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Read about the busy week our Semester in France students had!

October 18, 2013


Ambialet 10 18 13

We have now been in France for a month and about one third of our experience here has been completed. Just as I think we have seen the best ---it gets better. I last mentioned the special event that was held here at the Priory on the feast of St. Francis. That was truly special and awe inspiring. It was a wonderful and moving experience.

Last check-in I mentioned to you how skilled Tim and his staff are in orchestrating this semester of discovery—well, they continually reinforce that with each new adventure. I could cite you example after example of how they make every moment here purposeful. I am a business guy and things like “return on investment” and “value added” have special meaning for me. Paybacks, profitability and margins have always mattered to me in my professional career. So, as a numbers guy I measure success a bit more critically and deliberately than most—I have been trained to do that all my career. But here each new day makes me feel like I am in a master card commercial—the only word I can use to explain this is Priceless!

But now let me just say a few words about my other companions. That is the 13 students who are here with us and who are the direct beneficiaries of the planning that goes into this body of work. I call them our “baker’s dozen of European explorers”. This group of 12 young women and one young man are truly a unique blend of personalities, interests, opinions and talents. Many of them were strangers to one another when they started this trip—but it is obvious that they (we) will be life-long friends as a result of this trip. They have truly bonded and really do look out for one another. They are a hardworking, enthusiastic, spirited, fun-loving, serious minded, inquisitive, caring, spiritual and did I forget to say talented group of amazing 20 somethings. My wife and I have come to value their wit and sensitivity and have become extremely fond of each one of them. At the end of my report I will share with you a story about one of them which is reflective of the type of students we have at SFU—truly amazing! Please excuse me if I constantly refer to our students as “the kids”. They are not kids by any stretch of the imagination. They are wonderful young adults who are seeking their way. But since I am in my 60s and they are in their 20s—they are still kids to me.

Well let’s begin the week. Monday and Tuesday were intense days for the kids. There were tests in economics and French as well as presentations that were due on Tuesday for their art history class. Also, they needed to have 14 chapters of their religious history class read and be prepared to offer their interpretations for discussion in class. Then add to that they have on-line midterms and papers and they had to get ready for our excursion that left sharply at 8:00 am on Wednesday. They managed all of that quite well and on Wednesday we started to the village of Carcassone.

In our religious pilgrimage class we have been studying the Albigensian Crusade. This crusade centered on the conflict between the Catholic Church and a heretical group known as the Cathars. This section of France played a key role in this 13th century 20 year event. Carcassone is one of the cities that were instrumental in the history of this event. Carcassone also is one of the finest examples of a still intact walled city in Europe.

After lunch we boarded the bus and moved on to the city of Barcelona in Spain. Upon arriving at Spain we checked into our lodging facilities and then went for dinner at a buffet entitled Vaca Paca. The meal was wonderful. After dinner the students (and us) were able to stroll some of the streets of Barcelona. Specifically we strolled along the street La Rambla. It is a vibrant street that becomes active after 9pm with throngs of people and a variety of street vendors. It is very alive. After a stroll it was time for some rest and to prepare for the next day.

Our first full day at Barcelona began with a walking tour of the old section of the city with us arriving at the Sagrada Familla (Basilca of the Holy Family) for an extensive tour. Part of our class work deals with architecture. One of the most famous architects in Spanish history is Gaudi. Gaudi’s work includes the Basilica which still remains unfinished and is expected to be completed in another 20 years or so. The Basilica is breathtaking and when we entered as a group you could hear the collective “WOW”.

After our tour and lunch—the students were given a lesson on how to read a Metro map (subway system) and told to figure out how to get back to the hostal at which they were staying. Then they were to meet the rest of us at another Gaudi site, Casa Batillo at 6:30 pm for a tour. Casa Batillo was Gaudi’s home and is an architectural masterpiece.

We then had dinner at a restaurant named Tapa Tapa (Tapas style). What a great dinner. We spent nearly 2 hours at the restaurant and few of the kids tried some new dishes (raw oysters was one). Then free time to stroll and back to our rooms.

