not to mention offer an insightful reflection on my entire experience. With more time and distance, I would be able to extract the themes, the lessons, the threads that will shape this experience into some sort of coherent dialogue. For now, I can only endeavour to sort through a jumbled mix of sadness, denial and deep gratitude.

View of Montmartre & Le Figaro

View of Montmartre & Le Figaro

It is difficult not to become somewhat teary-eyed when attending my last classes. Time seems to have contracted with the start of my last month in France until every day, every hour has become saturated with feeling. Everything is more meaningful. Every little detail has become precious and new. As much as time seems to pass so much faster, Paris seems to have been distilled to a series of intricate instances – the smell of fresh bread from the bakery downstairs, the snatches of fast conversation, the cool bite of the wind, the press of people as I mutter pardon while hurrying to class.

It is also incredibly difficult to contemplate the end of such an incredible journey. And my time in Paris is very much a journey in learning about the world, about people, and most importantly, about myself. I could have learned the same had I stayed in Toronto, but I would not have learned as quickly, as powerfully, or as pleasantly as I have now.

I started my study at University of Toronto with the decision to go study abroad. In many ways, and perhaps paradoxically, going on exchange was a safe choice for me. Sure, I will be living in a foreign country, learning a foreign language, and accustoming myself to a foreign culture, but it was something for which I had years to mentally prepare. But for all my plans and ideas, this experience went far beyond what I had expected.

It has challenged me. And it has changed me.

My experience has not always been positive, but it has always forced me to be honest with myself. It has forced me to re-evaluate my priorities and my values. I am endlessly frustrated with the administration at Sciences Po, but I am infinitely grateful for the people I have met. These people, so incredibly diverse even after having lived in Toronto for the better part of my life, are the pillars of my time in Paris. We have stumbled through the streets of Paris, awed and lost together. We have explored the countryside and other countries together, always eager to look for something new, something meaningful and something that strikes our fancy. I have had provocative and ruminating conversations in cafes, hunched over the tiny cups of espresso, emulating those great literary figures in bygone days. I have butchered and reconstructed my French, and realized that for all the political and cultural differences between us, we all shared the same worries and the same dreams.

I think this exchange has given me a personal experience with the commonality of humanity, which is infinitely more precious and hopeful than any of my classes on the economy or on defence and security.

Giverny - Monet's water lilly garden

Giverny – Monet’s water lilly garden

Exchange is not the only opportunity out there to experience the world. But these opportunities do not come easily. There is a often quoted sentence from Hemingway.

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

It is an apt statement. Paris is cruel and infinitely kind towards her children. And as her child, even for a few short months, I will always carry a part of her with me.

I would extend this quote to all exchange experiences. No matter where you go for your exchange, if you open yourself, the city, the people, and the culture will stay with you.

People have different things to which they are striving, different things they desire. Exchange was mine. And it may very well be yours. Good luck to every one of you on your personal journeys.

Au revoir, et à bientôt. 

Grace Gao


Should you have any questions, or just want to talk, you can reach me at my utmail address.

Last 30 days in Paris


View of Conciergerie and Pont Notre Dame from Pont d’Arcole

I spent much of my exchange leaving Paris. Without realizing it, Paris had become a fixed landmark to which I return from visiting unfamiliar European countries. The novelty of studying in Paris may wear off until only the daily minutiae remains, but the exchange experience is singular and exceptional. I may have become complacent and take Paris for granted, but something would inevitably happen or catch my eye, and the months would pull back to present me with the Paris that I had seen when I landed back in August. It is beautiful, quirky, rude, charming, and full of culture. The weather also helps. With temperatures going to the mid-twenties, Paris feels reborn.

Interior of Orsay Museum - seen from the 5th level observatory deck.

Interior of Orsay Museum – seen from the 5th level observatory deck.

Due to early onset of nostalgia, I decided to visit and re-visit all the sites I love best, and those I would regret should I return home without fresh memories. I spent the past weekend at the Musée d’Orsay for the exhibitions on Van Gogh and Gustave Doré. As a student, showing my student card allowed me to enter the museum for free and bypass much of the tourist lines. For those interested, one of Sciences Po’s lecture courses this semester is actually held in Musée d’Orsay. A similar class was held in the Louvre last semester. I was not fortunate enough to enroll in these classes, but it must have been surreal to learn art history and art theory with the original art work less than a meter in front of you.

