Published: April 24th 2008April 24th 2008
Goodbyes suck. Sorry, I haven’t got anything more profound or literary to offer than that. Maybe I’ve spent too much time with middle schoolers this year, but even if it’s caused my verbal skills to deteriorate, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. This week put me through the emotional wringer, and made me fully realize how much this experience has fundamentally changed who I am. So basically, it was like college graduation, except this time it meant something.
Wednesday, I went for a morning walk to soak in the splendor of the Pyrenees and some of the warm April sunshine that you’ve got to pounce on when you get it, here. The afternoon, I got down to business in the kitchen because I had a lot of cookies to bake for my last day at Clermont. One-hundred-and-sixty odd Snickerdoodles later, and thoroughly encrusted in cinnamon and sugar, I finally got a little break to plan my final lessons. I didn’t pause for too long though, because I still had to make black bean soup for dinner that night. The flavor of the soup was great, but the consistency left a bit to be desired. Christine called it a
“puree des haricots noirs”. Basically, it was more like mashed potatoes made with black beans. No worries, though. Everyone enjoyed it and the girls even ate seconds.
The epic last day—where to even begin. I started the day with my 6emes, who enjoyed their cookies and were sad to see me go, but mostly kept a stiff upper lip. I had them complete a form letter for an American “pen pal”, who wanted to know about their life in France. They had to say how many siblings and pets they had, what their parents did, what their hobbies were, and then tell about Pau and the Pyrenees by filling in missing words in the text. With my 4eme and 3eme euros, it was the week to watch Hairspray. We should have had just enough time to get through the whole film in their two-hour class, but that was before you figured in the surprise parties that each class threw for me. That’s right, TWO surprise parties in one day. All the kids had brought snacks and drinks, so in addition to my cookies we had crepes, chocolatines, foie gras, candy, and a lot of very sore tummies. The 4eme
euros gave me a beautiful book about the Pyrenees that weighs roughly the same amount as a manhole cover. They’d written a note inside with all of their email addresses. That was the first time I cried that day. Then, during the recess between 10 and 11 o’clock classes, all the English professors at Clermont gave me a book on Paris with a note. That was the second time I cried.
1 o’clock meant the moment I’d been dreading since approximately my third week here—saying my goodbyes to the 3eme Euros. Laurence Chapelle had only told them that it was my last day, and that if they wanted to do something to thank me they could, but that other than that it was up to them. I don’t think she or I could ever have anticipated the generosity and thoughtfulness of these very special kids. Although, really, we should have known. They’re just that amazing. Before we started the movie, they formed a little procession and came up to give me all the going away gifts they’d gotten me. Anne gave me a red beret, since the beret originated in Bearn, and a container of homemade Mirabelle jam that I’m going to try to smuggle back into the states. From Floristan, there was a bag of “Coucougnettes”, where are from a local chocolatier and which won the prize for the best candy in France a couple years back. The name has a rather risqué translation…let’s just say they’re something 49% of the population possess. It comes standard with the Y chromosome. Typical of Floristan. From Thomas, there was a beautiful watercolor of the Pyrenees that a friend of his mother’s had painted. On one side is the Pyrenees in winter, and on the other side in the spring, so now I won’t have to say goodbye to my beloved mountain chain after all. He also got me a copy of Sherlock Holmes in French. Laurie and Mathieu each gave me a bottle of Jurancon. That’s right, I got two bottles of wine from my 14-year-old students. Only in France. Some of the others had gotten me a big box of Lindt chocolates, since Lindt has a factory in the Southwest. Basically, they made sure I’d be taking the 64 home with me in my suitcase. Despite all their generosity though, there was one more gift that overshadowed them all. They had taken a class picture, and everyone had signed the back and written me well wishes. You had better believe it will be framed and occupying a place of honor in my room in Atlanta. Mathias thanked me for my “magnificent accent”, Virginie said she loved me and my recipes, and I laughed out loud when I read the signatures such as “le petit Pierre”, “Laurie (la blonde)”, and “Samy, le turbulent”. And when I say I laughed, I mean I cried…and cried…and cried.” I couldn’t think of the words in English or in French to express how touched and moved I was. Imagine that…Kate, at a loss for words! Just as I was getting it under control, Morgan started crying because I was crying, which of course made me cry more.
