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Our Longest Day

 

I thought our room was on the first floor. She said premier étage, didn’t she? Why do we need the elevator? Because in France, the first floor is on the second floor. We talked about it in class, but now you’ll remember.

Our coach puts dozens of kilometers of narrow country roads behind us, weaving past stone buildings in various states of disrepair. They’ve been here for centuries — long before World War II came close to obliterating them all. Houses, barns, stables, outbuildings, storage sheds, churches. Some appear to have come through the war unscathed, their bucolic charm intact. Others lie in pieces, barely recognizable under gold and milky lichen, thick grasses and specks of blue spring wildflowers. Who were the people who lived here during the war? French country homes are rarely sold, customarily passed down through families, so it’s likely those who live here now, lived here in the 1940s, or at least their forebears did. Stories of Allied sacrifice and bravery were shared across generations, thus, many yards fly both French and American flags.

Madame Bohr, it feels like we’re at the seashore. We ARE at the seashore. We’re in Normandy, close to the D-day BEACHES. Don’t you remember what Nathalie told us and what we discussed this morning? D-day, Jour-J to the French, took place on the English Channel, La Manche. You’ll see where the battles were fought as soon as we get off the bus.

I find the beaches of Northern France melancholy by nature: cold, gray, rocky. Add the D-day landings and my heart wants to break. There’s salt in the air, and humidity. Remarkable humidity. Seagulls scream overhead. The landscape at Pointe du Hoc, virtually untouched since 1944 and pockmarked with deep bomb craters, is dotted with dense, low-slung bushes of tightly packed yellow beach blooms. A tiny ginger-breasted European robin twitches its head in the brush, trilling morning song. The inexorable persistence of nature on such a blood-soaked bluff. Do my spring-breakers understand what happened here seventy years ago? For that matter, do I or any of us truly understand?

It’s an emotionally gloomy day, despite blue skies and a crisp wind. We arrive at the Normandy American Cemetery and the yellow roses have changed to spiky mauve and burgundy heather. I’ve visited this sacred spot multiple times, yet it never fails to make me cry. How could it not? Seeing the black and white photographs of the fresh, young faces of men – boys, actually – displayed on the walls of the Visitors Center is all it takes. I reiterate Nathalie’s suggestion that each student find a soldier from Maryland, or the state in which he or she was born, take a picture of the grave marker and research him when they return home. Say a prayer, be grateful, say thank you to him and his family.

They gaze out over Omaha Beach to the English Channel and I wonder what they’re thinking, dreaming. Are they imagining a war that seems so very long ago? What was I thinking at their age? As I recall, it was always about the future. About all that lay ahead. Life yet to unfold. Now, however, with decades and so many of life’s major decisions behind me, I’m in the present, appreciating the privilege of sharing history with students, watching it come alive in their eyes. As we stand on this promontory where what happened changed the world, my wish for my charges, as it is for my children: put the important things in relief and let the trivial falls aside. Appreciate what they have and what was secured for them on this cliff in France.

***

The end of our nine-day trip looms.

There has been plenty of hilarity and silliness followed by moments of reflection and illumination. I was enchanted, smitten, after my first taste of France. Have my students fallen in love as well? Have they caught the very same Francophile bug?

Are we taking the metro or the RER into Paris? Bravo! You know the difference.

Our final evening in Paris. A cruise on the Seine. Notre Dame soars, the river banks crawl with revelers, the Eiffel Tower glitters. My students shout with glee, their voices echoing, each time we glide under one of Paris’ many bridges.

I’ve never laughed so hard. I can’t believe I ate chicken liver. I really can’t believe I actually liked it! This is the best meal I’ve ever had. I’ll remember this trip for the rest of my life. I’ll never forget how beautiful Paris is. I’m so sad we leave tomorrow. I want to stay. When I come back to France…

French music to my ears.

 

 

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Vous Avez La Patate?

Our shower only has half a door! Are all bathrooms like that in France? The whole floor is soaked! How much butter is in this croissant? Is it okay if I add more?

Our Loire Valley tour continues. Each morning as we load the bus, our guide asks how we are. Ça va? Vous avez la patate? Vous avez la pêche? Vous avez la banane? Do you have the potato; the peach; the banana? Each is a clever way to ask: Are you bright-eyed and bushy-tailed today? Oui, j’ai la patate. Every language has its apt idioms.

Students scrutinize the fashion of their French peers. While I see few differences, they are keenly aware of every one and school me on the distinctions. Their shoes. They just look like sneakers to me. Their jeans. Everyone wears skinny jeans, even the boys. Their jackets. They’re longer and actually match their outfits. Their hair. The guys have a lot of quiffs. What’s a quiff? It’s like a whoosh or a puff. Oh, you mean like a pompadour. My fashion eyes are definitely too old.

