Guillaume throws down the photography gauntlet as we head back in time to the Romans in Gaul. He promises prizes for the three most original shots of the sites we’ll visit today: the Pont du Gard, Avignon and Nîmes. The boys position themselves so it appears they’re holding up the aqueduct bridge over the Gard River, and in Avignon’s Papal Palace, the girls pose in dramatic back bends across a leaded arched window and do handstands in the stark, empty center of a vast, stone chapel. We never learn who actually wins the photo competition, but Guillaume has plenty of Haribo candies to share among all the amateur photographers.
We’re at the Nimes amphitheater and one of my students wonders aloud, “Is this a copy of the one in Rome?” “No,” I explain, “most major Roman cities had an amphitheater,” and go on to explain the history and meaning of panem et circenses (keep the masses fed and entertained and revolts remain at bay). “You mean like in The Hunger Games” a student observes, the others nodding in agreement. “Yes, you’re exactly right,” I reply, so happy they’ve made the connection. We teachers take pleasure in nuggets like these that, taken as a whole, give us much needed sustenance.
One morning my parent traveler is late for breakfast and with a long bus ride ahead of us, his son is fretting. “Don’t worry,” I reassure him, “he’ll be here.” The son replies, shaking his head, “You don’t understand — if he doesn’t eat and then gets on a bus for three hours, he’s going to start making very bad decisions.” I’m not sure I want the explanation to go any further. Another student arrives in the breakfast room with a pained look on his face. “Madame Bohr,” he declares, “I need a plastic bag right away. We have an issue.” I note the use of the royal “we.” Thinking he might be about to get sick, I’m ready to jump out of my seat but do my best to remain calm. “What’s up? Why do you need a bag?” I ask, not wanting to guess what’s coming next. “I need a bag, urgently. I burst the one in our room when I stuffed in too much dirty laundry and my suitcase won’t close because I have excess clothing.” Stifling a giggle, I calm him down only to have his stress level rise again as he realizes neither he nor his roommate has their room key. “No problem,” I say, “we’ll figure it out.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve said that on our trip so far…
The student crises of the morning averted (I sat on his suitcase and we got a new key), we’re loading the bus, ready for the road. The tardy father climbs aboard and takes his seat, his morning meal fresh in his belly, and sound decision-making is back on track.
We arrive in Carcassonne, medieval citadel extraordinaire and one of my favorite places in France, and the boys agonize over which of the myriad toy lethal weapons to buy. They content themselves with wooden slingshots and swords with burlap scabbards and I wonder how they’ll fit in bulging suitcases already near impossible to close. The 12th century Basilica of Saint Nazaire and Saint Celse is built inside the city’s defending walls and soon after we enter, my most loquacious young lady stands erect against a wooden kneeler on a side altar to preach to the others, sotto voce and solemn-faced. “My dear friends,” she begins, “I’ve called you all together to celebrate the joyous occasion of our pilgrimage to France…” Her audience is in tears, cracking up, and I do my best to hold it together.
Carcassonne’s legacy of brutal sieges and medieval torture behind us, I hear what has become an hourly catchphrase, despite multiple iterations of the plan for the day: “So, Madame Bohr, what’s next?” And then the constant refrain: “Where’s the bathroom? I really have to go.”
We tiptoe into Spain with a visit to San Sebastian, or Donastia — its Basque name, in the separatist region of the country on the Atlantic coast. The kids turn up their noses at the tapas of plentiful seafood and Iberico ham, most crowned with a gorgeous pink prawn and beautifully displayed along the bar. But we adults are enthralled with the tasty bites. Back in France we arrive in St. Jean de Luz, enjoy the powdery white sand of the beach, dip our toes in the ocean (actually warmer than the Med), and catch up on souvenir shopping in the town where Louis XIV was married. That night, at our hotel outside Biarritz, there are some loud, inexplicable noises from the grounds. I walk down the corridor and as I pass the boys’ room, there they are, peeking out their open door, Carcassonne swords and slingshots at the ready. Ah, middle schoolers, I once again think. Too old for babysitters but still in tune with toys.
We board the TGV (train à grande vitesse) in Bordeaux for the three-hour trip to the City of Light, all students starving and excited about purchasing food en route. They promptly learn a cruel lesson in French culture, however, when Guillaume announces that the dining car is closed because the food service workers have walked out. It seems someone, somewhere, is always on strike in France. Alas, we content ourselves with depleting the snacks in our backpacks, all save my Boy Scout, of course. He purchased a full takeaway meal at the train station before departure, “just in case,” he told me. “I don’t want to be hungry and can’t take the risk.”