The Displaced Nation

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

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 Two of her lively travel/travail-ogue; anyone traveling with kids this summer should appreciate. (Miss Part One? Find it here.)

We are now four days into April and my students and I have been to Paris and to several chateaux in the Loire Valley. Amid some moans, groans and yawns, I’ve been reminding them that the English word travel comes from the French word travail. Work. Yes, travel can sometimes be a lot of work.

That said, we’ve already had plenty of enjoyable moments, including the rare sight of a rainbow over the Château de Chambord. Our French tour director, Nathalie, suggested this as the title for my next book: A Rainbow Over Chambord.

And now we’ve made it to gentle, lovely Normandy and Brittany. Apples and butter, Camembert and cows. No drama, no high emotions today—not until we reach the D-Day beaches tomorrow. We’re in the land of crêpes and galettes.

And 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 pâtéun 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 have reached Mont Saint-Michel, a spikey medieval stronghold and pilgrimage destination jutting out into the English Channel. I revel in the calm of its cloister, three arches of which are open to the sea.

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 say with a smile.

We amble down the steep, corkscrewed lanes of the abbey and then through the village below. As I point out the rustic La Mère Poulard Café, 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 IntouchablesMidnight 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 (I’m in the mood).
Brittany and Normandy

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,” I say. 

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,” I say. “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, honoring the Americans who died in Europe during World War II, 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 to my charges Nathalie’s suggestion that each of them 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.

My students 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.

Omaha Beach

“Do my spring-breakers understand what happened here? For that matter, do I or any of us truly understand?”

In the end, what will they remember?

The end of our nine-day trip looms.

I recall being 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.” I applaud their progress.

There has been plenty of hilarity and silliness followed by moments of reflection and illumination.

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.
Eiffel Tower by Night

* * *

Brava, Madame Bohr! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this account of your travels/travails with your students. C’était très drôles! Like you, I also wonder whether this trip will have a long-lasting effect. If only we could track your charges over the next ten years: how many will take gap years, become expats? You’ve certainly done your bit to point them in the right direction! —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.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. First collage: (clockwise from top left) Audrey Fleurot à l’ouverture du Printemps du cinéma à l’UGC La Défense, by Georges Biard via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0); Normandy cow and glass of wine via Pixabay; Tidal Plains from the Cloisters Mont St. Michel Abbey France, by amanderson2 via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); La Mere Poulard, Mont St Michel, by John Mason via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and view of Mont Saint-Michel via Pixabay. Second collage: Normandy American Cemetery via Pixabay; and [untitled – Pointe du Hoc], by Scott via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of Paris by night via Pixabay.

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