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Dr. Steven Harthorn Experiences Life in France

By Melissa Brookman on Thursday, August 30, 2018


Northwestern English professor Dr. Steven Harthorn traveled to Paris, France in June 2018 because he found an airfare deal that he just couldn’t pass up. He hadn’t been to Europe before, but he was excited to take an international excursion after the busy school year. He traveled alone and had a brief layover in Iceland during both of his flights. 

“I could see the unique terrain of Iceland from the air since it was June in a high northern latitude. I also got to see glaciers in Greenland on the flight back. I enjoyed the strange phenomenon of seeing the sun above the horizon at 2:30 a.m. It had dipped below the horizon for a while, but the sky never got dark,” said Dr. Harthorn.

He booked a room with a couple on Airbnb and stayed in a suburb called Alfonrtville to give him a better impression of how people live outside of the tourist areas. Although he enjoyed being in the suburbs, his trip came with many challenges.

“I had to figure out the train schedule to get into central Paris, which proved tricky not just because of the reasons you would expect like language, tickets, etc., but also because there was a train workers’ strike going on that affected the lines nearest me. The strike would be in effect for two days, then off for three; trains would run at a reduced schedule and not make certain stops. Things could get interesting: one morning I had to wait for three trains until I could finally squeeze onto one with standing room only–and barely that. Another evening on my way home, I ended up several miles beyond where I needed to be, but the train running in the opposite direction was done for the day; fortunately, another line intersected that station and took me back relatively close to where I needed to be. After a while, I figured out enough backup plans and workarounds to get pretty adept at it, but it was definitely a source of anxiety for a good part of the time,” said Dr. Harthorn.

When he was not riding the trains, he covered a lot of ground by foot and walked roughly 8-10 miles per day in Paris.

“It was a lot of walking, but I really appreciated seeing things that way. I made many of the usual tourist stops, such as the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Musee d’Orsay, Napoleon’s tomb, the medieval palace Chateau de Vincennes, and the Palace of Versailles,” said Dr. Harthorn.

Dr. Harthorn also said that he really enjoyed stopping in all of the old churches that he saw as he walked around.

“It often seemed as if you couldn’t go more than a few blocks without running into one. Some were in better shape than others, but they were all beautiful in their own way,” said Dr. Harthorn.

Eventually he found a small festival at the Church of Saint-Séverin in the Latin Quarter where a French local offered him a pastry. Then on Sunday evening he returned there for the worship service.

“It was remarkable to me to think of the generations of people who had worshiped in the same spaces for centuries,” said Dr. Harthorn.
Along with all the typical tourist attractions, Dr. Harthorn said that Paris intersects with many of his interests.

“The medievalist in me was eager to visit medieval sites such as the cathedral of Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, a royal chapel not far away filled with beautiful stained glass. I also have an interest in the era of the Napoleonic wars in the late 18th and early 19th centuries,” said Dr. Harthorn.

Another passion of Dr. Harthorn’s includes the famous author James Fenimore Cooper, who lived from 1789-1851. Cooper is famous for such stories as “The Last of the Mohicans.” Dr. Harthorn has researched Cooper extensively, and although he is American, Cooper and his family spent seven years in Europe from 1826-1833 and lived in Paris for several of those years. Since Dr. Harthorn in an English professor, spending time in France was a great way for him to connect with his favorite author and to track down sites connected with other old authors.

“I tracked down two of the addresses where James Fenimore Cooper and his family lived during their stays in Paris. I also stopped at one of the places where Victor Hugo lived and saw his grave–along with those of Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac, and others–in the crypt of the Pantheon, a temple dedicated to the ‘great men’ of France. Another day, I visited a cemetery called Père-Lachaise, where a number of famous writers, artists, and public figures are buried. Oscar Wilde is buried there, as is the playwright Moliere, Chopin, and the Napoleonic-era Egyptologist Champollion who deciphered the Rosetta Stone,” said Dr. Harthorn.

He had another fun experience on a tour that visited sites connected to many of the “Lost Generation” writers, such as Gertrude Stein’s home, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, and several other writer haunts. The tour was actually based around the recent movie “Midnight in Paris,” in which a modern writer time-travels back to the Lost Generation era and meets up with Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and artists such as Picasso and Salvador Dali. 

Dr. Harthorn said that by the end of his eight days there, he was pretty worn out, but he still felt like he had barely scratched the surface of possible things to see, and he would have loved to stretch out a little more into the French countryside. He hopes to continue his international adventures in the future.

“I would like to visit some other areas like India or Malaysia where my oldest son is going on a Fulbright fellowship next year, but I certainly wouldn’t mind going back to Paris again. It was a very interesting trip,” said Dr. Harthorn.