Musée d’Orsay is a 10 minute walk from Sciences Po, and has the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works. Paintings from Monet, Renoir, Degas and countless others in the 19th and 20th centuries are displayed in the permanent collections of the museum. The 5 euro audio guide is fantastic for those who want to learn a bit more about the history behind some of the artworks. The museum itself is located in a converted train station, and absolutely beautiful. Sadly, Musée d’Orsay does not allow photography of the artworks. I was able to take a picture of the interior main hall of the museum, but it was incredibly difficult to restrain myself from taking photos of some of my favourite impressionist paintings.

Orsay is a relatively smaller and more intimate museum, nothing like the daunting grandeur of the Louvre. Even so, I easily spent 6 hours moving from painting to painting. As the museum closes and I was politely herded outside, I encountered a sizeable group of protesters gathered at the front squares of the museum demanding the government for income equality and housing subsidies. It is an incongruous sight. But Paris is good at this – balancing its rich cultural history with the modern demands of big cities. It is one of its many charms.

Exploring the Latin Quarter

The past Saturday, my French professor for the History of Paris class took us on a walking tour. We explored the Latin Quarter (the 5th arrondissement, called Latin Quarter because of the high concentration of universities and places of learning), taking a winding route that passed by the Panthéon, through Rue Mouffetard and ended at Port Royal. Having lived on the left bank of Paris for 7 months, I believed myself quite familiar with the area. Even still, the walk was an enlightening experience.

I thought I would share some of the interesting things I learned on the walk:

Panthéon - The iconic Baroque Dome is sadly covered for maintenance

Panthéon – The iconic Baroque Dome is sadly covered for maintenance

1) Le Panthéon: it is built on incredibly soft ground that renders the whole structure unstable. To partly fix this problem, all the windows in the Panthéon have been covered. You can see the outlines of at least 8 windows in the photo to the right. It makes for a very dark and sombre interior, but certainly adds gravitas to the building.

Panthéon is famous for its crypts that house some of the greatest French intellects and Republicans – from Voltaire and Rousseau to Émile Zola and Victor Hugo. It is a veritable history lesson, but I will always find it funny that Victor Hugo, Émile Zola and Alexandre Dumas share the same room in the crypts.

Panthéon necropolis - central room. Voltaire and Rousseau are given the place of honour in the biggest chamber of the Panthéon

Panthéon Necropolis – central atrium. Voltaire and Rousseau are given the place of honour in the biggest chamber of the Panthéon

We did not go inside the Panthéon on the walking tour, but since I have been here previously, I will share a few photos of how the underground sections look like.

Panthéon Necropolis

Panthéon Necropolis







Remains of the Wall of Philip Augustus

Remains of the Wall of Philippe Auguste

2) The partially demolished three-storey tall wall may seem an innocuous part of the city landscape, but it is actually a 12th Century Paris city wall. More precisely, this is one of the remains of the Wall of Philippe Auguste, the oldest and innermost city wall in Paris whose exact boundary is known.

The physical structure of Paris is hugely influenced by its many city walls. Most these walls are destroyed when the city expanded. But they are replaced by the iconic Grand boulevards, the Marshals boulevards and the periphery boulevards.

One of the early source of annoyance for me was the fact that street name changes as I progressed from one end of the road to another. The explanation lies in the fact that name changes often signal the site of previous city walls. The street Saint-Jacques becomes Faubourg Saint-Jacques past boulevard Port Royal because that was where the Philippe Auguste wall was located, delimiting Paris from the country-side. There are also several very interesting street naming conventions on which I would recommend people do further research.

Saint Étienne du Mont Church

3) Église Saint Étienne du Mont: this Church near the Panthéon was originally named after Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. It has a beautiful interior, incredible organ performances on Sundays, and houses the tombs of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine.

Literally in the shadows of the Panthéon, this church is often overlooked. But it is definitely something to see for those in the area.

