Before the tragedy, Poe and his students gathered around the tombs of Molière and La Fontaine at Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery to celebrate culture, to talk about France's greatest comic playwright, and to read one of La Fontaine's Fables.

Study Abroad in an Age of Terror

French Professor George Poe and a group of Sewanee students were in Paris on the night of the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks. Here is their story, along with Poe’s thoughts about the future of study abroad in the wake of such tragedy.


F ollowing a long week, my wife Sylviane and I were in our Paris apartment on Friday evening, Nov. 13. After dinner, I turned on the TV to check on the France–Germany soccer match being played at the Stade de France in nearby Saint-Denis; it was around 9:15 p.m. local time, about 15 minutes into the match. Within a few minutes, explosions could be heard during the broadcast coming from outside the stadium, but the players played on and the announcers announced on, no doubt thinking that it might have been a bit of game-time revelry in the form of fireworks. I had enjoyed seeing the French score a go-ahead goal near the end of the first half when I received a call around 10 p.m. from my colleague and director of APA (Academic Programs Abroad, our program partner here in Paris), Claire Suraqui, asking if I had heard that gunfire had been reported in front of a restaurant in Paris’s 11th arrondissement, the very area where Sylviane and I had contemplated going for dinner that night, had energies allowed.

Our first thought was that it must have been some kind of an urban shootout, though Claire and I immediately made a plan to check on the safety of all of the students studying with APA this semester, including those, of course, from Sewanee. I set out to try to round up all of my Sewanee students in Paris (because three had left that afternoon to take in some London museums over the weekend). The next two hours were anxious ones, as I was still waiting to hear from two program participants who had not answered cell-phone or Facebook appeals to get in touch immediately. Finally, I heard from one of the two at 11:20, but the final student did not send a text message confirming safety until a few minutes before midnight. With a mighty sigh of relief, I set out to compose an email to all the parents of my students, reassuring them that we were all safe and that I would be spending the rest of the weekend monitoring things as closely as possible with my APA colleagues and trying to make plans for Monday. Meanwhile, I was confident that the wonderful Parisian families who have hosted our students this semester would be helping those in town over the weekend talk their way through the horrible events of Friday the 13th.

When Monday morning arrived, I left our apartment at 7 a.m. en route to the airport, where I wanted to meet our returning Londoners, give them a hug, and taxi them back to the APA center in time for a late-morning informational meeting with the three directors of APA and me, terminating with the nationwide moment of silence called for at noon. Important information about the state of emergency that had been declared was shared, the students asked some pertinent questions, and American psychologists were offered for one-on-one or small-group sessions, after which those in my group went right to work in their art history and Contemporary France courses, thereby occupying their minds in positive and familiar ways. 

On Tuesday afternoon, I likewise went forward with my literature seminar, beginning, however, with some follow-up information on the current situation, along with some other healthy discussion within the more intimate confines of our own Sewanee group (I offered to drop our language pledge for the discussion—just as was offered the day before in the larger group—but, in typical Sewanee fashion, our students wanted to stick to their French-only pledge).

Afterwards, we discussed Hemingway’s Paris est une fête (A Moveable Feast), the only reading by an Anglophone writer this semester. Several of the students had requested that we read Paris est une fête down the semestral stretch, giving them time to become familiar with the geography of Paris. Following our long and lively discussion of the book, I wanted to offer our normal tying of the text to sites, though this time I made the follow-up excursion optional, thinking that one or two might not want to be walking through the streets of Paris during the late-afternoon and early-evening hours so soon after the events of Friday. But no, all were enthusiastic about participating, short of one who was simply exhausted from a long day of coursework and with an apparent cold.

We ended the hour-long walk at Hemingway’s 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine apartment in the Latin Quarter, where we finished the afternoon at a small café right across the street and talked some more about other sites for them to visit subsequently, like Sylvia Beach’s bookshop where Joyce's Ulysses was first published. The students were captivated by the stories and the spaces of the “Lost Generation,” which only a few had vaguely heard of, and they asked great questions. They were as lively and enthusiastic as I’ve seen them all semester.

