Maria Cruz: France As Texts (2019)

Photo by Alex Gutierrez (CC by 4.0)

Maria Cruz is a senior at the Honors College at Florida International University majoring in International Relations and minoring in Marketing. She is looking forward to graduating in the Spring of 2020 and furthering her education at a graduate school. Currently, she is in the midst of completing her final year at FIU. Below are her reflections of the Honors study abroad program she completed in France this past summer.

Paris as Text

Photo and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“A Foreigner’s Haven” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Paris on July 2019

Paris is a mystery I have been attempting to solve since my adolescent years. I spent countless hours watching couples falling in love in front of the Eiffel Tower, reading about artists emerging themselves in the stimulating art scene, and just overall compelled by all the stories of those who were once lost and came to find themselves in one of the most enriching cities in the world. Hoping that I, too, could one day visit this wondrous world of art and culture and emerge from this glorious trip as a new person. However, no amount of fictitious images I conjured in my head could prepare me for the reality of Paris. 

Being completely honest, while this was not my first visit to Paris, it is my first time truly getting to experience all the wonders and magic held in these cobbled streets and stone buildings. Many wrongly think that Paris is just the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the Notre Dame — a mistake that my young and naïve self once made. However, the “real” Paris is afternoons spent having a picnic along the banks of the Seine River, crowding around a map of public transportation routes to figure out how to get to our next destination, walking in the middle of the night to the crêpe place in front of the student dorms and make small talk with the chefs as you sip their homemade tea. These experiences, from just the first week of this trip, are a small portion of what has elevated this program and my enjoyment of it. In contrast to my hometown of Miami, Paris is a place where the past and the present intertwine, making it easy for you to get lost and find yourself again in the remnants of centuries-old locations.

Versailles as Text

Photo and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“Opulence in the Face of Destitute” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Versailles on July 7, 2019

In 1742, Louis XIV embarked on the one-man journey to bring France to the full glory of a leading power. In doing so, he made the once hunting lodge the height of French culture and the downfalls of the state. For many, Versailles has become the epitome of opulence. For others, it is a symbol of a violent and tyrannical line of rule.

Have you ever felt so regal and holy? Stood at the very place where centuries ago a god of his own making watched over the daily proceedings of his dominion? Strolled through the gardens whose designs were compiled from his very own dreams? Walked through a hall dripping in gold and seen your glittering reflection mirrored in its grand details? The ability to see such grandeur in person was nothing short of a religious experience for me. To my amazement, physically being in the presence of these visions of luxury was far more compelling than any recreations made for shows and films. However, upon further reflection, I could not help but be disappointed in my initial reaction.

The questions posed over the sociopolitical implications of the making of this site has challenged my very morals and values. As someone who has rigorously studied global affairs of the past and present, I am quick to denounce all rulers who retain such power and authority over their government and people as Louis XIV did. Moreover, his actions are perceived as the catalyst for the extremely violent and radical French Revolution. Thus, one would think I would be in complete opposition to Versailles and everything it stands for; yet, after my visit, I can not hold these sentiments. It is evident to me, and the millions of others that have made the journey to this location, that despite the transformation France has undergone since his rule, Louis XIV was successful in his original endeavor.

Lyon as Text

Photo and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“France’s Past, Our Present,” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Lyon on July 2019

With its golden houses and hillside views, Lyon represents the splendor of “deep France,” or as our professor referred to it, “what Paris once was.” From my first walk through the city, it became quite evident to me that the leisure lifestyle of its residents made for a very different environment than what I had been accustomed to in Paris. However, none of my original observations could have prepared me for our week of discovery in the city, wherein we got to explore some of its most important historical sites and analyze their relevance to France’s plight for freedom in World War II. The historical value of Lyon allowed me to have a deeper understanding of the city’s beauty, and made for one of the most impactful trips of my life.

Our journey to the past began the moment we settled in our hotel room. The story of Laurent Vernay, the owner of Hôtel de Célestins, and his family was the start of our lecture on the persecution of the Jewish and Freedom Fighters by the Vichy government (in collaboration with the Nazi’s). The anecdotes Laurent shared with us of his family were some of the harrowing accounts of the crimes perpetrated by the fascist governments of Europe. This sentiment is not merely based on the brutality of the treatment his family faced, but more so on the fact that he was the first person I ever met who has a direct connection to the Holocaust. No longer is my knowledge of the horrific events that unfolded during this era from history books and lectures, but after those mornings sitting in the plaza in front of the Célestins-Théaâtre de Lyon as we attentively listened to Laurent talk, I now hold the memories of his mother and her family. However, this was not the last time we were personally confronted with the reality of the Nazi’s ravaging of Lyon. 

