La vie est morte

by Valerie Wu 

Even though our trip had not gone as planned and we should rightfully have been with our host families at that time, we were determined to make the most of our day in Paris. At around eight a.m. we had to get up and go to our first French breakfast—traditional madeleines. You could also pair them with confiture (jam) and beurre (butter). I’d noticed the subtle transition I was starting to make language-wise; hearing the murmurs of a foreign language would do that to you. This process of being lost in translation was only one of the many I would be experiencing throughout the trip.

After breakfast, we had our first experience on the Parisian subway; we were heading to Pere Lachaise, which by and large, is the most famous cemetery in Paris. One thing I noticed was that there was diversity in the tombstones–they ranged from the grand and ornate (Oscar Wilde’s grave), to simple and relatively undefined.

We walked around for a while, just viewing the many gravestones, spending more time on the ones of well-known people. I began to think that it was funny our first trip to Paris–the city of love, light, life–was to a cemetery. In a way, though, it was very representative of Paris’ history and people. Without its history and the individuals that were part of it, the city wouldn’t be here today and these graves were certainly reminiscent of that concept. As Oscar Wilde said, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”

I had lost my Metro ticket in the cemetery (someone jokingly stated that a ghost had needed it for the ride home), and had to spend thirty dollars on a new one for our next destination. Our next stop was the Sacre Coeur where we could see a gorgeous view of the skyline from the one of the highest points in the city. There, we were able to witness a procession of bishops and bishops-in-training.

Half of the day had already passed, and we were now on our way to go shopping at the Galeries Lafayette, as well as get an external view of the Paris Opera House, the inspiration for the book and musical, Phantom of the Opera. And while everything in the Galeries Lafayette was incredibly expensive, we were able to stare at the magnificent glass ceiling—one of the most iconic photos of French shopping.

What not a lot of people know about the Galeries Lafayette is that above several flights of stairs, there’s a rooftop where one can see the whole of the city. We were able to sit up there for a while, and even though we were still in a distinctly American group and hadn’t had the opportunity to properly speak French yet, the whole scene felt surreal. We were in a completely different country, with a whole different language. At this moment, it started to sink in that without the group, we’d be completely lost. Before, in America, we’d always had our words.

By the time we returned to our hotel, it was already night. The next day, we would be heading on the train to Montpellier, where we would be meeting our host families. And that night, I couldn’t help but wonder what it’d be like to have so many words at my disposal—les toilettes, la nourriture, les voyages—yet no idea how to say them. I didn’t know how I was going to let those words come forth, but I was willing and ready to try.

It’d always been a belief of mine that without words, I was dead. There’d be no way to communicate, no way to say if I was lost, confused, or in need of something essential. Yet, I also had the inkling of a notion that it was only without my words—words that had made up of who I was, who I was supposed to be—that I’d truly begin to find the meaning of what it was like to not only live, but to be alive. Because being alive, or the state of it, was no longer just a conjugated form, but an infinitive. And that, to me, meant far more than anything else I’d ever know.

— Valerie Wu is a student at Presentation High School in San Jose, California. She has been to more than seven countries, but her favorite one by far is England. Her work thrives at the intersection of ethnicity, migration, and human rights, and has previously been recognized nationally by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Follow her on Twitter @valerie_wu.

Photo by Valerie Wu.