Finally, we did settle in to watch the movie. The kids absolutely loved Hairspray. Despite the fact that only the English subtitles were available, they were “scotche” to the TV. That’s to say, it was like someone had scotch taped their eyeballs to the screen and yes, “scotcher” is an actual verb that the French have adopted. They tried singing along with the opening song, and it was so cute hearing all their little Gallic accents belt out “Good Morning, Baltimore!” The girls all shrieked the first time Zac Efron came on screen, but they also seemed to appreciate the deeper message of the fight for social equality. Ok, maybe that last part is wishful thinking on my part. Whatever, they really enjoyed it and were disappointed that we didn’t have time to watch the whole thing.
After classes that day, there was a get together for the professors to congratulate one colleague who had been offered a particular distinction by the national ministry of education, and another who had just had a baby. This gave me the chance to properly say goodbye to all of the professors who have been so great to me at Clermont. Since I ended up having far more things to carry home than I’d anticipated that morning, Laurence Chapelle was nice enough to drive me. Saying my goodbyes to her marked the 4th cry-fest of the day.
The next morning found me on the train to Paris to catch up with some old friends. My first night in town I was able to catch Dan Sakamoto before he left for Ireland. We just grabbed some coffee and dinner and had a great time reminiscing about Stage Wright days of “oh so long ago”. On Saturday, my much loved and adored host family, the De la Bigne’s, invited me out to Versailles. As if they weren’t already amazing enough on their own, Furman sophomore Susan Elliot, who was in the conversation group I led last spring, is living with them this term. It still blows my mind how grown up Raphaelle is now. In my head, she’s a perpetual 14, so to see her turned into such a young woman makes me feel very old indeed. It’s crazy when I realize she’s the same age as Charlene. Her school had just given an orchestra concert the week before for the President of the Republic….or they would have if Sarko hadn’t cancelled at the last minute. I asked Raph if First Lady Carla Bruni had at least made an appearance, to which she scoffed and replied “meme pas” (not even). The de la Bigne’s just burst right off the “Wondertastic” meter when they invited me to spend a few days with them at their house in Brittany that’s right on the shore. I’ll be able to hang out with Raph and her friends that are there, and I’ll get a chance to see a bit of a region I don’t know all that well, so I’m super excited.
When I got back from Versailles that afternoon, I got a last minute ticket to go and see “Chat et Souris” (cat and mouse) at one of the many theatres in the Opera district. The text is by the English author Ray Cooney, and it’s the story of a bigamist who has two families in two neighboring towns. One day, his son from one marriage and his daughter from the other discover one another on the internet. Intrigued by the idea that BOTH of their fathers are named Jean Martin, and that BOTH of them drive a taxi, they decide to meet in person. Hilarity ensues as his best friend Gilbert Jardinière tries to help him lie his way out of his marital mess. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at a show in my life. I was literally holding my sides. Both the physical comedy and the dialogue were spot on….and the actor who played Gilbert’s father looked eerily like Rhett Bryson. It was an incredibly enjoyable evening.
Sunday I got up and wandered my way across the 7eme to the Musee Rodin, where there’s currently an exhibit on Camille Claudel. They have one every couple of years, since she was not only Rodin’s most gifted pupil, but his mistress as well. Kind of a two-for-one deal, I guess. She was a superb talent as an artist, with a gift for sculpting delicate and detailed pieces such as hands and feet. She worked in primarily in marble and plaster, but experimented with other materials as well. Since she was, after all, a student of Rodin, facial expression played an important role in her works. Sadly, things didn’t work out so well with her teacher/lover. Rodin left her for another mistress, but continued to use her features for the faces in several of his later works. How like a man. Eventually, her health declined and she was forced to enter an asylum. Still, this exhibit tried to focus on her often-overlooked work, and not the drama of her life. I had to wait 45 minutes to even get in to see the exhibit, but it was definitely worth it. Among my favorite works was Sakuntala, which recounts the Hindu legend of a woman and her lover who are separated and ultimately reunited in Nirvana. Claudel reworked the piece several times, producing a marble version entitled “Vertumnus and Pomona”, and then “Abandon”, in bronze. However, I liked the original in plaster for how it captured the raw emotion of the subject. I also loved “The Age of Maturity”, where an ageing man is torn away from love, youth, and life by an equally aged angel. This controversial sculpture caused lots of speculation as to whether the three figures represented Rodin, Camille Claudel, and Rodin’s friend (and Camille’s “replacement”) Rose Beuret.
