One of my pieces about my April 2015 trip to France with a bus load of middle schoolers made it onto the Boomer Cafe site. So excited for another writing opportunity!
Category Archives: France
The students are restless with anticipation as the TGV pulls into the Gare Montparnasse. We transfer to a bus and instantly, the broad boulevards of Paris put us under their spell. We check off the requisite sights and snap away with cell phones and cameras through tinted bus windows.
The bulk of our tour group takes off for Versailles, but my students and I, not satisfied with windshield views of the most beautiful city in the world, remain in town to do some deeper exploring of quartiers far flung. All of us, including me, climb onto the proud steeds of the carousel at the base of the Eiffel Tower and enjoy laughing and being adolescents together.
Young people are fascinated with the Pont des Arts, the pedestrian bridge that arcs from l’Academie Française across the Seine to the Louvre and where lovers swear eternal devotion by attaching padlocks and throwing the keys in the river. My Boy Scout leaves a lock for his mom and the girls inscribe one with all four of their names. Perhaps they’ll return one day, I muse, with sweethearts not yet encountered and be reminded of their first time in this romantic city as middle schoolers. “Oh, that’s way too hard to think about,” says one of my boys when I share my thoughts, but I can see the girls light up and start imagining.
The metro leaves us at the base of the Montmartre hill and we hike up to the Place du Tertre in the shadow of Sacre Coeur. I know the artsy vibe, endless shops and inexpensive, red-checked tablecloth bistros will appeal to young teens. The girls eternalize the experience by having charcoal portraits sketched by artists on the square and the boys purchase tchotchkes as if drawing from endless souvenir funds. “How will you fit this all in your suitcases?” I ask them. “Oh, we’ll have a Paris miracle,” they reassure me.
The pièce de résistance of most trips to Paris is going up the Eiffel Tower. My group ascends at dusk — the ethereal heure bleue. I wait on a bench near the base as they pay for the privilege of walking up to the second level and then riding the lift to the top. Since the beginning of the new millennium, the lacy structure sparkles for five minutes on the hour once darkness falls. I watch from below, imagining my charges’ eyes reflecting the twinkling tower lights and their spirits mesmerized from within. Paris can have that effect.
Over the course of our nine-day visit, the students make surface observations and draw hasty conclusions (‘The French eat an awful lot of ice cream,” they deduce. “No, it’s actually just the tourists,” I respond, chuckling.) about a culture and country they’ve witnessed for such a short time. I do my best to correct any misconceptions and hope they’ll come back on extended visits when they’re older for better understanding and deeper appreciation.
As we ready ourselves on the eve of our departure, I overhear the students – every one of them — plotting additional trips, chattering about where they want to visit next and to which places they’ll return. The seeds are sown, I think and smile, my job is done. It’s time for me to return stateside from teaching on the road to teaching in a classroom, and to Joe, always to Joe, to start filling in the details of our next trip. This time it will be the two of us heading across the pond together, and after a week of hiking the western Irish hills, we’ll be joined by our children, to explore the rest of the Emerald Isle.
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.”
Over subsequent days, our tour takes us west along the coast of the French Riviera and then north, deep into Provence. We stop in Cassis, a picturesque port town and take a boat ride through the Calanques, narrow inlets cut into the lofty limestone rock bordering the Mediterranean. The boys are fascinated by what they see: the mini-cruise is a paradise in which young imaginations can run wild. They argue about which cliff is best for diving — “this one; no, that one with the tree on top is the coolest” — until they spot waves crashing into the stone remnants of battlements and explain to anyone who’ll listen how such structures were the first line of defense against bygone marauders. Scuba divers below shoreside boulders become Aquamen and the boys compete by voicing ever-eerier visions of underwater caves. Rock climbers relish the Calanques and those we spy become Spidermen in the mind’s eyes of my boys.
The girls simply sit back and scan the scenery, taking it in quietly while futilely brushing blowing hair from their faces and wrapping their fleeces tighter. “It’s chilly on the water, Madame Bohr!” they declare and imagine themselves frolicking here in summer heat.
I overhear an amusing exchange between my father and son travelers as we head back to the harbor. “You’ll never see water this blue,” says the Dad, to which junior promptly replies, “What do you mean? I’m looking at it now!”