It was only 2 days after we arrived that we visited the prison Montluc and its former prisoner, Claude Bloch. Objectively, hearing Bloch’s testimonial was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. As all 20 of us huddled in that hot and stuffy room for two hours our view of humanity was radically transformed. Coming out of that afternoon we spent with him, I knew we had an obligation to ourselves, Bloch, and the 6 million other innocent victims of the Holocaust to never let such a tragedy occur again. As history has taught us, actions committed by groups and individuals must be explicitly documented so that future generations remember and learn from the mistakes of the past. Still, the current sociopolitical conditions of the West, from America to Germany, seem to heed no attention to this advice. When the Nazi’s met their demise, the international community promised they would never allow for this level of rampant devastation to happen; however, they have greatly failed in their efforts. From Rwanda, Syria, Venezuela, and even the borders of America, millions have suffered due to the failures of governments to protect their citizens. No matter how physically detached a person may be from the locations of these events, it is the living legacy of people like Claude that reminds us to reach into the most humane parts of ourselves and find ways to be sympathetic and understanding of other’s pain.

Izieu as Text

Photo and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“The Greatest Tragedy of All: Lost Innocence,” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Izieu on July 12, 2019

50 engraved names and an empty house are all that remains of the victims of one of the greatest unknown tragedies of World War II. The morning of April 6, 1944, was supposed to be like any other for the children and caretakers of the Maison D’Izieu. Since the building’s inauguration in 1943 by Miron and Sabrine Zlatin, it served as an orphanage for children of the Jewish families that faced prosecution by the Nazi government. Families and parents alike believed that here, hidden away in the French countryside and far from the direct sight of the Vichy government, their children would be safe. However, under the rule of Klaus Barbie no one, no matter their age, race, or gender, was safe. Thus, the inconspicuous site my class and I visited on an early morning came to be known as the location where the Vichy government of France committed one of its worse crimes against humanity.

It was with heavy hearts and teary eyes that we heard of what became of the 44 children that were apprehended and deported that April morning. They were innocent kids, full of life and love, with hopes for good futures and praying for the wellbeing of the families they were cruelly separated from — what “threat” did they pose to the government? Why were their brutal and vicious deaths at Auschwitz rationalized? Why was the memory of them concealed for decades until Barbie’s trial in 1987? These are just some of the questions that ran through my brain as we walked through the abandoned building that previously was a safe haven for kids that were victims of the war. However, now all that remains are the vestige of their second lives (letters, drawings, photographs) and an exhibition in their honor. Throughout all my history classes I have been told of the tragedies of WWII; yet, no lesson can ever be as impactful as getting to visit the actual sites of these events and standing in the place of those who were subjugated to the most inhumane conditions. They were only children, like Claude Bloch when he was 15 and was also deported to Auschwitz, why were they not spared?

Normandy as Text

Main photo by Alex Gutierrez (CC by 4.0), second photo and edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“No Mail, Low Morale,” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Normandy on July 23, 2019

Soldiers are not the only victims of war. War ravages rural farms, families, urban cities, and friendships… It is an illness that takes hold of a country and attempts to kill everything in its path. Innocent or not, soldier or not, war is one of the worst things a person can encounter in their lives. For me, I have never been as conscious of this concept before being faced with the 9,388 graves of the American Cemetery. 

Unit: Women’s Army Corps. Rank: Private First Class. Status: DNB (Died Non-battle). Location: Plot D, Row 23, Grave 47. A life passed and gone, and this is all the remains of the victim — some standard titles and a burial location. Yet, the legacy of Mary H. Bankston and her courageous actions survives despite the minimal information known about her. This is what a true hero is.

What Ms. Bankston’s life was like before her deployment is up to my imagination. I know she was a daring person, for when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights activist Dr. Mary Mclead Bethune were successful in their efforts to grant African-American women the right to join the WAC, she enlisted herself. I know she was noble, that despite the historical past of slavery in the United States still tainting her livelihood she prioritized her country above her individual experiences. I know she was strong beyond recognition, because not only did she attend basic training sessions before being sent out to Europe, but she was willing to take on the mental and emotional burden of being the mediator of information between soldiers and their loved ones. 

