Olivia Guthrie: France as Text 2022

Olivia Guthrie is a Junior at Florida International University currently studying Journalism. With a love for writing, she hopes to one day be living in New York City, creating media that helps better educate the public on the world they are living in, including the issues that are facing them and their loved ones. Her love of art and yearning to travel has landed her in Professor Bailly’s France study abroad class.

Paris As Text: One Land, Under Many Gods

Paris is a wonderous city.

With so many sites to see it is easy to get swept away. For me, nothing topped seeing the Notre-Dame Cathedral and its majesty.

Notre-Dame is one of the most worldwide known places of worship. Almost made a novelty by its fame, the church is housed on Île de la Cité, a small island in Paris.

Standing tall and glorious in its gothic decor, the site has been visited by thousands every year, Catholic or not. 

Even with its modern-day significance, the history of the Cathedral and the land it lies on is a lesser known but equally impressive tale.

Notre Dame was built in 1163 by the Catholic Church. This makes the building more than 800 years old. It was built in a French gothic style with every detail of the building’s architecture being intentional – paying part to not only faith, but politics and power. The focal point is the circle in the center. The circle with its layers of painted glass windows, symbolizes God and the mother. The virgin Mary holds the holy trinity within her. The holy trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are the center and sequentially two outward layers of glass. Below and straight across the front are statues of Judeo Kings. These statues were beheaded during the French Revolution. This was an act by revolutionaries in response to dethroning the king and waging a rebellion against the Monarchy and Church (who worked together to keep each other in power and oppress the people). 

This land, however, has been holy long before the Cathedral was built upon it. Before the land we know as France today was French, the Romans conquered it from the Parisi, the native people of the land in 52 B.C. Where the Cathedral stands today used to house a Roman Temple. There romans would observe religious rituals. This often involved prayers and sacrifices to whichever god the temple was dedicated to, usually with statues of said god there to be adored. 

Before even the Romans it is suggested that the same land was used by the Parisi/Gauls for religious practice 2400 years ago. Their spiritual practice was tied to natural occurrences such as rivers and the stars. They too prayed and sacrificed in the name of these phenomena, which were seen as supernatural to them.

There is something beautiful to me about that. How this one spot, over multiple millennials, has held a holy meaning. It goes to show how connected we are as a human race. Three different people, practicing three different beliefs, with centuries separating them, all in one place. 

One land under many gods

Knowing the history, the Notre-Dame feels almost like a tribute to faith. Whether or not you pray to the Christian God, another, or none – you can’t help but stand in wonder when you visit this site. 

As I stood in admiration, goose bumps on my skin – classmates and teacher alike in a similar awe- I couldn’t help but think “Belief built this”. It doesn’t matter if what they believe is real or not, it was (and still is) true to them. Human faith in something more brought mortal hands to create such godly art. 

An ode to faith.

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Notre-Dame-de-Paris

https://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/worship.html#:~:text=Roman%20religion%20involved%20cult%20worship,to%20offer%20prayers%20and%20sacrifices.

https://www.village-gaulois.org/en/p20-activite-112-religion.html

Versailles As Text: To be a God

As you walk up to the Château de Versailles, ascending as you would to the heavens, you are met with a golden gate glistening. Within its rings lay the face of a god upon a sun, the gold of it mirroring the shine of a true star. You can almost feel warmth radiating from it. The face that greets you is not of the Lord, nor Apollo, but the one whom you should truly serve with all your heart, the King, Louis XIV. Push through, and enter into Olympia

King Louis XIV is one of the most famous monarchs in the world. Coming to the throne at the young age of four in 1643 he reigned for 72 years, having one of the longest reigns in history. A man of big changes and glamor, even in exchange for his people’s quality of life, Louis was lustrous. One of the most important changes enacted during his ruling was the moving of the palace and noble courts from Paris to Versailles.

For centuries French Kings ruled from Paris. With many places to which they called home, one of the last before the Versailles move was the Louvre palace. Now it is the most famous museum in the world housing some of the most renowned art. 

