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Semester in France students return home

December 13, 2013

 It is Dec. 9 and the next few days will be filled with preparation for coming home on Dec 12. So, I want to file this, my last update, with you before we leave for home. The last few weeks here at Ambialet have been quite busy. First we are all working hard to make sure all of our academic requirements are being fulfilled. So, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Thanksgiving week were filled with classroom activity. All classes were held and some projects were completed. Then on Wednesday it was time to start getting ready for the Thanksgiving feast. About 45 people came for our dinner and there was a great deal of preparation required. The students helped prepare the ingredients for the stuffing and began to set up the stone room for the expected crowd.

Then Thursday was about tradition. The students engaged in a game of football at Peter and Margret’s home. Although I was not able to attend one of the students (Kilee) provided this summary of the game: Her review of the game is great as you will see below (thank you Kilee):

“Wednesday night, we picked teams by drawing a number out of Niccolo's hat: either a 1 or 2. To say the least, team 1 was stacked. On team 1 was Katie, Taylor, Brandyn, Erin, Krzysztof, Sara, Lisa, and Tori. Team 2 consisted of Kaylee, Courtney, Bridget, Eric, Alix, Katrina, Emily, and myself. After lunch on Thanksgiving we went up to our rooms to get "suited up." We all were decked out with face paint and the whole 9 yards. After some pictures out on the terrace, we headed down to the field (or mud pit) by Peter & Margaret's house. Team 1 kicked off first. Let's just say that team 2 lacked some defensive skills, and offensive skills too for that matter. At the end of the game team 1 had 4 touchdown and team 2 had 2 touchdowns. We decided to play tackle football which made the game so much more fun. Luckily no one got severely injured. Emily has a little brush burn on her cheek from when Katie tackled her face into the mud, but we're all alive!! We were all caked in mud within the first 5 minutes of the game. Christohpe, Brandyn, Katie, Taylor, and Eric were known as the bulldozers of the game. During one play, Brandyn ran through both Emily and I and was finally tackled by Eric. Brandyn "left a trail" of people behind him in the mud. The mud definitely added to the game. We had to get Alix and Erin a little muddy after the game because they were too clean :) The surroundings and view of the mountain made the game so much better. There's not many times in your life when you can say "I played football with my French family along the Tarn River with the mountains in the background." Definitely an experience we all won't forget.”

Then it was time for our feast. Our three main cooks (Tim, Eric and Bernard) prepared a wonderful array of Thanksgiving foods that were enjoyed by approximately 45 people who attended. Our menu included appetizers as well as some of the traditional dishes that are expected on Thanksgiving. The chefs prepared five (5) turkeys. Keep in mind that French turkeys are smaller than those we find in the United States. We also had three different types of stuffing (chestnut, hazelnut and mushroom). We had fresh cranberries as well as cranberry sauce. Mashed potatoes, corn, carrots, greenbeans almondine, corn pudding and; of course, pumpkin pie and apple tarts were also on the menu. In addition there was plenty of red and white wine and fresh bread to complement our meal. It was a fantastic feast. We all began to gather around 7:00 pm for some appetizers and wine and began the meal just before 8:00pm. We dined and talked for nearly two hours. It was a magnificent event and a good time was had by the students and the guests. Although many were a tad nostalgic for home on this holiday, being with this wonderful group of people in this magnificent setting was helpful. The room was filled with conversation and laughter—it was amazing – a truly wonderful Thanksgiving!

Friday through Monday is considered a travel weekend and some of the students (about half) went away for the weekend. They went to London and Dublin.

On Tuesday and Thursday of our last full week it was classes as usual and preparation for final exams. However, on Wednesday we went on our last excursion to the Toulouse Lautrec museum in Albi. Toulouse Lautrec was born in Albi but spent much of his life in Paris. His immersion in the colorful and theatrical life of Paris in the late 1800s yielded a collection of exciting, elegant and provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times. Toulouse-Lautrec – along with Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin– is among the most well-known painters of the Post-Impressionist period. This museum houses the largest collection of Toulouse Lautrec’s work in the world. In addition the museum is actually the restored fortress of the bishop of Albi and is in itself a wonderful building to visit.

On Wednesday evening we had another of our excellent wine tasting classes. This time it was wines from the Rhone region of France. Again, we had plenty of cheese and bread to complement the session.

On Friday we had two special events. First, some of the students decided they wanted to be “polar bears” and take a December quick dip in the Tarn River. Although I was on record that I thought they were nuts-I still went along to serve as one of their photographers. They made the mad dash into the Tarn and proudly (but coldly) proclaimed their accomplishment! They returned to the monastery to the warmth of a good hot shower and their blankets.

