This semester, I left the bubble. The cozy bubble of Wittenberg, where professors bake you homemade banana bread and you know the name and three fun facts about every student in your geology class.
But the whole reason we’re in college in the first place, and, most importantly, the reason we’re paying 47,612 macarons worth of tuition every year, is so that we are prepared to become global citizens when our time comes to leave the hallowed hollow.
I’m putting that to the test these next few months in Paris with the question we’ve all been wondering: does Wittenberg really prepare us for the world?
I thought the key to surviving in the world was empathy, the concept Wittenberg has ingrained in our judgments for years. I arrived in Paris with some classic American optimism, determined to eat some baguettes and pass my light on to others.
As it turns out, they didn’t want it.
I tried to approach Paris as if it were Wittenberg. To save you some trouble if you ever visit Paris and think it is like Wittenberg, I will give you a pointer I learned: it’s not.
At Wittenberg, we are a community. When a female is harassed at a party, you say something. When a student approaches you with a petition, you listen and maybe even sign it. When someone is hungry, you give what you have to help them. It’s right to help, and as an added privilege it’s safe to help.
The first time I rode the metro in Paris, a man approached my friend and told her he would dance on her for money, eyeing her as if she were a pork chop rather than a person. Every part of my Wittenberg self internally boiled while shouting, ‘do something, do something, do something!’
But I had to live by the first rule of Paris: for your own safety, you say nothing. The man could have a knife. He could have a gun. He could rob you or assault you on the spot. And no one would say anything.
Because that’s the first rule of Paris. There are no heroes here. We’re not at Wittenberg anymore.
I had to look away and pretend I didn’t notice. I had to push three years of empathy training to the side of my mind while my friend did everything in her power to silently escape.
And she did. No thanks to me. Or anyone else on that metro.
On an average day in Paris, I am directly confronted three to four times by beggars asking for money, and I pass at least 10 more cardboard-sign holders on my way to and from school. There is no greater betrayal to my empathy than turning away from another human who is looking me in the eyes and saying, “I’m hungry.”
After a few weeks of turning away, the words, “I’m hungry” and “Please help” began to lose meaning. Sleeping bags on the sidewalk became part of the scenery, along with the shivering people inside of them.
I have been armed with the necessary coat of apathy. It is the most painful coat I have ever worn in my life. This is not what Wittenberg taught me.
At Wittenberg, I could leave my bag on a library chair while I went to look for a book. At Wittenberg, I could confront anyone on campus. In Paris, I cannot have a conversation without one hand over the top of my bag at all times. I have gone from seeing the best in people to assuming the worst.
That being said, empathy has its very necessary place here. Wittenberg prepared me for menu mix-ups with waiters and cultural cluelessness with my host family. Empathy is learning to be slow to judge and quick to accept the way others live. When a misunderstanding is afoot, empathy is the greatest tool in the belt, and I have Wittenberg to thank for my readiness to navigate it, the readiness it offers to all of us.
Still, Wittenberg is not the world, not even close, and if we try to copy and paste our Witt selves into a culturally different scenario, we are going to run into a plethora of problems. Adaptation is not easy, but it is necessary.
So where does that leave us? For starters, we have to learn how to pass our lights in a culturally appropriate way. Wittenberg has prepared us for this the best it can, but you can never be truly prepared for the actual experience in the world until you’re there, in the metro, watching it happen. I’m still navigating the waters here in Paris, but I’m far from giving up. I’m determined to pass some light yet, no matter where I am. After all, that’s what Wittenberg has taught us to do.