Until next time!

Detour to Central Europe

Last week was reading week for all university students in France, which inevitably meant I went travelling instead of getting a head start on all my assignments.

My friends and I decided to visit Prague, Vienna and Budapest. 3 cities in 5 days was not a good idea. Especially because we refused to use public transit and walked for 9 hours each day trying to see everything there is to see in the city. We were completely exhausted by day 3, but persevered and climbed the hills at Budapest. Twice.

Prague as seen from the steps leading to Prague Castle

Prague as seen from the steps leading to Prague Castle

Seeing the actual windows where the defenestration of Prague occurred at Prague Castle was amazing. I had vowed to see it with my own eyes when I learned about it in my grade 11 world history class. 4 years later, it was surreal to stand next to it and look out at the steep drop below.

Prague - my first trdelnik. It's Hungarian in origin, but every other street stand in Prague sells them,

Prague – my first trdelnik. Every other street stand in Prague sells them, and they are absolutely delicious!






Aerial view of Vienna from the top of the St.Stephen's Cathedral.

Aerial view of Vienna from the top of the St.Stephen’s Cathedral. Somehow climbing seems to have become the theme of this trip.



The first thing I noticed about Vienna was how clean it was. I did not have to look down at my steps every few minutes for fear that I might step in dog poop (I’m judging you, Paris). The second was how white the buildings are. The aerial view shows a much more colourful Vienna than at street-level. The contrast is big when I was so used to the pastel-coloured buildings in Prague.


Graben street, Vienna


Biggest tip I can give about Budapest is to wait to exchange your currency until you are in city proper. There are currency exchange stores everywhere, and their rates are extraordinarily good. Do not exchange your currency at the train station or the airport, I learned the hard way how much of a rip-off that was (1 euro was worth 310 forint in city center, while it was only worth 240 forint at the train station. You do the math).

Buda Castle as seen from the Chain Bridge

Buda Castle as seen from the Chain Bridge

As tiring as the trip was, I had an amazing time. With only 6 weeks left in my exchange, this is probably my last outside-of-France trip, and it is well worth it.

Budapest seen from Buda Castle

Budapest seen from Buda Castle

Weekend culinary delights

This past weekend, I’ve finally decided to make use of the oven in my apartment. It is apparently very rare for apartments in Paris to have an oven, not to mention the full oven that I currently enjoy much to the envy of my culinary-savvy friends. I am not, by far, an excellent cook. Nor does my cooking expertise lie in the art of baking. However, struck by a moment of whimsy and with a friend who actually knows how to bake, I made quiche lorraine and crepes – which doesn’t use the oven, but let’s include it here to make the list look more impressive.

Quiche Lorraine - pretty good for my first attempt

Quiche Lorraine – I would say it’s pretty good for my first attempt

The result of two hours of mucking about in the kitchen was, in my opinion, surprisingly aesthetically pleasing and tasty. I fully believe there is something in the dairy products here that makes them so delicious. Speaking of dairy products, there is a popular cafe across the street from Sciences Po called cafe Basile that has the most amazing butter on their tartines (which is nothing fancy, just sliced baguettes with butter and jam on top, but very good!).

Crepes! I've mastered the technique of flipping crepes. It is very simple to make, and a lot cheaper than those 4 euros you have to pay outside...

Crepes! I’ve mastered the technique of flipping crepes. It is very simple to make, and so much cheaper than those 4 euros you have to pay to get one at a street stand.

More culinary efforts may follow in the future. Now that I have taken the first step, I might try my hands at making other traditionally French food. Maybe one day the smell of the desserts I have made will finally overcome the tempting smell of freshly baked bread from the boulangerie downstairs.

On another note, next week will be reading week for university students in Paris. Classes are starting to become emptier as the weekend approaches as people fly off to their destination of choice. I have friends who are going to Morocco, Iceland, Sweden – all over Europe. There are just so many places to visit, and only 7 weeks left in the semester! No doubt I should be working on my assignments due after the break, but I will be travelling to Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary instead! Photos to come when I return.

Until next time!