Today was a special day for our tour group because it expanded. We had four visitors join us. They are Dr. Pete Skoner and his wife Diane and Melita O’Donnell and her husband Tom. They were obviously very tired since they arrived after an overnight flight from Philadephia. However, they were troopers and joined us in our Friday pursuits. Our day began with by meeting Mercedes Rogla (a young working female artist) at her studio. She explained her art form and shared examples of her work with us. She also talked about the high points and low points of being a working artist. We were all impressed with her as well as her work. After our time with Mercedes, we had lunch and then headed for the waterfront. At the waterfront we took a gondola ride high above the city to the mountain top museum of Miro. Miro is one of the best know painters of Barcelona. His work is unusual and thought provoking.

Then the students were given another quick lesson on how to use the Metro and were told to find their way back to the Hostel and get dinner on their own. Then they were to meet at a site just off La Rambla at 9:30 for a Flamenco dance show. The dancers were just phenomenal!

The kids were on their own for the morning. They were required to find a cultural site other than one we had scheduled and be able to report on what they found. The purpose of this and the metro exercises is to build the skills they will need to navigate major cities when they are on their own during the break. They were also to get lunch and then all meet at the Picasso museum at 12:45pm. This museum was simply amazing. Picasso had so many changes in his art form that he appeals to virtually everybody. Check out the website I have included and on the right side click on the museum for some more details about the painter and his work.

After completing our tour we went to another Gaudi site named Parc Guell. This is a massive park that comes alive with musicians and street vendors. In keeping with Guadi’s genius the place is really very cool---kind of a Dr. Suess feel. Your really need to check this website. Everybody without exception found this place to be OUTSTANDING! Park Güell is a garden complex with architectural elements situated on the hill of El Carmel in the Gràcia district of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. It was designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and built in the years 1900 to 1914. Then it was dinner on your own and more La Rambla.

Time to leave Barcelona. We boarded the bus at 9am and headed for Figueres and a tour of the Salvadore Dali Musuem. His style is somewhat similar to Picasso. The museum was beautiful and there was a band available in the courtyard for entertainment. Again, check out the website for details about the painter and photos of his work.

We continued on our trip back to Ambialet with one more stop. This stop was a great way to end our tour. We visited a small French village near the border with Spain and had lunch at a vineyard. You could not ask for a setting more French than the one we were in. Lunch was in the garden and consisted of sausage, pork, pasta coleslaw, fig tart and of course bread and wine. The owner of the vineyard was a transplanted Australian. That’s right we are near the border of Spain and France drinking wine made by an Australian and it was fantastic! Then we toured his winery and he explained some of the requirements for making good wine. This man had quite a personality and everybody just loved the guy. You might say it made for a GOOD DAY MATE --- get it?-- good day mate—Australian—that’s a joke! After this fantastic lunch we rambled back to Ambialet some 4 hours later arriving at 7:00 pm.

When we returned we arrived to a fine dinner and yet one more special treat. One of our students Brandyn is quite an accomplished young man. He is a competitive cyclist, he is earning his pilot license and he is a recorded pianist. And, he is also a PA student which is quite rigorous. I think you would agree that’s pretty neat. So after dinner he played for us in the stone room. He actually played some of the most favorite songs of our guests (by memory-no music) and brought a tear to the eye of one of them. What a nice way to end the trip!

Now in summary:
1) We toured a great walled city named Carcassone.
2) We walked La Rambla numerous times.
3) We visited a great beautiful Basilica.
4) We visited the funky Gaudi house.
5) We visited the studio of the working artist named Mercedes.
6) We took a ride on the gondola over a beautiful city.
7) We visited the Miro museum.
8) We visited the Picasso museum
9) We visited the Parc Guel on a beautiful sunny day.
10) We visited the Dali Museum.
11) We had lunch with an Australian wine maker.
12) We ate great Spanish food .
13) We drank Sangria.
14) The kids learned how to move around a city.
15) We saw street musicians of all kinds.
16) We experienced Flamenco dancers.

Now you tell me how do you describe that to somebody? How much is that worth?
It’s priceless!

Out for now! I don’t know whether to say abientot or adios—I’m conflicted.
Bob Low