Hold on tight y’all, the last two days are an incredible blur of culture, exchange and food! Yesterday we had the pleasure of our French hosts planning and entire day of activities and cultural experiences for us. We started off the day by heading down to Aigues-Morte, Aigues in the old French language meaning water that doesn’t move (or so our friend Patrick tells me). Aigues-Morte is an ancient town which dates back to the middle ages.
In 791, Charlemagne erected the main tower in the city center (photo below) amid the swamps for the safety of fishermen and salt workers. The purpose of this tower was part of the war plan and spiritual plan which Charlemagne granted at the Benedictine abbey. At that time, the people lived in reed huts and made their living from fishing, hunting, and salt production from several small salt marshes along the sea shore. In 1240, Louis IX, who wanted to get rid of the influence of the Italian navy for transporting troops to the Crusades, focused on the strategic position of his kingdom. He wanted direct access to the Mediterranean Sea. He obtained the town and the surrounding lands by exchange of properties with the monks of the abbey. Residents were exempt from the salt tax which was previously levied so that they can now take the salt unconstrained. The walls around the city are incredibly well preserved and the land surrounding Aigues-Mortes are the salt marshes from which sel de mer balaine (http://www.labaleine.fr) a salt we all know and love, comes from.
Our next stop, was a tour of said lovely salt marshes in a fantastic white train that drove around the entire property for an hour. We learned that fleur de sel, flower of salt, is a salt that forms as a thin, delicate crust on the surface of seawater as it evaporates. It has been collected since ancient times and is used as a finishing salt to flavor and garnish food. The name comes from the flower-like patterns of crystals in the salt crust. It can only be collected when it is very sunny, dry, and with slow, steady winds and is thus produced in small quantities. Because of this and the labor-intensive way in which it is harvested, it is the most expensive of salts. We got to see the fleur de sel up close and the marshes around Aigues-Morte are particularly stunning in that because of how pink they are! Pink salt marshes are more common than you would think, but this one was particularly special because it has pink flamingos wading in the water and they match in color!
After our visit to the salt marshes, we also arranged to go see a very special event – bull sorting! The French cowboy was officially born 100 years ago in the Camargue in the south of France in Provence. The region is the ancestral home of the black Camargue bull, the smallish white Camargue horse (and the normal-size pink Camargue flamingo). Camargue cowboys are known as gardians, and like their American counterparts they herd cattle. Cattle ranches are called manades which is the French translation of manado, or herd, in the local Occitan language. The gardians of Camargue are the guardian angels of the bull herds. The bulls are free range and wild. Thus, domesticated wild as I tried to translate to the kids (this whole day was mostly given in French and I served as a make-shift interpreter…I’m curious about taking some interpreting courses now:) The gardians don’t participate in rodeos like their Wild West counterparts; they ride all day long to catch calves for branding, take bulls from the pastures to the paddock abrivado in Occitan and to the arènes or rings where bulls and men defy one another. Bulls are mainly bred to become kings of the arènes during the courses camarguaises. Courses camarguaises are the local version of bullfighting without the blood. With the help of a hook (rasset) the guardian tries to remove colorful ribbons artfully pinned between the bull’s horns. Gardians, bulls and horses are also fixtures of the fêtes votives, the annual patron saint celebrations of the hundreds of villages in and around Camargue.
We broke for lunch at the bull ranch and had the kids participate in a cultural-linguistic exchange by playing telephone. We sat them in two circles, A/F/A/F, and passed common sayings around the circle. One saying in French and then one in English, waiting to see what the final sentence each group ended up with was. The results were quite entertaining. We finished off with a rousing round of karaoke, as one of the last sentences we passed around was a Mylie Cyrus (I know, I’m sorry, the kids were less in to proverbs that Mylène and I would’ve liked) lyric. We were quite warm after that (so warm yesterday in fact that we had to make sure everyone was dressed appropriately so they wouldn’t overheat), we headed down to a small port on the ocean to let the kids run around for some free time before heading back up to meet our French counterparts for the evening. I must say, the heat this week has been unseasonable according to every person I’ve spoken too, though they all seem to say that each year it only continues to get hotter (I thought NY was hot in August but this has nothing on that).
This morning we broke off into small groups with each adult and visited cafés to have a brunch/breakfast experience. The goal of the activity was to try to get kids engaged in the French language and have them order in the target language. My group did well. We actually visited Les Halles, which is the local French market in town (most towns have one) and I purchased my favorite kind of cheese (a soft young cheese aged in hazelnut oil), a baguette, pain au chocolat, croissant and brioche. Afterwards we headed to the café next door and ordered some fresh OJ and hot chocolate We really enjoyed tearing our bread to bits and taking turns dunking it in the hot chocolate (one of my favorite ways to eat breakfast in France). The kids had a bit more free time after that before we headed to the Musée Fabre.
Mylène organized a guided visit of the museum (translated by yours truly) which used to be the royal middle school of medicine. It was connected to the Faculté de Medicine in Montpellier (the oldest in Europe) and also home to the first pharmacological program as well. It has been renovated and housed the museum of contemporary art for the last 4 years. The exhibit we saw was by a Belgian artist named Wim Delvoye which represents a giant and functional human digestive system in the form of a machine which you can feed and that produces waste. Known for his inventive and often shocking and repulsive projects, the Cloaca, is probably Wim Delvoye’s most famous art installation. Before creating Cloaca, he focused mainly on wooden sculpture. His pieces took inspiration from the 17th century Beaux-Arts and modern day materials. He has carved an entire cement mixing truck int he Beaux-Arts style out of wood (photo below).
In this exhibit, he has 10 different machines that mimic the action of the human digestive system and converts food in feces. Real food is dropped down a funnel into a meat grinder (simulating the teeth) twice a day. Then, viewers can follow the food as it makes its way through a series of glass containers containing human digestive juices and enzymes, which represent the various stages of digestion. At the end of the tract, the machine produces feces which are then vacuum-packed and sold in translucent boxes. It took Wim Delvoye eight years of consultation with experts in fields ranging from plumbing to gastroenterology to construct the machine. Each one of his machines as well, is artistic in that it resembles some type of modern advertising or slogans. His machine #5 looks like a giant Chanel #5 bottle, number 7, Mr. Clean. It’s really fascinating to see how he has blended art, commercialism and science all into one project. The kids were a little grossed out at first, but as all we were looking at were the designs of his machines and not the machine itself, they were ok. After being presented the exhibit, they participated (the first school group ever to do so actually) in a workshop in which they used iPads to take pictures of their favorite machine design and then to create a slogan using 18th century design and modern cultural references. They really enjoyed this, Aidan and Roman winning the contest (judged by our guide) by turning the machine shaped as a suitcase into a James Bond-type-reference.
After that, we had a little more free time before sending our kiddos off to their host families for the evening and then having a lovely adult dinner with Mylène in town. We’re not with kids tomorrow as they’ll be spending the days with families, so for now, this is my last blog! We can’t wait to see you when we get back! -SB