A dash of multiculturalism

Last Friday was Chinese New Year, and for the next two weeks, there are various public events in Paris to celebrate. The parade near the City Hall the past Sunday was truly a spectacle. At 2:30 p.m., the crowd gathered in front of l’Hotel de Ville surged as the parade moved through rue du Temple.

l'Hotel de Ville

The crowds at l’Hotel de Ville (City Hall)


Chinese New Year Parade at rue Beaubourg, near Pompidou

Thousands of people turned up on the cool Sunday afternoon, many of them youths and children, but also a surprising number of adults who went alone for a chance to see something they do not see often. The parade was composed of some 20 contingents of performers dressed in festive or iconic clothing, shouting Bonne Année. It was loud, it was busy, and it was a great deal of fun.

I found it interesting that the roads on which the parade passed were not closed off. While I waited at a street corner with my friends and countless others, we saw cars driving through the crowds at glacial speed 30 minutes before the parade was scheduled to pass.

Going to the Chinese New Year parade reminded me of a topic that I feel might be important to briefly address. Coming from one of the most multicultural and accepting cities, Europe may seem a bit homogeneous and unwelcoming. Eurocentrism and orientalism are just some of the terms that come to mind. The reality, of course, is quite complex, and I can only speak from my personal experience. In terms of population, Paris is a very diverse city, and with it comes some degree of cultural desensitization. It is also a large and busy city. People have treated me the same way as they would anyone else, often because they do not have the time to act any differently.

But there have been occasions where people came up to me on the street, speaking the few Chinese or Japanese words they know. And there have been occasions where people invoked negative racial stereotypes in throwaway comments. These occasions are far from the norm and do not occur often, but it has happened enough times to me and to my friends to warrant this discussion. If you are an exchange student who is also a visible minority, you may very well encounter similar situations.

It is up to the individual to decide if these actions are condescending or an awkward attempt to be welcoming. In many cases, I have been told that these people are simply curious. Their clumsy and culturally insensitive approaches can be attributed to the fact that they do not often interact with culturally different people. It may well be that a good way to deal with these situations is to believe in their lack of sinister undertones. Ultimately, these situations affect individuals differently and it would be absurd to tell everyone to just ignore and brush aside racially and culturally offensive behaviour. The individual exchange student will have to make his or her decision on possible exchange programs with this in mind.

Of mornings, classes, and sports


Notre Dame

The semester officially started for me on a dark and chilly Monday when I struggled to get out of bed at 6am. For the first time in my entire schooling career, I have not one, but two classes at 8am in the morning. At this time of the year, the sun rises in Paris at around 8:30am. I walked to Sciences Po along curiously silent streets, accompanied by rows of darkened storefronts. Above ground, Paris is quiet. There are far less cars on the streets than in Toronto at the same time. And there seemed to be a silent solidarity of misery amongst the few darkly dressed pedestrians that I encountered.

I am pleased to announce that my 8am classes are interesting, although one of them requires getting up early on Saturday for supplemental field trips. However, when a professor offers to take the whole class on a walking tour of Paris to get to know the city better, one simply does not refuse.

The first week of second semester, in many ways, is similar to the one I experienced back in September. And I have neglected to blog about one of the features of this opening week. Sciences Po offers a variety of sports classes, ranging from the conventional tennis, volleyball, and dance classes to martial arts, fencing, and a few slightly less common fields such as polo and pétanque. During the first week of each semester, all sports classes are open for trial. Students can attend as many classes as they desire with absolutely no restrictions or fees. But, if you want to take a sports class for the rest of the semester, you would have to pay additional fees. And though students do not receive any actual grades, missing more than two classes will still result in a “fail” on your transcript.

All of these classes happen outside of Sciences Po, in various facilities throughout the city that host regular classes of their respective sports. This allows you to explore a new part of the city, but it does create inefficiencies. How many people would actually take the metro for 50 minutes just to get to an one hour skating class?

I tried out a class on canne de combat, which is a type of martial arts originated in France around the 19th Century when the bourgeoisie sought to defend themselves from the less savoury elements of the city with their walking canes. As a class for the totally lost, fumbling beginners, it was surprisingly fun. Sadly, as I have only attended one class, I cannot offer any observations of how canne de combat reflect the national psyche and cultural identity of France, or even of Paris. Perhaps at the end of this semester, I will be able to provide a more insightful reflection.