The students negotiate the topiary labyrinth at Chenonceau, more interested in the grounds than the interior of the chateau. While they visit the donkey farm to the side of the sycamore-lined entryway, I discover an elegant orangery-style restaurant tucked behind the cafe. I’m off in a daydream, imagining a romantic dinner with my husband in the not-too-distant future. Although this is my fourth visit to the castle (my first was in ‘78 with Joe, as students freezing on motorbikes), Chenonceau never fails to charm. I send my stateside travel partner a text: We must return and stay at one of the village’s ivy-covered inns; Chenonceau now has a gourmet restaurant!

The chateau boasts two magnificent gardens designed by the two women in King Henri II’s life: one by the mistress and one by the wife. I choose the one that’s more shaded and compact, that of her majesty, Catherine de Medici. Daffodils, hyacinths and other early spring blossoms have made their way into full color, so different from the austere, pallid portraits of the queen inside the castle. The persona I assume is Diane de Poitiers, however, the beautiful, fashionista mistress of the king, twenty years his senior. The original cougar, I think with a chuckle; a fitting observation by a woman who just turned sixty. One day, some day, I’ll morph into Diane at a costume ball, despite the fact that her calculating ruthlessness is about as distant from my personality as I can fathom. But that’s what masquerades are about, no doubt.

The gardens are now under a soft, spring drizzle. I envision royal steeds trotting up the sandy lane to deposit me at Chenonceau’s drawbridge from a gilded coach. But I’m brusquely yanked back to the present as a student calls from behind a colossal planter: What time do we have to be back on the bus, Madame Bohr? Are we late?

My travelers are astounded by the size of the four chateaux we’ve visited. Wait ‘til we see Versailles, I say. Versailles? I can’t wait to go to Versailles. Part of Kim Kardashian’s wedding was there! Some things my students say make me less proud than others.

***

We’ve made it to gentle, lovely Normandy and Brittany. Apples and butter, Camembert and cows. We’re in the land of crêpes and galettes. No drama, no high emotions today, not until we reach the D-Day beaches tomorrow. For now, I revel in the calm of Mont St. Michel’s cloister, an oasis in this spikey medieval stronghold and pilgrimage destination jutting out into the English Channel.

This place looks like a French Hogwarts, and this would be the dining hall. Perfect. Dozens of seagulls soaring overhead — look how cute they are up close! So, Mont St Michel was first built in the 700s? That’s over 1,000 years ago! Your math skills astound me, I confess.

 What would our nine days be without a rude French waiter – actually quite difficult to find these days. Monsieur Méchant, my students call him. They’re using one of our vocabulary words! Mr. Mean.

While they’ve learned to appreciate some French delicacies (poulet confit, profiteroles, pork rillettes, chicken liver pate, un croque monsieur), they occasionally fall back on the familiar.

That may be the worst sandwich I’ve ever had. Ah, so you’ve learned an important lesson, non? Never order a baguette called The American in France!

We amble down the steep, corkscrewed lanes of the abbey and then through the village below. As I point out the rustic Mère Poulard bistro, famous for its fluffy omelettes Normandes, we manage to bump, very literally, into a working film crew. They push us aside. Make way for the star.

Hey, they’re shooting a film – wow, a French actress! Do you know her, Madame Bohr? I think it’s just a commercial or there would be more cameras, right?

We stand and watch two takes, gawking from the sides of the cobblestoned footpath, as the thirty-something beauty performs a soliloquy on a cell phone. Our brush with Gallic fame for the day. I Google the actress that evening – redheaded French actress with blue eyes. How many could there be? And there she is: Audrey Fleurot, of Les Intouchables, Midnight in Paris and a yet-unknown film shot on Mont St. Michel.

I had no idea you spoke so much French, Madame Bohr. You can ask directions and read the signs and talk to our guides and order food. And you can even order wine.

Thank God for that. J’ai la patate.

 
 

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A Rainbow Over Chambord

How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree? Wide-eyed wonder abounds as we tour the City of Light and then head for the Loire Valley.

I saw the Eiffel Tower first! Look, Notre Dame! OMG, Nutella! Nutella crêpes! Nutella milkshakes! Is she a supermodel? She’s definitely a supermodel. He must be French. He’s wearing a scarf.

Having endlessly extolled the virtues of a genuine French baguette – crunchy on the outside, chewy in the middle, ever so slightly burned on the bottom — I suppose I’m to blame for two students buying two-foot long baguettes and downing them as we stroll the boulevards. All part of the culinary adventure that is France.

