This piece is part two of a two-part Dispatch collection and part of the Dispatch summer 2022 series. Dispatches at The Prospect are brief reflections from our writers that focus on their experiences during the summer break.
I. A life in a wallet
I came to Paris with a nearly empty wallet. It’s a habit I’ve formed over years of traveling to new and familiar cities. Before departure, I’ll take my bloated wallet and pull out anything I won’t need upon arrival. It’s nice to travel light, and it leaves room for what’s soon to come. Now, a few weeks of Paris later, my wallet is rather full again.
In late June, I emptied my wallet of items from the spring semester. Cincinnati and Princeton public library cards. Old receipts. Tower passes no one bothered to use or ask for. And so on. Now, in their place, I see markers of my life in Paris. My Navigo pass for the Paris Metro in the convenient slot where I typically keep my Princeton prox. In other slots, the prox cards that get me into my dorm at the Cité Universitaire and my classrooms at Reid Hall. There’s also my actual I.D. for the Cité Universitaire and my Carte Blanche membership to the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. The two U.S. public library cards have been replaced by cards to the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève and the national archives.
It’s a whole different life that I carry in my wallet. I switched them out with surprising ease, yet they represent such different chapters. The ease might come from knowing that it is only a temporary swap. Still, it has made me think more often about how we identify ourselves by the external, in addition to any internal sense we may have of ourselves.
I remember when I first arrived on campus as a new student moving in. Among all the joy and near-magic of that arrival, something about finally receiving my prox felt particularly special. I was so excited that, as I sat with my family eating lunch in the Mathey College dining hall, I sent a picture showing off the prox’s holographic tigers to a mentor from my high school life. Holding that card made things real. It removed any doubt about calling myself a Princeton student. It said so right on the bottom: “UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT.” I had the card to prove it, if not yet the experience. And more than that, there lies some reassurance in so easily and evidently being able to see you belong to something greater. This is my campus, my community, as much as I am of it.
Now, these weeks I can dare to say the same of a slice of Paris. I have my place. I have my streets and my metro stops. I have my parks and cafes in which to read and write. I have my little life here.
This sensation struck me most intensely as I looked over my just-printed card admitting me as a reader to the French national archives. Part of me was still enjoying the high of the receptionist complimenting me on my French abilities after instructing me on how to complete my registration. But for a moment, I truly saw something more in that new reader card. It was a culmination of sorts — an arrival of its own. Eight years since I began learning French, here I was, digging through French historical documents, starting a long senior thesis journey. Here I was, living a life once-imagined. I have the card to prove it.
Soon, though, I’ll empty my wallet again, and my Princeton life will fill it once more. I’ll stop pulling out my wallet to scan my way into the metro. In its place will be my prox, to get me into Edwards Hall and East Pyne Hall. With two different cards, two different lives, all contained in the same wallet. And I can’t help but think of when and how I’ll keep emptying and filling my wallet in the more permanent lives to come.
II. An essayist today, the future tomorrow
I want to know at what point people stop asking what you want to do with your life in the future. It seems like, at this age, every introduction demands a response to that question as well. Name, age, school, major, they all precede future plans. A demand to know what comes next, as if who you are now does not suffice to make you whole.
In full disclosure, part of my disdain for this question comes from my own uncertainty about what to pursue in the years to come. This isn’t an uncertainty born of ignorance of myself, or of the world. Rather, I would still be happy with a variety of different paths, so why should I shut the door on all but one? But also, recently, I’ve had more trouble with the more foundational suggestion that we must define ourselves by what we hope to do in an uncertain, unpromised future, instead of what we do and who we are now. Even if this person is still being shaped. It all feels like a submission of the present in the service of a future still unknown and that still ought to be flexible.
I started reflecting on these questions and seeking answers while enjoying an afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s one of the parks in Paris where I’ve often stopped to write my essays. One day as I strolled and sat in the shade — notebook and pen in tow — it dawned on me that there I was, in Paris, writing for a newspaper. Sure, maybe it’s only a temporary summer stay, and maybe it’s only an extra-curricular responsibility. It’s not a new permanent residence. It’s not a full-time job. There’s no salary, or corner office, or any other prestigious external marker I can claim. It is only through who I am and what I am doing now, right now, that I can dare define myself as an essayist in Paris.
There’s so much romanticization in a phrase like that. It follows a century or more of writers journeying from America to become literary figures in Paris. But I don’t wish to claim a place in that tradition; it would feel absurdly arrogant to try such a thing. I simply would like to savor for a few moments more the reality of my life at this time. I simply wish it were enough to introduce myself with no concern but for who I already am.
Overall, this feels like a reversal from how I saw myself a couple seasons ago.
I was looking up a professor’s office hours, and as is often the case with Princeton’s websites, it was easier to google the professor’s name than to click through countless pages and dropdown menus. For a moment, I paused to look at the Google-generated biographical box that appears for prominent-enough people. This box typically includes a short title in lighter text right underneath a person’s name. For this professor, it said “Essayist.”
I thought it was so cool. There’s really no need to bother with a more elegant description; in my eyes it was simply really cool. And then the side of me that flirts with pursuing journalism began to think of the day I could maybe make a similar claim for myself — and of all the work in between. It was as inspiring as it was discouraging in its distance. I couldn’t see then what I see now as I write yet another essay.
In no way am I saying that I lack further ambitions. There is so much I still want to do and try to stumble upon in however many years I may have ahead. I just want to stop getting my current self lost in overwhelming, paralyzing concerns with any sort of rat race, perpetually agonizing over the next thing to do and become — or with overly depending on legitimization of one’s self in the eyes of others.
I guess that this is then an essay about more forwardly acknowledging what one has already become, even if it is only in one’s own eyes, even if there is more left to grow into. For now, I will just enjoy being an essayist and being in Paris. My future plans will remain for tomorrow.
José Pablo Fernández García is a senior from Loveland, Ohio and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at email@example.com.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.