After the Musee Rodin, I hoped the metro clear across town to Pere LaChaize cemetery, where the “Pariscope” (a weekly publication with all the events going on in Paris that week), promised me I could have an exciting guided tour and “one man show” by M. Thierry Le Roi, expert of Parisian cemeteries. What was billed as a 2 and a half hour visit ended up running for 3 and a half…not that I’m complaining. After getting a brief lecture on the history of the cemetery, we proceeded to pay our respects to some of Paris’s most famous permanent residents. Pere Lachaize cemetery was founded by the Jesuits during the first empire. Napoleon himself inaugurated it, and even wanted to be buried there (of course we all know how that turned out for him). The cemetery is named for the Jesuit confessor of Louis XIV, who held his post for a remarkable 34 years, mostly because he had the good sense and discretion to never correct his libertine monarch, which led the king’s mistress to give him he nickname “LaChaize de Commodite” (the Commode). While the original plan for the cemetery was that it would be outside of Paris, over time the expansion of the city has brought it back within the town limits. We spent a wonderfully enjoyable afternoon wandering through headstones and hearing anecdotes about the lives and deaths of such figures as Marcel Proust, Edith Pilaf, Moliere, La Fountaine, Andre Gill, Delacroix, Chopin, and Parmentier (the later being famous for bringing the potato to France). Because I know you’re all dying to know, yes, we also saw Jim Morrison’s tomb. However, it’s kind of a shame, because so called “fans” feel the need to graffiti not only Morrison’s monument, but also all the ones surrounding him.
After leaving Pere LaChaize, I decided to round out my last night in Paris with an evening at the cinema. For a long time, I’d wanted to see “Bienvenue chez les Ch’Tis”, which has had an enormous success here in France. “Ch’Tis” refers to the denizens of the northern most part of France, near Lille. They speak a very particular dialect, and are stereotypically seen as being a bit rustic. The film centers around an employee of the Post in Aix-en-Provence. His wife struggles with depression, and to make her happy he tries to obtain a job on the French Riviera by pretending to have a disability. When his ruse is discovered, he is sanctioned, and his punishment is two years as director of the Post in the north, near Pas-de-Calais. When he gets there, once he learns to speak “Ch’Tis”, he finds the people overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming, and even makes a new best friend. However, his wife (who has stayed in Provence), refuses to believe he could actually be happy there, so he begins lying to her and telling her he’s miserable. Hilarity ensues when she decides to come for a visit and see for herself. If you’re a francophone, it’s a film I’d highly recommend. It just goes to show you that the north/south dynamic exists no matter where you are.
The next morning I got up and caught the train from Paris Monparnasse to La Boule, in Brittany. Chrystal came and got me at the station in a raging tempest of wind and rain. Welcome to Brittany. On the train, I’d been lucky enough to share a compartment with an entire Colony des Vacances, or Summer Camp. It was like being back at work. Once we got to their absolutely gorgeous house directly on the shore, I was enthusiastically embraced by ma petite Raphoon and her 4 friends, who were hanging out around a roaring fire in an effort to forget the monsoon raging against the windows. Later in the afternoon, we decided to throw caution to the wind (or more precisely, into the wind), and go for a walk across the beach to “Chez Glup’s”, a confiserie with over 250 kinds of candy. Definitely something for which it was worth braving the rising tide, the gale force winds, and risking life and limb on the rocks. At least, I imagine it would have been worth it had Glup’s not been closed when we arrived. According to their hours posted on the door, they were open, but the place was locked up pretty tightly. Apparently, because of the storm, they’d closed up early for the day. So Cecile took a great picture of us all looking forlorn and sad outside the store, and then we got over it and went to get a crepe and warm up. We returned to the house by the high road, watching the waves crash along the shore, and then divested ourselves of our jackets, ponchos, heavy wool socks, and rubber boots. Welcome to Brittany, again. That night, two of Raph’s friends from Nantes, Marie and Mathieu, who were also on vacation at La Boule, came over to play games. After a few rounds of cards, they decided to go out in the rain and play “cache-cache”, or hide and seek (except for the French, it’s hide-hide. Apparently no one ever gets found). I was pretty wiped out, and so I headed straight to bed. The next morning I found out that Mathieu had scratched his cheek open by falling into a rose bush in the dark. It sounds like something one of my 3 Mathieu’s at Clermont would have done, and my cousin as well. I guess maybe poor judgment just comes with the name.