I thought the Mona Lisa would be bigger. That statue’s just famous ‘cuz she has no arms. Hot chocolate is only 2 euros! And they serve it with whipped cream! I definitely want to study in Paris. I just love the Seine. Can we do a boat tour?

Time to leave the hurly burly of the city and her anxiety-producing, camo-clad, machine gun-wielding guards, for the hinterlands. So many chateaux, churches and country pleasures await.

Why don’t Chartres’ spires match? Is the stained glass really 1,000 years old? Did people actually live in these chateaux? It’s freezing inside! But look at the size of the fireplaces.

Just in time, we’ve escaped a quick spring squall in the mellow light of a salon de thé. In the shadow of romantic Chambord, I’m enjoying a crêpe with a student: crème de marron for me, caramel du beurre salé for him. We savor our final bites, the skies clear and a perfect arc en ciel materializes from one horizon to the other across the grounds of the chateau. Nathalie, our French tour director, stops at our table and suggests a title for my next book: “A Rainbow Over Chambord.” Pourquoi pas? Why not?

What are those huge trees? Why is their bark peeling so much? Are those trees in the square dead? They look like angry old people shaking their fists. Why do they cut off all their branches?

I recall the first time I saw the closely pruned – pollarded – French trees in the seventies. They made me sad, looking as if they’d been abused, the barren sentinels barred from reaching their natural height and breadth. But as I learned back then, such drastic cropping yields lush lollipop trees in summer, providing thick, summer greenery and dense, cooling shade. I explain to my students about the trees and this leads to discussions of French rationality and affinity for order, English versus French gardens, the philosophes, and the French penchant for debate. All because of an angry black tree in a village square.

I love this hotel! The one in Paris was way too modern. This one has charm. Our room is so cool. It has a back door! On peut sortir? Can we go out, Madame Bohr?

I steal away on my own after dinner – I leave through my own back door — to lose myself in reverie and take a solo look at the chateau. Azay-le-Rideau, built on a human scale, one of my favorites. Grand enough to be called a chateau yet small enough to be accessible. I imagine myself living there, tapestries warming the walls, carpets softening the floors, surrounded by a duck pond. On my own for a few minutes, I’m transported back to the ‘70s, conjuring the feelings of the romantic young student I was. Smitten then; I’m smitten now. My beloved France.

Once again, time to board the bus. This time amid uncontrolled giggling. “Qu’est-ce qui se passe?” What’s going on?” I ask. They can barely speak. “The bus driver. Peeing by the tree. I saw things I didn’t want to!” Cackles. Guffaws. Innocents abroad. Innocence in France.

 

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2016 in France, Passion for French, Travel

 

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The Travail of Traveling Abroad

It’s departure day, Friday, March 25, and our long-awaited trip to France is about to begin. We arrive at Dulles with our navy and silver Education First (EF) backpacks, excited but subdued. The violence in Belgium just days ago hovers. The exuberance of the youth I’m accompanying, however, quickly overcomes any pallor and my excitement rises. Delta whisks us from Dulles to JFK to begin the five-hour layover for our flight to Paris. My always-hungry adolescents make multiple trips down the interminable airport hallways in search of their next round of Panda Express, Shake Shack and Jamba Juice, despite my reminders that we’ll have dinner and breakfast on our flight.

While my charges explore, I stay put to watch a blood red sunset to the west. “It’s a beach sunset,” declares an adorable French youngster, face pressed against the terminal window. I’m grateful for his mellifluous chatter that readies my ear for the nine days of French to come.

We board the 767 and my Tylenol PM kicking in, I can’t wait to pass out for seven hours on my travel pillow, under a red felt blanket. My students are of a different mind. “OMG! Mockingjay!” “They have The Walking Dead. I can’t believe it!” “Look at all these movies!” “Are they FREE, Madame Bohr?” “I am so binge-watching all night!”

So much for my entreaties to get some sleep.

“You’ll all be walking zombies yourselves tomorrow morning,” I lament. Full bellies notwithstanding, they speculate about what’s for dinner and plan their watching strategies.

An overnight flight between us and the exuberance of the evening’s departure, I awaken semi-refreshed to glum faces, tussled hair and bleary eyes. We snake for well over two hours through the post-Brussels passport control maze at Charles de Gaulle and then finally, after spying and retrieving a temporarily lost suitcase that has inexplicably landed in a pile of unclaimed bags, exit the confines of the terminal for our entry into France.