The King was under intense criticism from his French People and living in Paris, the capital and heart of the country became unsafe. Versailles, previously used as the King’s hunting lodge, was now home to the most important man in France. Louis did nothing quietly, and renovations began immediately to make Versailles what it is today. In this, a theme was chosen and pushed by the King – Louis as Apollo.

Blasphemous to show himself as Jesus or God, but still wanting to be seen as divine, Louis took on the Greek God Apollo as his alter ego. Apollo -the sun- was the epitome of youth and beauty, source of healing and life, and patron of the arts. 

Wanting to be associated with this all-powerful deity, as bright as the sun, he placed his face on the body or head of Apollo (often with suns somehow in the image) to fuel the illusion. The mythology references didn’t stop there, with Greek Gods and tales being painted throughout the castle.

Though he meant it to only be a symbolism of his power, there is quite a bit of overlap between the characteristics of Louis XIV and the pantheon of Greek gods. The irony is not lost on me.

Like a true god, he was feared. Louis maintained a strict social code, and all wished to be in his favor. A story from the making of the castle involves the painter of one of his intricate mythology ceilings. It is said that after working on it painstakingly, and with much anxiety, for two years, once it was done Louis loved it so much that he asked for another. The artist killed himself instead of having to endure the pressure of creating for the King again. 

Alongside this fear of god (Louis) was an adoration. He was worshiped by everyone in court who hoped to be seen in his favor and thus gifted by him, only furthering his god complex. 

Louis was apathetic towards his people. Just how a god does not let mortals dictate his actions, Louis did not let the starvation and dying of his people keep him from spending enormous amounts of money to build and fund the upkeep of Versailles. 

Powerful and beautiful like Athena or Zeus, his manifestation of these traits were not on his physical body, but instead displayed through Versailles. The might and beauty held within Versailles was an extension of his person.

Of course, a god must have his heaven and for Louis this did not lie within the walls of Versailles but instead around it. The gardens were his Olympia. Stretching over thousands of acres, the land was filled with lush forest with the acreage closest to the house being intricate and beautifully manicured gardens. In this were gorgeous flowers, a plethora of fruit trees, and grand fountains (often further depicting mythology).

The most important trait for any Greek god, the distinguishing trait between them and humans, is their immortality, and immortal he has become. Hundreds of years after his death we still speak of him. His palace is visited by thousands, all looking upon his golden face. He will not be one of the forgotten and will forever be seen as the sun king. 

https://www.worldhistory.org/apollo/

Lyon As Text: Birth of the Revolutionary – Fighting for What’s Right

Visiting Lyon, it is easy to get swept away by the relaxed pace of life, walkable streets, gorgeous hills, and postcard views. But this city has a deeper history, and ingrown spirit – a spirit of rebellion. 

Lyon was previously the capital of Roman Gaul, Lugdunum. The colony was established nine years after Julius Caesar had conquered the native Gauls of the current day French area. The location was ideal as two rivers, Rhône and Saône, run throughout the area. One of Rome’s emperors, Claudius, was a native of this land, born in Lugdunum. During his time as emperor there was a lot of cultural tensions between the Gauls and Romans. As head of the country, and with a foot in both camps, he gave an important and radical speech on acceptance, tolerance, and equality; advocating for civil rights for the Gauls.

Nearly two millennia later, in 1848, the spirit to stand up for what is right struck again in Lyon. The first worker strike in France, and on a larger scale, the world happened here. The canut (silk workers) spoke up against their employers, demanding better salaries and working conditions. Now, France has some of the best workers rights: with five weeks of paid leave, 35 hour work week, and a better maternity and paternity leave (as compared to the U.S.).

During WWII some of Lyons most heroic actions yet come to light. Lyon was the capital of the French resistance against the Nazis. A major player in achieving this was Jean Moulin. Moulin was a leader figure in the resistance. Though he never fought a weapon, he showed immense courage and leadership, rallying people to fight against the Nazis and everything they stood for, and fight for a free France.