But Mary, what was your childhood like? How was your family life growing up? And school, were you one of the ones that loved going or dreaded every second of it? What did you do when you hung out with friends? What were your favorite books, songs, celebrities? Did you have a partner waiting for you to get back home? Or were you the one that was awaiting a return once? I would have loved to had the chance to know the real you, and not just the statistic you are portrayed as. What was it that inspired you to sacrifice so much of yourself for the sake of your country?

Ms. Bankston was 1 of the 850 women that compromised the 6888 Central Post Directory Battalion, or as it is more commonly referred to as, the “Six Triple Eight.” Famed for being the first and only unit in WWII that was composed solely of black women — a momentous occasion in history, for sure. While her unit was created to aid in the delivering of mail to servicemembers following a 6-month backup l, the women of the Six Triple Eight were quick to cement their worth to the war effort. After their initial arrival in February, they worked diligently, implementing the motto “No mail, low morale.” Despite the constant physical threat they were under, being near active battlegrounds and constantly evading units of the axis powers, they were resolute in maintaining their work ethic, no matter the consequence. Tragically, it was only 5 months after their arrival to Europe that Mary, alongside two companions, died in a jeep accident. Still so full of life and dreams, their stories came to an abrupt end. 

Mary, your story is one of the many that I have heard this past month and it has irrecoverably altered my life. I cannot empathize with you, for I have never been so close to direct combat nor dealt with the level of racial issues that dictated your life. However, I know what it is like to throw yourself into new and completely unknown experiences for the sake of your community and family. Being aware that no matter what difficulties lie ahead, you are not solely acting for your personal growth, but are rather motivated by giving others the opportunities you were denied. Hoping that no matter how insignificant you may think you are, your actions have a larger impact. The evidence lies in the fact that of all 9,388 graves, Ms. Bankston, you are one of four that are dedicated to women.      

So, Mary H. Bankston, this is my official farewell to you, with the promise that your story will live on with me and all those willing to listen. Your memory is in all of the young black and brown girls that have been granted the opportunities and freedom you were once denied, and for that, we thank you for your service. It lives in my mother, aunt, grandmother, and I who are getting a second chance at freedom. It lives in the millions of people in my home country who are not as fortunate as we are but have generations of survivors to fight for their rights on a daily basis. And it is in a group of 18 students from Miami who, despite having completely different backgrounds from one another, were given the chance to come and hear your story and of the millions of other silent victims of WWII.

Père Lachaise as Text

Photo by Alex Gutierrez (CC by 4.0), edit by Maria Cruz (CC by 4.0)

“Le monde, chère Agnès, est une étrange chose,” by Maria Cruz of FIU in Père Lachaise on July 26, 2019 

Born in 1622 as Jean-Baptiste Poquelin into two wealthy merchant families, Molière’s origins were far from the provocative character he was notorious for. The son of Jean Poquelin of and Marie Cressé had a carefree childhood, with his early life being free of societal pressures and economic burdens. The first time he encountered any form of hardship was at age 11 when his mother died and his father remarried. This event is the catalyst for Jean-Baptiste’s distancing from his family name and line of work. While it was not until several years later that this becomes official, his fragile relationship with his father left him seeking emotional fulfillment elsewhere. He found solace in the theatres his grandfather took him to, learning about the magic of plays and the written word at an early age. 

It was in Paris that he began his prestigious academic career. Attending schools such as the Jesuit Collège de Clermont, he was able to get the highest level of education and socialize with the most affluent of society; however, these schooling years were to be valuable to him for far different reasons. On these school stages, he refined his skills as both an actor and writer, honing in on his comedic abilities and forever elevating the standards of French plays. Yet, despite his early theatrical success, it was still a few years before he immersed himself in this world. In 1641, he inherited the title of “valet of the King’s chamber and keeper of carpets and upholstery” from his father. Jean Poquelin originally purchased this title during the reign of Louis XIII, cementing the family’s relationship with the monarchy — something Jean-Baptiste used to his advantage and redefined during the height of his career. The following year, in 1642, he goes to school to become a lawyer but does not finish his studies. It is during this time that he abandons his pre-destined career path and all the social norms that dictated his life. 