Until next time!

A new year, a new adventure

Happy 2014, and a wonderful new semester to all U of T students! I offer my condolences for the deep freeze that seems to have gripped Eastern Canada. We’ve noticed here in France! In a true display of schadenfreude, everyone has been asking recently me how cold it is in Toronto.

Since there were no blog posts over the winter holiday, I’ll give an update on how I spent my Christmas and New Years. December was pretty much a month of travel once exams were done. Besides London, and Milan (which I blogged about in my last post), I visited the famous Christmas markets at Strasbourg.


Strasbourg – Christmas Decorations


Strasbourg – Christmas Decorations at night








Spent Christmas eve in Frankfurt.


Frankfurt – Christmas Eve at Romer Square to hear the bell toll with hundreds of Germans


Frankfurt – I also had my first taste of the hearty German portion. I don’t think I have ever seen this much food served for one meal before.








Christmas day in Heidelberg.


Heidelberg – It was raining for the whole day I was there, but it was still an amazing trip.


Heidelberg – the view of the town from Heidelberg Castle







Last four days of 2013 in Berlin.


Berlin – I have so many photos of Berlin I wasn’t sure how to even choose. So, have a photo of my favourite group of museums on Museum Island. The Neues Museum with the beautiful Nefertiti, and the Pergamon Museum. The Old National Gallery was unfortunately closed on the day of my visit.


Berlin – the Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt was still going strong past Christmas. This is probably the best Christmas market I have been to (even compared with those in Strasbourg and Frankfurt), with the most interesting and diverse stalls and lively but orderly atmosphere.










And back in Paris just in time for New Year’s eve.

One disappointment in the amazing last 11 days of 2013 was the lack of official fireworks in Paris to herald the arrival of 2014. The light show at the Eiffel Tower was amazing (and I have heard good things about the one at Champs Elysées as well), but there is something to be missed about the noise and fanfare of city-wide fireworks.


The new semester at Sciences Po starts on January 20th, but our course enrolment was today. I have written about course enrolment before, but it just goes to show that one can never be completely prepared with student exchanges. At 2pm Paris time, one hour before the official registration starts, the Sciences Po website crashes (the consensus seems to point to overcapacity from too many people trying to log in at once). Panicked posts start appearing on the Sciences Po exchange group on Facebook. The general level of hysteria among exchange students rises as Sciences Po administration admits that they have no idea when the website will be back up.

3pm, the time of course registration, comes and passes with the website down to all. Now there are posts from students who are waiting in airports, with flights in an hour, frantically looking for alternate options. While I track the general going-ons on social media, I have been refreshing the course enrolment page constantly, because the website can be fixed at any time, and all the courses would be fair-game. I was rewarded for my perseverance when at 3:11pm, the website loads for me, and I immediately went in and enrolled in courses. Woe be the students who decided to take a break and came back to discover most of the courses were full.

To be honest, besides the anxiety caused by the malfunctioning website, course enrolment seems to be a lot smoother for most students in the second semester. There was no posts from students who weren’t able to enrol in even one course. And Sciences Po administration seems to have learned from the pitfalls of last semester and blocked off some seats for each class, and released some after every few hours so students who were late still have some courses from which to choose. Now, if UofT professors would kindly reply to my emails about pre-approving courses, that would be great.

All said, I am incredibly excited about the start of the second half of my exchange in Paris. I’ll try to do the blog, and the city justice. Until next time!

It’s only just begun…

I have finished my first semester at Sciences Po today. How time flies!

I remember my first day in Paris in all its minute details, but the four months of my exchange seems to have fast-forwarded without my noticing. A year-long exchange is really only 9 months, and the time passes deceptively quickly. I am aghast to realize that many things were left undone (such as attending an opera performance at the Palais Garnier) because I believed I had plenty of time. Regardless of lingering regrets for time misspent, my first semester abroad in Paris was a joyous experience that I foresee will only improve.