It was also here, many decades later, that the first trials against humanity took place in the Palais de Justice. Klaus Barbie, also known as the “Butcher of Lyon”, was a prominent Gestapo Nazi. He was the first person to be charged with crimes against humanity, one of the charges being the arrest and deportation of 44 Jewish Children from Izieu. Justice was finally served, though no sentence could ever equate to the damage he had done.

To this day the spirit lives on. There is a vivaciousness within the French. During my visit I bore witness to strikes by the French working class. At our class visit to the Eiffel Tower, we were able to witness a strike by the workers. They explained to us how the goods and services were overpriced while they were paid low. Throughout my time in Paris the metro or RER (more than a few times) were down due to workers strike. Self advocacy never ends.

It’s inspiring to see how the people of this land over time have kept up and encouraged the revolutionary energy that lives so brightly in France.

Liberté Égalité Fraternité

Izieu As Text: Beauty Amongst Horror

World War II is known for its atrocities. The crimes against people who exist outside of the Aryan race, in particular Jewish people, were unimaginable. My study abroad teacher for France, John Bailly, thought it important to highlight the war and the crimes made against humanity, for which I am very grateful.

The war between France and Germany began on September 3rd, 1939, following Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. The war between the two countries was brief as Germany defeated France in 1940. As a result, France was split into two territories, the northern\western region which was German occupied, and the southern Vichy (still French) occupied. This southern part, though still France, was headed by Phillip Pétain, a hate filled war general from World War I. This ‘new’ France collaborated and encouraged Naziz ideals. 

When the U.S. invaded northern Africa in 1942 Germany felt the impending threat of the U.S. Military and decided to occupy all of France, encroaching on Vichy territory. They gave three parts of this newly acquired land to the Italians, their less bigotry allies. 

It is in this territory that we find the Izieu Jewish orphanage. The home was for Jewish children (aged five to sixteen) whose parents were either taken by the Germans or lived in German occupied France and thought it safer for the kids to be away in less hostile territory. Here children learned, played, and lived relatively happy lives while so much horror was going on around them. It was a haven. 

On April 6th, 1944 (after the Italian surrendered the previous September) led by Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo came to the Izieu orphanage and rounded up all the children and caretakers. All of the children were murdered. 

Visiting Izieu, my class had no idea of its history. We were greeted by the serene quiet and pure beauty the hills and nature of the landscape had to offer. We were all in a shared awe of the scenery.

Tears were on all our faces as we learned the history and walked the halls these children lived in decades before, a heaviness in our hearts. It was eerie, the rustic simple architecture and gorgeous countryside where we know something so horrible happened. The dichotomy between the two, seeing the beauty and knowing the horror, almost made it worse and drew out more pain from within.

The worst type of people, and the most horrific crimes are those done against children. The innocent of the world. Usually barely old enough to understand what’s happening, let alone why it is happening. 

44 lives cut too short. 44 children, never to be adults. 44 families forever changed

A classmate of mine referenced how it was nice, though of course hard, to learn about something we haven’t been desensitized to due to time. For most of our class we learned about kings and queens or subjects that lived hundreds of years before us, so separated from our current lives. The horrors of WWII, though still before our time, feel so much more relevant and prominent to us. The bigotry that existed then is far from gone, and it warrants anxiety over whether something like this could ever happen again, hit with the reality that in many ways it already is. 

It’s heavy. The weight of cruelty is insurmountable. Religious or not, it makes you want to look up to the sky and shake your fists at whatever being could watch as these atrocities are done. You’re angry, and sad – and for me – a little hopeless. People live and go through the worst life has to offer every day. All around the world people are suffering. Throughout time people have cried and died by the hands of others. So how do we live? How do we find the strength to keep going through our own personal traumas and the knowledge of others? 