It seems a bit surreal that the very book that my students were reading a week before the events has become the literary beacon of the moment and the number-one bestseller (totally sold out throughout the city, according to media reports) for many Parisians desperately wanting to foreground the very joy of their city that Hemingway celebrates—a joy that the terrorists were hoping to extinguish. An alternative reading to what some in the U.S. press are referring to as Paris’s “wary numbness” might instead focus on the spirited effort among many Parisians to recapture in personal ways their joie de vivre. At a public level, the government will be adding over 5,000,000 euros to the Minister of Culture’s budget to help support such a determined will to press on.

More than ever, it seems, we need to know the world through its many tongues and mentalities and thereby help to defeat nihilistic ignorance and misinterpretation through liberating education and cross-cultural understanding.

I was struck Sunday by what the Catholic chaplain for the Parisian forces of order had to say, after first lamenting the loss of life and limb during the horrible tragedy of last weekend, as some of the first funerals are just now taking place. The first of two necessary responses to the tragedy that he mentioned was resistance—he lauded the effort of last Friday among the men and women whom he represents, as well as the multitude of volunteers who jumped in to help, while also referring to a forward-looking need for resistance, as they and the French government take away multiple lessons about how to improve urban safety going forward. The other necessary ingredient that the chaplain mentioned was resilience and the need for the people he represents as well as for Parisians in general to try to move on beyond the tragedy. He accented the positive quality of resilience rather than playing to the more negative alternative of fear, and this preference is something that I have appreciated in the French government and press’s handling of this extremely delicate and difficult period. Parisians have been resistant and resilient before, and they are proving once again, it seems, that the first element of their Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité formula is indeed important to them.

Drawing strength from this spirit, our group decided to go forward this past Thursday evening with attendance at a modern dance performance at Paris’s famous Théâtre du Rond-Point, attempting in doing so to reclaim the joy that we too had felt in living in this richly cultured city only a week earlier and not wanting to cede that joy to cold-hearted terrorists. 

I am extremely proud of each and every participant of my present group for his or her maturity in reacting to such a crisis. What all of this may mean for the recruitment of our next group for fall 2016—and more broadly, for the future of study abroad in general—I know not at just 10 days out from the recent events. But my most ardent hope is that we will not, as a people, retreat into what might seem to be a more protective cocoon and thereby sacrifice the joys and the lifelong lessons and memories that come from not just visiting a foreign country, but living (with a host family) and studying in it while young.

Our compatriots who have had such an experience are legion and are usually quick to valorize the importance of their own semester or year abroad. As for me, having invested over 35 years in the business of studying in France and in francophone areas, I can say unequivocally that our present venture here in Paris is the strongest program that I have been fortunate enough to direct (among 10 such enterprises), and what a shame it would be for future students to refrain from considering it now—and likewise for other foreign-study programs. More than ever, it seems, we need to know the world through its many tongues and mentalities and thereby help to defeat nihilistic ignorance and misinterpretation through liberating education and cross-cultural understanding. As J. William Fulbright put it some 40 years ago on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the remarkable Fulbright Program bearing his name:

“International educational exchange is the most significant current project designed to continue the process of humanizing mankind to the point, we would hope, that men can live in peace—eventually even to cooperate in constructive activities rather than compete in a mindless context of mutual destruction. … We must try to expand the boundaries of human wisdom, empathy and perception, and there is no way of doing that except through education.”

Though put forward at a time of other international challenges, Fulbright’s statement seems visionary and timeless. I hope such a message will continue to have the resonance that it merits during our present days of international challenge and crisis.

The students in my present group have truly grown in all the ways that a doubly transformative study-abroad experience normally unleashes (“doubly,” I like to say, when the experience is mediated through a foreign tongue). But to the extent that “November 13” will be with them forever—not dissimilar to our “September 11”—I am nevertheless convinced that such a tragedy will not overshadow the memory of so many things enjoyed this semester, nor will it lessen the students’ desire to return to the Ville Lumière, for they are already speaking of “the next time around,” drawing their cues from Hemingway who wrote of Paris’s eternal pull at the conclusion of his memoir that captured our attention last week:

“There is never any ending to Paris. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties … it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”

My students are already smiling again here in Paris, and I am confident that they will be back.