I have never felt smaller than when I stood under La Grande Arche. It is the masculine, rigid and modern to the Arc de Triomphe’s feminine, elegant and old-worldly frame. Few tourists make it to La Defense, but I enjoyed my time studying in the area. My school, IESEG was promoted as being under the arch. I assumed this was marketing terms for “near the arch, perhaps in its shadow at the right time of day.”
No. My school was literally underneath La Grande Arche, with a glass entry smack bang in the middle of the arch’s legs. Our whole school was underground. Also underground is the Les Quatre Temps, the large shopping centre which was like any other I’d find back home. Sometimes, when the school canteen was too busy, I’d grab lunch from a bakery at Les Quatre Temps and eat on the steps of La Grande Arche, the prime position for people watching. I told myself every morning, as I laboured up the steep set of stairs to the arch, that it was balancing out the copious amounts of cheese and wine I was consuming.
Most days, however, I would get a camembert baguette from the canteen. I don’t think I have ever been so happy when eating a sandwich. Fresh salad with a generous serving of goat’s cheese camembert was a fry cry from school canteens I saw in (American) movies. On the first day, we were welcomed with a big buffet, which included tasting plates of different cheese. I was taste testing with gusto until I ate a chunk of butter, which was hiding on the cheese plate.
From Montparnasse, I spent almost an hour a day catching RER B and then RER A to La Defense, and although I begrudged the hot, crowded journey I was happy to have the best of both worlds: studying international business in the heart of the business district and living in the beautiful grounds of Cite Universitaire in Montparnasse.
It is easy to access from the central Metro station, Cite, on RER A. It’s not the traditional Paris you’ve been dreaming of, but you could spend an hour or so wandering around the area and checking out the sculptures, La Grande Arche, a little museum about La Defense and the amazing water feature.