Sometimes the most unimaginable horrible things happen totally out of your control. It is important to know and absorb this information. To remember their trauma, their lives, in order to keep their memories alive and try your hardest to keep such things from happening again. It is so, so important to learn about the past and the present injustices happening in the world. Discuss these things, analyze and digest them. Learn about these experiences outside of your own, but also remember to not be overwhelmed by it all. No one person can stop bad things from happening, and your own internal peace is important.

After such a heavy morning, my class went on a hike through the Alps. As a group we climbed to scales none of us had before. 

The fresh cool air in my lungs, sweat down my back, the company of wonderful people around me – and that peace and beauty of nature everywhere. 

Surrounded again by the breathtaking scenery, I try to think about the good. I think of the children at the Izieu home who were given even a few months of joy before the war took them. I think about how lucky I am to be in France, to be alive and experiencing this wonder, against my own personal odds. At the top of our summit, I am filled with this holy sensation, a spiritual peace. 

Whether foolish or not, I hope for something better for those children, for all who agonized in the past, and those suffering today. Holding onto whatever sliver of hope and grace I can. 

https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-France-World-War-I

https://www.memorializieu.eu/en

Normandy As Text: A Speech on Personal Identity

Dolores Mercedes Browne. A name prior to my enrollment in this class I had never known before, but am proud to now. Browne was a member of the Women’s Army Corps 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II. Born in New York in 1921, she was just 21 when she enlisted in 1943.

As part of the Postal Directory Battalion she, along with about 900 other Black females, shifted through the backlogged military mail intended for soldiers. Here they had the task of organizing and ensuring the mail out of letters and packages to the respective deployed men. They worked long hours under terrible conditions and impressively were able to complete this remarkable task in just three months. 

Their job was important. In order to keep up officer morale, communication with their families and loved ones was essential. Their motto was “No mail, low morale”. This task was given to them while also holding the weight of being the first and only all Black Female Women Army Corps (WAC) unit to be deployed overseas during WWII. As so, they faced a lot of racial backlash. Segregated even in the military, you are reminded that even as you go to be a hero for your home, the restrictions and discrimination of your country still follows you.

On July 8th 1945, just months before the war ended, Browne along with two other women in her battalion were in a jeep accident in France. Both women with her died instantly, while Browne was transported to a hospital for treatment where she died five days later on the 13th at the age of 23. 

There is a lot of honor in fighting and dying for a country to which you were born, but refuses to acknowledge you as a person worthy of equal rights and dignity. 

Even living in Northern America, Browne was subject to discrimination and unprovoked hatred. The idea of an intolerant south and tolerant north is an illusion. No where in America was a haven for Black people. 

This discrimination only expands when you look at her full identity: a Black, lesbian, woman.

So, what does she and her sacrifice mean to me? Of course, like any soldier who dies in war, they are doing so for our freedoms and to (hopefully) preserve what is “good”. But for Browne in particular I feel more than the normal respect that is due. I feel seen   – reflected. As a fellow queer black woman, she lived the life I am living against way more odds. Only a few years my senior I can’t help but wonder if we could have been friends. If I lived then or her now. A comrade to discuss the shared experiences our niche identity gives us. Laugh at the trials life has to offer us as often as possible, cry when it becomes too much. 

A question we are all given and often deliberate is “Who are you?” This is layered, and for everyone can be interpreted or answered in various ways. This is something I myself have thought about a lot. What are my identities within society and what does this mean for me? I have found it important for me to acknowledge these parts of myself to better face all that is to come. A war on the homefront. Me vs. Society. Separately: I am queer. With this I know I will face homophobia. Those that see love and decide to hate. Damning me for something as beautiful and pure as living my truth. I am a woman so I will experience sexism. This is often in small ways, set up by our patriarchal society, that leads to giant setbacks and governments governing my body. Lastly, but oh so importantly: I am Black, so racism is expected. Being Black in America is a life sentence, where the punishments include blatant discrimination and/or microagressions on a daily basis. 

Intersected all together, it’s a minority cocktail. An inferior to the inferior.