Les Mis

Queen’s Theatre

The past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit London and fulfil one of my long-time dreams – watching the West End Les Misérables production. To all theatre-loving students out there, TKTS is the official discount ticket store for all your West End musical, dance and plays. For anyone watching Les Mis, I would recommend avoiding the holiday seasons and Fridays and Saturdays if you want to be able to buy discount tickets. I had splurged on a stalls ticket about eight rows from the stage, and had an altogether amazing three hours there. Since I had made a resolution to actually read the original French version of Les Mis, the West End production was a wonderful motivator. It is not the most holiday-spirited musical out there, but if the chance presents itself, I would highly recommend it (those in Toronto, there is a wonderful production at the Princess of Wales Theatre until February!)


Water of Lake Como – photo taken from Varenna

My London visit was followed by a visit to Milan, and Lake Como. Mostly visited by people during the summer, the little villages on the shores of Lake Como are mostly deserted in December. This may be off putting for some (and it does get quite eerie at times) but it is the perfect time to take photos. There is barely anyone around, and the view is just as breath-taking. From the hectic city-life in Paris and London, Lake Como is a highly recommended place to slow down and unwind. A word of advice, it was warm when I visited the lake, but the sun starts setting around 4pm, and it gets a little nippy afterwards. Plan to arrive early, and leave early.

Lago di Como

Lago di Como

This will be my last post in 2013. Good luck to everyone who still have exams, have a great holiday season and a happy new year!


On winter holidays and exams

Though Christmas is not yet upon us, the streets of Paris have been recently given a very festive uplift. Lights now hang over most streets. Many shops have also busted out their Christmas lights.

Boulevard Saint-Germain near Sciences Po

Boulevard Saint-Germain, near Sciences Po

But before Christmas travels and celebrations can even happen, one has to get through exams at Sciences Po. For most exchange students, classes have ended this week. The official exam period starts on the week of December 9th and continues until the few days before Christmas. As an exchange student, many of your classes will have in-class exams, or just a final assignment instead of an exam. So a large part of your December can be devoted to travels and other non-academic aspects of your exchange experience. But in the spirit of all the exams we have to get through before the holiday season, I will briefly describe the general forms of evaluations at Sciences Po.

Exams at Sciences Po are not very different from those at U of T. You have the typical essay exams and multiple choice exams. There are, of course, also those non-exams that come in the form of essays and presentations. I have noticed that all my assigned essays have not asked for more than 2500 words (this is a marked contrast to my first essay ever at U of T, which was for HIS103 and already passed 3000 words).

For the lucky few who land themselves in certain French courses, you might have a Grand Oral exam. The exam is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of a typical written exam, you will be given some materials and a few minutes to prepare (there are also cases where you will be given the topic a week beforehand) before you head in to the room and give a 10 minute presentation followed by a discussion with the jury (which could just be your professor). This sort of examination is more common in the masters level at Sciences Po, but certain undergrad professors like to challenge their students. For those who get to experience this uniquely Sciences Po tradition, Bon Courage!

The most distressing fact for assessments at Sciences Po is that you do not know how you are doing in a course until you see your transcript. Professors at Sciences Po are not obligated to, in fact they are encouraged not to, reveal your mark for any of your assignments and tests, because these marks will not reflect your final mark. You can imagine how this may present some difficulties in identifying gaps in your knowledge or the amount of time you should allocate to any subject.

This scuffle over grades stems from the fact that Sciences Po is one of those schools that subscribe quite ardently to the concept of bell-curving and grade distribution. There is a cap on the number of students that can be in a particular grade-range. And to be honest, this is something that deeply bothers me as a student. At U of T, I try to avoid courses where the first thing the professor mentions is that only a certain number of students will receive an arbitrary grade without even knowing the intellectual composition of the class.

This system is fully and strictly in place at Sciences Po, though the professors here are better at diplomatically explaining it. I can overlook the grade distribution because of the many other positive aspects of my exchange. And if you do not really care for how you do on exchange as long as you pass your courses, this will not be a big issue. But if you do care about your academic performance whether for scholarships or for graduate school, you should keep this in mind prior to making your decision.