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Semster in France adventure nearing its end

November 19, 2013

France Pope audience 13

Semester in France students are shown on one of their many excursions. Here they are in Vatican City awaiting an audience with Pope Francis.

Things have been exciting for all of us in France. I should point out that after we completed our Paris trip all of us went on our own to a variety of destinations throughout all of Europe. Here is a list of the some of the exciting places that were visited by my trusty “baker’s dozen” of European explorers: Ireland, Italy, Poland, England, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Croatia, Turkey, and Greece. One even went to the USA to participate in her brother’s wedding. Each of the adventurers has a marvelous story(s) to share about their experiences in those countries. I will let that story-telling to them and will focus my report simply on our experience in Paris.

Now where do I begin and how do I can I make sure that I do justice to the wonderful time we all had in Paris? I hasten to point out that this was “study abroad” so the learning that took place was enormous to say the least. These young students worked very hard on this trip and had specific assignments that they will report on in the last few weeks of classes. So this was not just a holiday. It was learning at its finest. I must point out that Gerry Honigsblum (our art history instructor and academic director) and Eric Sepich (program administrator) were absolutely amazing. Gerry is a 17 year native of Paris and was able to have us experience so many good things that most folks never get to see. His program was thoughtful and deliberate with some very high goals for our students. Eric on the other hand has the ability to point out other facets of the city that are also of great interest to our students. Places like the good shopping areas or the “hippest” parts of town and some of the better night spots. As a team they put together a “purposeful” adventure that will serve thee students well for years to come. A hearty “hats off” to both of them for a job some flawlessly done! It was exceptional.

In fact rather than give a day by day accounting of what we did I will try to simply focus on some of the most significant highpoints of our trip. Please note that these are not in chronological order or order of importance. They are simply my recollections of how the various actives played out for our group.

1) Our arrival in Paris: After a 5 hour train ride from Toulouse to Paris we arrived at our hotel. Our first order of business was to learn a little about the metro system so we took a metro ride to the Passy metro station. As you go from the Bir Hakim station to the Passy station the metro train becomes elevated and crosses the Seine River. About half way across the bridge we were advised to look right---and there it was in all of its lighted metal glory---The Eiffel Tower! There was a collective gasp from the group and we knew we were in Paris. It was a magical moment. We got off at Passy station and made our way to the tower and just reveled in being there. Some of the more emotional members of our group actually teared up a bit. For many this was one of the greatest highlights of the trip.

2) A day at the Museums: Now this was a spectacular day. We visited three major museums. The Louvre, the d’Orsay museum and Rodin’s museum which also was his home in Paris. Now obviously the Mona Lisa is at the Louvre and was of great interest to all of us. But the history of the Louvre is also quite fascinating. It was originally a fortress. But then it became the Paris Palace for the Kings of France. However, King Louis XIV did not particularly like Paris and was suspicious of his subjects—so, he moved to another location—Versailles. Well, the Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums; and, to even try and list the masterpieces that are found within its walls would be an injustice. There are masters from many centuries and pieces of artwork that date back to Egyptian and Roman cultures. Suffice it to say that everybody in our group found the time we spent at the Louvre to be quite worthwhile. But, that is just the beginning because we literally grabbed a sandwich from a street vendor and were off to our second museum –the Museum d’Orsay which is across form the Louvre on the left bank of the Seine River. This museum is likewise very impressive in that it was originally built as a railway station. When completed it was mentioned that the architecture of the building was too good to be a railway station—so eventually it became a museum. This museum is likewise filled with a variety of masters most notably the impressionists. Many of the works of artists like Monet and Manet are found displayed in this museum. After spending a few hours at the d’Orsay it was time to move to museum #3—the Rodin museum. Actually, this museum was his home in Paris as well. Rodin was noted for being a sculptor and most folks are familiar with a specific piece of his work entitled “The Thinker”. At his museum his gardens are full of many of his impressive pieces of work. This museum created a very nice change of pace for all of us and introduced to yet another great master. Then finally, to end this very busy and art-filled day we all attended an exhibition of the work of two current artists at the Gallery Mona Lisa. Here the students had the opportunity to visit with two Paris artists who were active in the current art market. They could watch as potential buyers viewed and commented on the works and had a chance to personally engage with the artists to find out more about their work and life style. This truly was a great day in that it tied together many of the things we have been talking about in our classes at the Priory.