She, like me, faced these struggles – only ten fold, existing as she did in the early 20th century. 

This, to me, makes her sacrifice even greater. I am in awe of her bravery. Not only did she voluntarily enlist and was deployed to foreign lands amongst a dangerous enemy, she did so for a country and society that tries to tell you in every single way they can – you are less than. This moves me. She wasn’t fighting only against the horrors that were occurring at that time, but for a better future. Showing up, working hard, and making a place for herself – regardless of whether she was wanted or not. She did this for future little queer black girls, so they would have to fight against lesser odds and a place would be made and ready for them.

Oftentimes wars and misfortunes from before our time can feel distant in a way that’s outside of just how long ago it happened. We almost become desensitized. But when you are able to put a name, face, or life to the tragedies of the past they become more real, especially when you reflect them onto your own life. Standing here today it is all

very real, very heavy. The weight of her sacrifice is on my shoulders, a weight I am proud to carry. Words don’t seem enough, but all I really want to say is thank you, you will be remembered.

https://militaryhallofhonor.com/honoree-record.php?id=188451

https://www.honorstates.org/index.php?id=23877

https://www.womenofthe6888th.org

Père Lachaise As Text: A Black Man’s World, Richard Wright

Born in Natchez, Mississippi September 4th, 1908, Richard Wright was a renowned 20th century author and poet. He wrote about the Black experience in America and the racial horrors that existed at the time. He was the grandchild to slaves freed through the civil war and was raised by a single mother, his dad MIA. He had a turbulent childhood, constantly moving from one house to another, he spent time in an orphanage and various family homes. By the time he was 12 he had yet to complete a full year of schooling.

He moved in with his grandparents where he was able to start getting an education, though he was physically abused by them. At 15 he wrote his first short story, “The Voodooof Hell’s Half Acre” in the local Black Newspaper. 

Growing up in Jim Crow states (Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansa) he was subjected to laws that enforced segregation and banned interracial marriage. Every day, in every way, he was reminded he was less than. Signs outside of business establishments such as “no niggers, no jews, no dogs” were used to reinforce this. 

Those laws and banners were a tool used to perpetuate white fear. White fear is a concept explored in depth within Wright’s writing. Beyond the written laws on what Black people could and couldn’t do, there were the social laws – almost more important – that dictated Black people’s every move. With lynchings and harassment of all kinds common, Black people had to be aware and be afraid of the white people around them; scared to be beaten or killed for simply walking past or looking at the wrong person. 

White people during the early 20th century (whilst Wright was alive and writing) didn’t care or think about black people. The black experience in America only mattered to other black people in America. The image that came to mind for white people when they thought about Black people was either as their maid or (after the Harlem Renaissance in the 20s) a jazz performer. One dimensional figures, limited, and for personal use – either entertainment or help. Richard Wright tried to expand this. 

With his books such as Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, and Black Boy he took stories about the Black experience (whether fictionalized or his own) and amplified them. Native Son, his most acclaimed novel, follows a young Black man who accidentally kills a white woman and the emotional and mental turmoil that comes from it, as well as the societal situations that caused it. 

The Black man in America had to live through horrific circumstances on the daily that no one could understand. Through his writings, with graphic detail and horror, he tried to shock the reader into this reality.

Slavery ended, but black people did not gain full independence. Black people went on to work for the white man and live surrounded by hate and full of fear. The deep-grown roots of the prejudices and injustices of America then still live in America today with racial disparities in health, wealth, land ownership, and representation abundant. 

Of course, I will never know his pain or the pain of any Black person living during this time. To compare the racial environment of modern day America to that of segregated times is to do a disservice and diminish the everyday trauma of Black people who endured during those periods. 

But better doesn’t always mean great.

.

What Does White Fear Mean to Me

I don’t fear the white man.

I don’t feel lesser because I am not a man nor am I white.

But when coupled with a badge and a gun I am given a physical demonstration on our power differences – that already exist.

With these objects I know we are not the same.