Our boat ride etched on our list of trip favorites so far, we head to the pebbly beach next to the bustling town square and I reassure the kids as they carefully pick their way close to the water, “We’ll have plenty of soft white sand once we reach the Atlantic.” The cobalt sea is restless and freezing cold but the students are determined to splash in the Med. The girls wriggle into their bathing suits à la competitors who’ve learned to change out in the open next to athletic fields. They slide on bikinis over their jeans and tees and then wiggle out of and roll down their clothes till they’re off. I’m reminded of my daughter in her soccer days, regularly slipping in and out of her sports bra and uniform without benefit of a changing room. The boys are more timid and less accomplished at changing au naturel and ask me to hold up a towel so they can disrobe (Mr. Always-Prepared has one in his backpack). They seem to forget we’re in France where little if any clothing is de rigueur on the beach.
In Aix-en-Provence, a university town an hour north of Cassis, the girls enjoy the carousel in what will become a string of colorful wooden horseback rides across the Hexagon. The boys continue their quest to sample as many sweets as possible, devouring their second ice creams of the day. The kids are all brave language troopers, even those who are studying Spanish and not French, and take pride in ordering food on their own. They’ve been daring about trying French specialties, including escargots, and have perfected the art of asking for take-away ice cream and crêpes, now sugary staples of their daily diet since they’re incapable of ignoring the ever-present, always beckoning snack stands. One student occasionally errs and states “Je porte” instead of “Je prends,” thereby saying, “I’ll wear” instead of “I’ll have” followed by whatever food he’s ordering. But merchants understand him nonetheless.
The cover of my forthcoming travel memoir features a picture Joe took of me sitting, knees hugged to my chest, on a fountain in Aix when we lived here for most of one summer. I return to the scene just off the Cours Mirabeau, the town’s main boulevard, nostalgia threatening to overtake me as I reflect on how our lives have changed since the photo was snapped three years ago: we moved back to the states, I started a new career teaching French, Joe resumed his career building ships and now I’m bringing students to my beloved France.
Our brief, couple-hour stay in this young, cafe-rich, energy-filled town is over far too quickly and we’re back on the road. How fortunate I am to have stayed awhile in years past and made such picture-perfect places like Aix my home. As I watch my adolescent troupe once again scramble onto the bus, I make a wish that in the future, they’ll be as lucky as I’ve been with lots of opportunities to travel the world.
One of the funniest episodes I’ve ever witnessed on my European travels plays out on day number two. It’s early Easter morning and old town Nice is deserted, save the procession of parked vehicles lining the constricted streets. Our bus driver eases brilliantly through the tight squeezes until we meet a challenge he just can’t negotiate. A car is clumsily parked on an angle, its rear end jutting well into our lane. We approach but there’s no way we can pass the offending vehicle and we’re too far down the alley to safely back up. He futilely honks a few times in an attempt to rustle up the owner, but no such luck. When Guillaume suggests we move the Volkswagen ourselves, all on the bus chuckle, appreciating his humor. After a few more blasts of the horn, however, Guillaume gets up, cocks his head, and announces, “You do know I’m serious, don’t you? Do you want to go to Monaco? But I wonder if you have enough American muscles to move this car,” he speculates out loud. “I don’t know if you can do it.” And thus, the Franco-American challenge is on.
The bus doors open and all males spill out, including our driver. In a matter of seconds, biceps bulging and “bravos” beseeching, the car is slowly raised and then promptly plopped down three feet onto the sidewalk. Triumphant and proud, the two-dozen member EF pumping iron team clambers back on the bus amid applause and unbridled laughter. With Guillaume’s particular brand of encouragement and ingenuity, I wonder, might France have prevented the Nazis occupation?
We visit the Fragonard perfume and soap factory at the base of the hill town, Èze, where our busload quickly exchanges its supply of euros for fragrant gifts. I’m so fond of Èze and its breathtaking views over Cap Ferrat and the Mediterranean, and I’m remembering a stay there almost twenty years ago at the Château de la Chèvre d’Or on an anniversary trip with Joe. Guillaume gives us the option of staying down below and foregoing the hike up the hill. I ignore some initial jet lag grousing from my group and insist we all make the climb. I notice that no one’s complaining, however, once we’re rewarded with the panorama up top.
Monaco is next and I have two students ask, “Is Monaco a city in France?” When I tell them it’s an independent state and that the beautiful blond American actress Grace Kelly married the Prince of Monaco in 1956, they ask, “Who’s Grace Kelly?” I realize I have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do over lunch to catch them up.
The girls continue to delight in the simple joy of being silly together and when one student’s Monegasque ice cream cone drips over her hand and down her arm, you’d think it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. One of my boys is ever the scout, always prepared. Need hand sanitizer, he whips it out. The instant it starts to sprinkle, his rain poncho materializes and he slips it over his head. Need change for a five-euro note? He forks over the coins. Whenever a question is posed, he’s ready with an answer (and he’s usually right). I recall that on the flight over to Nice, when I headed back to the toilet, there he was asleep: black silk shade over his eyes, head perfectly poised on his navy fleece neck pillow with plugs in his ears, his red Delta blanket pulled tight to his chin. My thirteen year-old charge appeared a mature, experienced traveler until you noticed the well-loved Pillow Pet panda he’s clutching in his lap.