3) Dining opportunities: Throughout our stay we had some wonderful opportunities to try new and exciting dishes. One that many of us enjoyed trying was escargot (snails) and they were really very good and everyone who tried them—liked them. . But we were also treated to Couscous in the Latin Quarter and to falafel in the Marrias section of Paris (or Jewish quarter). And, we had lunch at a great restaurant named Chez Papa. In every instance the food was simply wonderful.

4) Special events/locations: There were a number of very special events that we participated in while in Paris including:

  • A mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral on Sunday. The church was packed with people for it was the feast of Saint Hubert (the patron Saint of hunters). The standing only crowd was treated to a mass that included music from the great organ and a series of horn selections in tribute to the hunting celebration. The mass was quite ceremonial and as a result quite long. But it was a special mass conducted in a very special place. This was unforgettable.
  • A riverboat tour on the Seine River. We were treated to a nice riverboat ride that allowed us to see many of the historical and architectural wonders of Paris while slowly meandering down the Seine. Does it get better than that?
  • It keeps getting better! We visited the Palace at Versailles—now there are some fancy “digs”. The hall of mirrors is a room you can’t forget. And, the gardens are spectacular. Louis built this Palace because of his distrust of the citizens of Paris. The Castle of Versailles is one of the largest in the world with 700 rooms, more than 2,000 windows, 1,250 chimneys, 67 staircases and 19,800 acres of grounds. Now that’s a house!
  • The Luxembourg gardens. This inner-city oasis of formal terraces, chestnut groves and lush lawns has a special place in the hearts of Parisians. Napoleon dedicated the 23 gracefully laid-out hectares of the Luxembourg Gardens to the children of Paris, and many residents spent their childhood prodding 1920s wooden sailboats with long sticks on the octagonal Grand Bassin pond, watching puppets perform Punch & Judy–type shows at the Theater des Marionettes du Jardin du Luxembourg, and riding the carrousel (merry-go-round) or Shetland ponies. The gardens are a backdrop to the Palais du Luxembourg, built in the 1620s for Marie de Médici, Henri IV’s consort, to assuage her longing for the Pitti Palace in Florence, where she had spent her childhood.
  • The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile is one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Élysées.
  • The Champs-Élysées is one of the best known boulevards in the world and we walked it for a few blocks and marveled at the architecture along the way. The stores and luxury shopping sites also interested a few in our party—but they were lookers not buyers!
  • A visit to the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Most everyone enjoyed looking and buying some unique books.
  • A visit to Montmarte (the mount of martyrs). Montmartre is a historic area on the Butte, home to the Basilica of the Sacré Coeur. Montmartre has always had a history with artists and has many studios and cafés of many great artists in that area. Picasso spent time there along with Braque and others. It is called the Mount of Martyrs because it is said that St. Dennis (a bishop of Paris) was converting the pagans to Christianity and was beheaded. But, he picked his head up and walked up the Mount with his head in his hands and continued to preach. Thus the mount of martyrs.

5) Remembering: One of the highlights of our Paris trip was to a WWII site where the Nazi regime executed 1800 members of the French resistance. A retired French navy captain made arrangements for us, which included meeting and talking with a 91 year old woman who joined the French resistance when she was 18 yrs. old---about the same age as our students. She shared personal recollections of the executions and was moved to tears as a result. This woman was amazingly healthy and spry physically---climbing the cobblestone hill in shoes with a slight heel. She looked and acted like someone 25 years younger than she was. We actually visited the execution site and had the students place flowers on the exact spots where the resistance fighters were shot while the remainder of us stood where the shooters would stand. Then, Jerry (our leader) took us into the museum and read some “last letters” from these 20 year old anti-Nazi freedom fighters. As part of the execution process those about to die were allowed one last letter to family. It was extremely moving and at times caused our leader to get a bit choked up. The letters were remarkably lacking in hate and bitterness and at times asked their family members not to hate all Germans. Then the 91 year old lady who lived this offered additional testimony pointing out that family members of resistance fighters were often taken hostage and executed in proxy. She noted how fearful she was for her family because of her involvement.

After being involved in such a moving tribute we then walked a short distance to the American cemetery in Paris for taps and the lowering of the flags. This is the only cemetery in France that has the bodies of military personnel killed in world wars I and II. After the flags were lowered we all very proudly sang the star spangled banner. All of the students commented on this as being a highlight for them and thanked Jerry for making this opportunity available to them.

That is a snapshot of many of the highlights that we were fortunate to experience. Obviously I can’t include everything we were able to do—it just would be too much to read. Now summarizing this experience has been and is difficult. I feel very strongly about the value of what we were able to do and am at a bit of a loss of words on how to best describe it.
-Bob Lowe