Then on Friday evening we had a Christmas talent contest with everyone demonstrating their singing, dancing, rapping, story-telling, or comedy skills. It was really a very fun-filled evening of creativity. Brandyn won the competition with his original Christmas song dedicated to his Ambialet family. But there were a lot of close second place finishers.

On Saturday it was time for a little more fun in the city of Toulouse. We visited the Christmas market and its splendor. Of course some of us enjoyed the hot wine. But all of us enjoyed the displays of all the Christmas crafts and food that were available. This truly helped all of us get into the Christmas spirit and get some last minute gifts.

Sunday evening we had a very special two part program in the Chapel. The first part was an advent ceremony that involved some of the local children. There was singing and a procession of the children to set up all the characters of the Christmas crèche. The second part was a concert provided by the local community choir. They sang a variety of classical music pieces as well as some Christmas tunes. The Chapel was packed. The choir itself numbered around 30 and there must have been an additional 100+ folks in attendance. After the concert everybody came to the monastery for hot chocolate, hot wine and snacks.

On Tuesday evening (Dec 10) Peter and Margret led all of us in Christmas caroling in the village of Ambialet. I can’t think of a better way to say good-bye to this lovely village and its inhabitants who have welcomed us into their town so warmly and graciously.

Now that brings me to the end and a few comments that I would like to share that express the feelings of my wife (Darlene) and myself regarding our stay here at Ambialet.

First we will be forever grateful to Saint Francis University (and particularly Julie Horvath) for making it possible for us to participate in this most wonderful experience. We can’t begin to list all of the great things that have transpired. The site at Ambialet is simply amazing—you have to be here to even grasp the remarkable natural beauty of this location. God’s work is truly on display here every day --and I mean exactly that—every day-- you are reminded of the wonder of God simply by being here. If you don’t –you are either dead or have no soul.

The facility here is old in a very good way. It adds to the ambiance of the location. The church was built in 1060 and for goodness sake it appears that it will be here for another 1000 years. The monastery and its facilities are updated yet maintain their old world look and are quite impressive.

The program is purposeful—everything in it has value or adds value. There is no wasted effort. It has been masterfully designed. Obviously, students gain knowledge and skill in the subjects at hand ---but they also grow individually in so many other ways that will impact their lives forever. As a result of this experience they are better informed about art history and art appreciation. They know more about French (language and culture) and have a deeper understanding of the impact of religion on the development of society. All of that is great! But they also have grown and matured as individuals— and as a result of this they are simply better-- better in so many ways. Clearly the design team knows what they are doing and are to be congratulated for their foresight and wisdom.

The trips and excursions have been simply amazing. Places like Cordes sur Ciel, Conque, Carcassone, Albi, Toulouse, Barcelona, Paris and of course Ambialet ---plus our individual break trips have made our time here a remarkable adventure that we will never forget. Finally, there is my trusty “baker’s dozen of European explorers”. Thirteen of the nicest group of 20 year olds you would ever want to meet. I could say something uniquely descriptive about each and every one of them. The 12 young ladies and one young man will always be very special for Darlene and me—we are more than fond of them. In fact we are planning our first reunion (at our home) for some time just prior to the beginning of Lent. We will have a fete!

I have been a teacher at SFU either on a part or full time basis for close to 30 years and this is the first term that I have ever had in which not one student ever cut a class - perfect attendance for the entire term. But what else could they do-- where could they go? Seriously, they have worked hard here and have played well. And, you will notice that they are different people when they come home. They are better in so many ways. Not only are they better educated, they are better citizens of the world. They have matured and have developed a greater sense of independence. As a dad myself I understand how hard it can be to let go—but you must. When they learn to ride a bike you have to take off the training wheels and know they will be OK. When they learn to drive there comes the time when you need to just toss them the keys and simply say be safe. Is there risk in that—of course there is. But how will they grow if you don’t take the risk. At lot of that is true for this experience—letting them go overseas for three months has risk. But what is the consequence of not taking it and sheltering them too much? This experience has made them better –and, we are proud that we got to know these 13 very wonderful young people in a more intimate way. Darlene and I will always treasure the time we had with them. So parents you can be pleased that your young adult children conducted themselves in a way that should make you proud. You have done a good job in raising them and you have nothing to fear—all thirteen of them will be more than OK throughout their lives—they are a great bunch of “kids”.

So now it’s time to say farewell. Farewell to Ambialet and all of its beauty; farewell to the many new dear friends that we have made here in France, farewell to our four legged alarm system that always made us smile and farewell to the monastery and all of the wonderful memories it has given us. We had a great time—thank you and may God bless all of you always! Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

Au Revoir and Pax et Bonum!
- Bob Low