When I was nine driving in the backseat of my big brother’s Jeep Cherokee, laughing and giggling with childhood glee down our Georgia towns streets, I was taught this for the first time – though not the last.

A car bumped into my brothers while stopped at a light, my first car accident, a simple fender bender, “Nothing to be scared of.”, he told me, “Everything is ok.”

The cops were called, as is routine. Red and Blue lights flickering in the background, a cop walked up  – white skin, black uniform.

The window rolled down. every order followed by an immediate action. My brother, stiff, anxiety on high. Conversations my mother had with him on what to do when you encounter the cops on replay in his head. His anxiety made me anxious. My big brother, my best friend. Coming in at six feet tall, over 200 pounds, my brother is intimidating though a big teddy bear. 

I don’t remember exactly what was said and done.  I’m sure a report was made, insurance exchanged.

Nothing happened. My brother wasn’t shot or beaten. Not every campfire tale has a horror ending, but it’s still scary nonetheless.

This is my first memory of a cop, not my first memory of racism, I have many from before this time, but my first memory of fear of a race. I didn’t know what I feared, too young to understand –  but I knew to fear, that it was a circumstance not for my always smiling brother to joke with a stranger, but of a seriousness, a “yes sir” to every command.

In 2020 this fear was made light to those who had not experienced it before. The world watched as George Floyd died by the knee of a cop. Nine minutes, 29 seconds nonstop.

This is the reality we all live in. I don’t know when it will change, if it ever will. 

I can hope, but that feels foolish. The comfort pessimism has to offer more appealing.

.

Between the world and me Poem by Richard Wright describing a Black man walking upon a lynched body of a Black person

And one morning while in the woods I stumbled 

    suddenly upon the thing, 

Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly 

    oaks and elms 

And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting 

    themselves between the world and me….

.

There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly 

    upon a cushion of ashes. 

There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt 

    finger accusingly at the sky. 

There were torn tree limbs, tiny veins of burnt leaves, and 

    a scorched coil of greasy hemp; 

A vacant shoe, an empty tie, a ripped shirt, a lonely hat, 

    and a pair of trousers stiff with black blood. 

And upon the trampled grass were buttons, dead matches, 

    butt-ends of cigars and cigarettes, peanut shells, a 

    drained gin-flask, and a whore’s lipstick; 

Scattered traces of tar, restless arrays of feathers, and the 

    lingering smell of gasoline. 

And through the morning air the sun poured yellow 

    surprise into the eye sockets of the stony skull….

.

And while I stood my mind was frozen within cold pity 

    for the life that was gone. 

The ground gripped my feet and my heart was circled by 

    icy walls of fear– 

The sun died in the sky; a night wind muttered in the 

    grass and fumbled the leaves in the trees; the woods 

    poured forth the hungry yelping of hounds; the 

    darkness screamed with thirsty voices; and the witnesses rose and lived: 

The dry bones stirred, rattled, lifted, melting themselves 

    into my bones. 

The grey ashes formed flesh firm and black, entering into 

  my flesh.

.

The gin-flask passed from mouth to mouth, cigars and 

    cigarettes glowed, the whore smeared lipstick red 

    upon her lips, 

And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that 

    my life be burned….

.

And then they had me, stripped me, battering my teeth 

    into my throat till I swallowed my own blood. 

My voice was drowned in the roar of their voices, and my 

    black wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as 

    they bound me to the sapling. 

And my skin clung to the bubbling hot tar, falling from 

    me in limp patches. 

And the down and quills of the white feathers sank into 

    my raw flesh, and I moaned in my agony. 

Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a 

    baptism of gasoline. 

And in a blaze of red I leaped to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs 

Panting, begging I clutched childlike, clutched to the hot 

    sides of death. 

Now I am dry bones and my face a stony skull staring in 

    yellow surprise at the sun…. 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Wright_(author)

https://worksheets.edhelper.com/poetry/Between_the_World_and_Me_by_Richard_Wright.htm

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Richard-Wright-American-writer

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