My relationship with my heritage is unique. I have always felt funny about telling people that I’m French-American. As silly as it sounds, I have never felt entitled to say so. I wasn’t raised in a bicultural household, although I am the product of two people from very different backgrounds; my mother was born in Queens, New York, and my father hailed from Paris, France. They met one night by pure fate and coincidence, at a nightclub in New York City. My parents were of the belief that they could never have children until I proved them both wrong. From what I can recall of my early childhood, it was a blend of both cultures; my father would sneak me some red wine at the dinner table (earning a shocked look from my mother every time she caught him doing so) and my mother would repeat old wives tales to me, hoping their meanings and teachings would somehow instill themselves into me. My childhood was filled with valuable lessons, art, travel, and spending quality time with both my parents.
Unfortunately, when I was five years old my father died from pancreatic cancer. Although I was afforded some wonderful years with him, our time together was cut abruptly short. As a result, I was deprived of a Parisian cultural upbringing. I spent much of my life confused about my lineage. However, I was always drawn to the Parisian culture, as if drawn to it by some inner biological magnet. I like to think my father, wherever he is now, floating around in space, guided me to this passion and pride for France. People would tell me growing up that I possessed a very Parisian style. I always loved French music; ironically my grandmother on my mother’s side adored Edith Piaf and would play her music frequently. I would grow up to idolize the fashion sense of Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. I always knew someday I would come back to Paris, and that the visit would change my life on a deeper level than just partaking in a study abroad program; it would connect me to this heritage I otherwise believed was lost forever.
My father grew up during the French Algerian War. He and his family migrated to Algeria during this time and when they returned to Paris he found his school had been burned down. As a result, they moved to and settled in Marseille. My grandmother would serenade my father with Chopin pieces on the piano as he studied diligently. He would go on to attend Montpelier University and become a chemical engineer. He eventually moved to America where he met my mom, and the rest is history. In his journals and notebooks, he recalled his love and pride for France. When I was little we would go to visit my grandfather in France. There are photos of me dressed up in a pink beret at The Louvre. France has always been a major part of my life, even without my father to instill in me its cultural teachings. When I came to Paris in the summer of 2019, I did a mini Instagram journaling of my experience, describing how surreal it was to come back after so many years and gain a better understanding of where I came from.
Coming to Paris this semester is truly a dream come true. I was afraid it would be postponed or canceled due to the pandemic, but fate would have it that I am here and so excited to be. I plan to visit Marseille and see where my father grew up, which I am certain will be an emotional and spiritually fulfilling experience. One of the greatest lessons my father taught me is the importance of a good education. I inherited from him a passion for learning and absorbing as much knowledge as possible; I can’t wait to be fully immersed in my classes and explore various libraries, museums, and historical landmarks while I’m here. He also was an avid traveler; during his travels, he kept a journal where he would sketch passersby and document his observations. I plan to follow in his footsteps. I am most excited to sing and take advantage of the music scene while I’m here; I currently am a jazz vocal performance major at The New School, and can’t wait to meet other musicians and gig around. This experience is deeply personal and meaningful to me, and I am beyond grateful and excited for what these next few months will bring and teach me about myself.
Joelle is a Spring 22 Paris student from The New School.
2 responses to “Recovering a Lost Heritage: My History With Paris”
I am so happy this experience is coming true for you during this time of your life. You’ve always been so special and gifted; and your dad just adored you. He must be so proud.
What a beautiful story!! I am sure your father is super proud of you :). I have a similar story of reconnecting with my heritage this past fall semester in Spain, where I was born and where my family is from, after fourteen years of not being able to visit. It felt like the first time being there since I was only four the last time I was there. Like you said I was super excited to immerse myself and visit all the spots where my dad had been as a child, or where he met my mom. It was surreal and meant so much to me. Travel really is a beautiful thing. Really loved hearing your story and seeing that we had a similar experience and I am excited for you and your journey!