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Category Archives: language education

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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Language Faux Pas

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

 
2 Comments

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

 

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A Passion for French

My August column for The Displaced Nation:  thedisplacednation.com/2015/08/21/world-of-words-how-a-mysterious-passion-for-learning-french-has-shaped-the-life-of-writer-marianne-bohr/

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2015 in apocopes, language education, Passion for French