I’ll do almost anything to go to France. Today I’m heading off on an Education First (EF) student tour on a plane full of teens, six of whom are under my care. As I anticipated, there’s nothing like being with youth to bring back your own. The excitement begins the minute we reach our departure gate and I let them scatter to buy food on their own. Just wait till we get to France, I think, and they’re able to wander cobblestoned streets without me.
I have four girls and two boys in my group, as well as one father, and when we reach Paris, we’ll join others to form a total of 50 – a full busload. I watch the girls sitting on the multi-colored airport carpet, their cell phones dangling from the power tower charger behind them, carry-on goodies and backpacks scattered. They’re oblivious to the world around them as they play cards, giggle continually, and periodically burst into belly laughs. The boys sit on chairs, content to be absorbed in their cell phones, delightedly telling me they’re playing tournaments and “hacking” into friends’ games. Without a doubt, I identify with the thirteen year-old girls and delight in their unbridled, innocent, all-consuming friendship as they hold hands across the aisles once we board the plane and make funny photo story montages on their phones, each one laughing harder than the next. How do I say “my best friends” in French, asks one girl who does not take French.
I win the lottery of overnight travel and score a middle of the plane seat assignment with the entire row to myself. I wake-up refreshed when the lights signaling breakfast come on. I’m doing well on this flight to Europe, having perfected my overnight routine: an eye mask, earplugs, a Tylenol PM and a glass of wine. I’m out for the duration, even before we take off – a good thing, since I’ll be in charge the minute we hit French soil.
My students awaken draped over one another, bleary-eyed from staying up too late and getting only a couple hours of ineffective sleep, having taken the bait of endless free movies. But they’re instantly alive, sharing stories of overnight discomfort as if they’d undergone an epic adventure.
The almost constant rituals of affection continue among the girls as the plane lands – they so remind me of me at that age. I was never more content than when with my buddies, all of us promising to be forever friends. But as I now know, life has a way of enabling broken promises and I haven’t seen my middle school “besties” since I headed off to a high school many towns away. But vows of loyalty have remained intact with my closest high school chums – those from the days when all I wanted or needed were my girlfriends. These deep bonds of youth have endured. And now that our nests have emptied, we see each other regularly and we’re back to where we started, at ease, sharing stories, and giggling nonstop.
My spirited charges and I pick up our bags, meet our tour director, Guillaume, and as we head for the bus, one of the girls declares: “Oh, we’re in Nice? I wanted to go to Nephew!” It’s typical adolescent humor that always makes me laugh. My “tween” travelers are negotiating those tricky years between being children and full-fledged teens and for now, they appear quite sophisticated as they resolutely walk out into the southern sun of the Riviera and enter France for the first time, their luggage dragging behind.
After a quick tour of vieux Nice, we head for the promontory above town. While I’m itching to hike up, Guillaume, sensitive to group jet lag, loads us onto the convenient elevator to the top. We’re crossing the crown of the cliff to see the vista east over the colorful port and the students spy a red rope jungle gym rising 25 feet in the air. The girls, still blushing from flirtatious attention from a tanned French teen, and the boys, fresh from debating the relative merits of becoming quantum physicists or nuclear fusion specialists, they’re instantly back to the realm of children.
“Can we go up?” they plead, “Please?”
The rest of the tour group continues on ahead as I snap pictures of my “kids” climbing and twisting in the air. Next on our spontaneous schedule is a pick-up game of soccer or “foot,’ as the French say, on a lofty, sandy lot with their new friends, Dimitri and Éliot, who before we arrived were just kicking around the ball in the dust. Two of my girls and one of my boys are excellent players and the others handle themselves just fine as well, and in minutes, there’s a lively match in progress, with shots taken at makeshift goals between backpacks. I think back on the time my husband, Joe, and I took our own eight and five year-old children to Paris and that what they remember most is an impromptu soccer game with some French gamins in the Luxembourg Gardens.
“Must be Americans,” a passerby observes and I know it’s because the girls are as athletic as the boys as they head and juggle the ball with aplomb. “Yes,” I want to reply with pride, “yes, they sure are Americans,” I say to myself and smile, as I watch the players stop to exchange names and embraces (I’m sure Dimitri and Éliot are taken aback since hugs, even among friends, are too personal for the French) and then take multiple selfies. I’m witnessing international diplomacy at its best.