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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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Ancient Gaul, Medieval France and Spain

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.”

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Posted by on April 11, 2015 in France


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The Amusing Habits of Middle Schoolers Abroad

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.


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Posted by on April 9, 2015 in France


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Back to France, Back to My Youth

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.


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Posted by on April 5, 2015 in France


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