Amid some moans, groans and yawns, I remind my fellow travelers that the English word travel comes from the French word travail. Work. Yes, travel can sometimes be a lot of work.

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in France, Passion for French, Travel

 

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Travelers’ Tales Awards

I’m so, so excited! Just heard from Travelers’ Tales that my writing won 3 awards — each was an essay adapted from my book. So rewarding to get some validation that I should continue to write…
Here’s the beginning of the press release my publicist sent out:
 
BETHESDA, MD, March 5, 2016 — Marianne C. Bohr has won honors in three categories of the Tenth Annual Solas Awards. Awards were just announced by the contest sponsor and travel writing publisher, Travelers’ Tales. More than 200 entries in 21 categories competed to win in this year’s contest, honoring excellence in travel writing. Bohr won awards for three travel stories.
 
“A Wide-Eyed Schoolgirl” won a Silver Award in the Travel and Transformation category for the best story about the inner journey or pilgrimage.
 
“The Tour du Mont Blanc” won a Silver Award in the Travel and Sports category for her account of a seven-day, 105-mile hike on the famous trek along Mont Blanc Massif.
 
“The Marrakesh Express” won Honorable Mention for a story about traveling Morocco by train.
 
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Posted by on March 5, 2016 in Travel, Uncategorized

 

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Amazon Reviews

A fellow She Writes Press author posted this on her web site and I just love it. Every little review is so very helpful and so much appreciated.  Thanks to all who have posted already. I’m up to 27 and need just 23 more to reach 50. May I count on you? I would be so very grateful.

Bisous,

Marianne

review poster

 

 

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Language Faux Pas

My latest HuffPo entry:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marianne-c-bohr/language-faux-pas_b_9228250.html

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2016 in language education, Passion for French, Travel

 

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Where in the World?

Where in the World?

My family of four is scattered all over the world this week. When I click Find My Friends on my phone, the entire globe must fill the screen before I can see all our faces.

I’m burning the home fires in Bethesda, Maryland; my husband is in Augsburg, Germany on business; my son is where he resides in Los Angeles; and, my daughter has left San Francisco for a two-week solo getaway to Thailand. For now, the four of us inhabit, very literally, disparate corners of the world. But despite our peripatetic lives, we’re in contact often, with emails, amusing texts, and FaceTime chats — brief but important touches that bridge the distance and strengthen our emotional bond. It fortifies our family cohesion when we share what we’re doing accompanied by daily tidbits that say I love you, I miss you, I’m thinking about you. This frequent, heartfelt communication has me thinking.

Is it just the four of us connecting differently and more often than I ever did with my family growing up? Or is it the communication tools at our ready that compel us to use them? For me, without a doubt, it’s the former. My grown children are my companions and confidantes in ways I never was nor ever will be with my parents. My strict Catholic upbringing required children to listen and not be heard, to obey and not question. Parents retained the upper hand and their offspring, no matter their age, were expected to nod and comply.

No, I’m afraid that even if we had email and smart phones, texting and ichatting in the sixties and seventies, my parents’ communication, and that of many of their generation, would have remained top down, transactional, measured, with their offspring. No sharing of silly emoticons or inside jokes. No quotidian questions because they didn’t really understand or even want the details of what we did day-to-day. In our relationships. In our jobs. With our friends. The gap between parent and child – the chasm in my case – was never to be crossed. It’s just how they thought good parents should be.

But in my husband’s and my home, the mark that initially divided youngster and grown-up effortlessly blurred like a line on the beach as my children grew into young adults. I’m certain that in many families, the gulf between generations remains. But from what I see and experience in my world, parents and children not only relate and converse in meaningful ways, they actually enjoy each other’s company, even if spending time together means foregoing time with peers.

And if our interaction isn’t sufficient proof of intergenerational solidarity, our children even revel in our music – the Beatles, the Eagles, the Stones, Billy Joel. And for all of this, I’m so very grateful.

NYC Oct 14

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2016 in family, Travel

 

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One More Page Event

To all my friends in Northern Virginia:  I’d love to see you at my book talk at One More Page Bookstore in Arlington on Thursday, January 28 at 7pm! Please see the link below for details…

http://fcnp.com/2016/01/19/marianne-bohr-speaks-at-one-more-page-books/

 

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2016 in book event, Uncategorized

 

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Digital Journal Article

An article about “Gap Year Girl” in Digital Journal:

http://www.digitaljournal.com/life/lifestyle/op-ed-fears-of-travel-don-t-bother-gap-year-girl-author-marianne-bohr/article/455149

 

 
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Posted by on January 18, 2016 in France, Passion for French, Travel

 

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