Luckily for us, they storm had decided to cut us some slack, and so after a leisurely morning we took advantage of the afternoon sun to head to nearby Guerland. It’s a quaint little town with lots of beautiful “hotel particulier”, or private mansions. Etienne knew the caretakers of one such hotel, so we got to go and look around the gardens. While we were standing there chatting, I was SURE I smelled chocolate. Turns out they use ground up cacao pods as fertilizer. After touring the church, and watching a clown make balloon animals in the town square for a while, we drove to the Maison des Paludiers, to find out how the sea salt for which the region is famous is cultivated and harvested. While the film at the end of the visit was a little over the top, it was interesting to see how much work goes into something we all take for granted. It’s also true that you can taste a difference between sea salt and those that are chemically manufactured. The sea salt has lots of other minerals mixed in that give it a distinct flavor. It has to be harvested at just the right moment, before it dries too much and becomes acrid. There’s also “fleur du sel”, which is produced when a fine layer of salt crystallizes on the tops of the basins. It’s known for its delicate flavor and for activating the flavors in foods. The first “salt farms”, if you will, date back to the 6th century, and they’ve been handed down through families ever since. It’s a trade that’s experiencing a revival right now in France, so if you wanted to be a salt harvester, all you have to do is go to Guerland and sign up. In Spring, they repair the bridges between the basins, muck out all the sediments, and stock the reservoirs. The “harvest” is in summer, where the shallow basin of highly saline water means the sun can do it’s whole “evaporation thing”, and leave behind the salt. It’s really quite an ingenious system. That night after dinner, we watched “Pride and Prejudice” with the girls frequently pausing the projector to squeal over Mr. Darcy.
Wednesday, the weather was absolutely perfect, so we made a picnic and walked along the beach to a spot with beautiful rocks and cliffs and the magnificent blue water crashing up against the sand. Marie and Mathieu joined us again, as well as Mathieu’s friend Francois Xavier and Edouard, a boy who the girls know from Versailles. It was much too cold for swimming, at least for a southern girl like myself, but Laeticia and Marie got in the water all the same. Cecile brought along her guitar, and we sang Simon and Garfunkle songs on the beach, even if I was the only one who knew all the words. Once we finished off all the water we’d brought, the boys proceeded to fill the bottles with glacial ocean water and chase us across the beach with them. I managed to escape being too badly drowned or, worse yet, dunked in the ocean, but Raph and her friends were not so lucky. It was a sopping, trodden mass of teenagers who returned to the house that afternoon. While I may have escaped the baptism by salt water, I was not so lucky in avoiding a lovely “coup de soleil” (sun slap) on my back. Once we got back to the house, we decided to try one last time to make a trip to Glup’s. The only snafu was that they closed at 6:30, and it was 6:10 when we left the house, which meant we had to do a bit of footing. At a brisk jog, we managed to arrive in the nick of time to partake of the sugar high paradise. We returned at a more leisurely pace, and after dinner we listened to music and played cards.
So here I am back in Paris, and tomorrow I’m flying to Germany to see Hanna! I don’t have pictures of all my Brittany exploits yet, but as soon as Raph and Cecile email me some as they’ve promised to do, that shall be remedied. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to update about my brief sojourn in the land of beer and braughtwurst as well.