At just 21 years old Jean-Baptiste Poquelin ceases to exist, with Molière taking his place. He makes his debut in society in 1643 with the founding of the Illustre Théâtre alongside fellow actress Madeleine Béjart. While this was the start of his career in theater, these were certainly not his most successful years. Around two years later the company goes bankrupt and the troupe dissolves, with Molière being imprisoned for the debts he owns. However, this is just the beginning of his turbulent second life. After this short escapade, he joined a new company and spent the following 12 years as a traveling actor throughout the south of France. It was during this time that Molière became renowned for his comedic skills and style after failing in establishing himself as a “tragic” actor and being inspired by the Italian theater. This was to prove fruitful as he earned the patronage of several members of the aristocracy, including Philippe I, Duke of Normandy, also known as “Monsieur,” or the younger brother of Louis XIV. Unsurprisingly, this era was embroiled with a lot of personal drama; however, Molière’ claim to fame was cemented.

Paris, being the heart of the French culture and society, was a city Molière could not spend the rest of his life running from; thus, his return was inevitable. Making his debut at the Petit-Bourbon theater, Molière was to embark on a new and completely unknown path in life. Now in favor with the court, he got to enjoy privileges that no other actor or playwright during his time got to, especially since a majority of them were still denounced by society. Similar to Louis XIV, he was largely popular amongst the elite and privileged and loathed by the church — having such an animated character and openly contending societal norms it is no wonder he was so largely talked about. His works, whether it be a play, poem, or comédies-ballets, were largely satirical in nature and questioned the values the French deemed as “admirable;” however, being so supported by the king, the monarchy is the one subject he never denounced in his writings. Still, despite all the success and appraisal he was receiving Molière’s personal life came under fire following his marriage to Armande Béjart in 1662, who was rumored to be the daughter of his past lover. Yet, just a decade later Molière fell incurably ill. Being afflicted with pulmonary tuberculosis, he met his ultimate demise in his place of worship: the stage (ironically enough, his death is one of the most iconic moments of his life). In the middle of his performance in Le Malade Imaginaire, he collapsed on stage in a coughing fit and hemorrhaged; however, he insisted on continuing with the show and performed until its ending. Tragically, following the play’s conclusion, he collapsed and was rushed home where he remained alive for a few short hours until he died. In true Moliére fashion, the two priests called for to grant him his last rites refused to go because of the untimely hour.

Still, Moliére’s afterlife is just as chaotic as his living. As a result of the prejudice held against actors at the time, their bodies were not allowed to be buried on “sacred ground,” so his widow, Armande, had to go petition Louis XIV to find a loophole around this law. With the King’s permission, Moliére was granted a funeral at night and a plot in the part of the cemetery at St. Joseph that was reserved for unbaptized children. Moreover, over a century after his death, the newly established government of the French Revolution recovered his bones and relocated them to the Museum of French Monuments. It was not until 1817 that they were recovered before being placed in their “alleged” final resting place — Père Lachaise.

I first learned about Moliére in my 10th grade French class when my teacher played a movie dedicated to his most productive years as a playwright and actor. Before starting, she merely introduced him as the “French Shakespeare,” and decided that such a statement was a sufficient summary of his character. Being a child of AP English Language and Literature, such a claim was inconceivable to me. Shakespeare is heralded as a god-like figure whose writings are untouchable and unique to all of human history, how can anybody compare? You see, this is common throughout my academic career as curriculums emphasize several key figures throughout history who have formed our understanding of the world based on biased perspectives. However, disregarding so many individuals who have held a status of substantial influence in their country, whether it be while they were alive or following their death, is not just a disservice to them, but to us as well. 

Moliére’s works were the culmination of the most polarizing topics and entertaining deliveries. His ability reconcile these opposing ideas were what gained him such fame, and in turn why he made such a grand impact in France’s history and culture. Being the writer and main actor for most of his plays, amongst completing several other theater jobs, he was a real Renaissance man of the play world. Forever changing the cultural landscape of his country, his impact is still present in the daily lives of citizens speaking “the language of Moliére.” Living in the height of the technological revolution, we have the entire history of the world at our fingertips — how is it that we are still stuck on only Shakespeare? How is it that despite his influence on the historical past and present of one of the leading countries in the world I have only ever heard of Moliére once before? One of the main ideas emphasized in our professor’s lectures was to seek a deeper, more holistic understanding of everything we studied, whether it be painting, architectural design, sculpture, or written words, because it is all this history and knowledge that will allow you to comprehend the importance of these works and their relation to the present day. After all we have experienced, how is it that millions still fail to grasp this concept (and still wonder about the fate of our futures)? The world, truly, est une étrange chose.

Declaration Project: Pauline Lèon

Over Under Project: la poesie est dans la rue

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