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WORLD OF WORDS: The travail of travel abroad with a group of middle schoolers (1/2)

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

What is it like to tour France with a bunch of American middle schoolers? It involves travel, for sure, but also no small amount of travail, as Marianne Bohr, who besides being a writer is a teacher of middle-school French, discovered this past spring break. This month we present Part One of her lively travel/travail-ogue; Part Two will appear in August. Anyone traveling with kids this summer should appreciate.

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.

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.

“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 two 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?”

Paris impressions

A rainbow over Chambord

Time to leave the hurly burly of the city and her anxiety-producing, camo-clad, machine gun-wielding guards, for the Loire Valley. So many châteaux, 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 châteaux?”

“It’s freezing inside! But look at the size of the fireplaces.”

At Chambord we’ve escaped a quick spring squall just in time, retreating into a mellow-lighted salon de thé. In the shadow of the romantic castle, I’m enjoying a crêpe with a student: crème de marron (chestnut cream) for me, caramel du beurre salé (salted butter caramel) for him. We savor our final bites, the skies clear—and a perfect arc en ciel (rainbow) 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 château. Azay-le-Rideau, built on a human scale, one of my favorites. Grand enough to be called a château 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.

Loire Valley Tour 1

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, they tell me. Oh, you mean like a pompadour? I say. 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 château. 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 château boasts two magnificent gardens designed by the two women in King Henry 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.

But the persona I assume is that of Diane de Poitiers—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 châteaux 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.
Loire Valley Tour 2

* * *

Très drôles, Marianne! I love that you snuck in a Diane de Poitiers moment just before your charges brought you back to the 21st-century by bringing up Kim Kardashian’s nuptials at Versailles. So, did the sight of that rainbow over Chamboud compensate for your travails? And did any of your students show the potential for taking a gap year, or perhaps even choosing the expat life, one day? I can’t wait to read Part Two. —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had this kind of adventure with a group of young people abroad, and if so, were your travels full of travails? Do tell in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in September 2015 with She Writes Press. She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. First collage: Photos of baguettes, boat on Seine, and Mona Lisa via Pixabay; just how French, by thellr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Second collage: Rainbow, Azay-le-Rideau, and Cambord via Pixabay; Crepes pomme/poire du caramel au beurre sale, by Cyril Doussin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Pollards, by Garry Knight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Bottom collage: (clockwise from top left) Chenonceau gardens, by Adam Kent via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [French boy with quiff], by Reims Media Agency via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kim Kardashian, by Eva Rinaldi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Diane De Poitiers (1499-1566), via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

3 responses to “WORLD OF WORDS: The travail of travel abroad with a group of middle schoolers (1/2)

  1. Helena Halme July 23, 2016 at 4:45 am

    What a great post. I laughed so much at the students’ comments. I’ve also just come back from two weeks in Provence and this made me long to be back in La Belle France!

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