Medieval towns, salt marshes and bulls

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

 

Il fait chaud!!!! (88 degrees to be exact)

What a glorious day we had today! Started off at school at 9am, so all of us got a chance to sleep in a little bit more, yay! We met up with our French correspondants and one of our exchange teachers, Patrick, who is basically the French Miguel Negron. We took a nice 30 minute nature walk to the local park called Lac du Crès, which is a nearby village to Jacou. Patrick had arranged for our kiddos to do a sort of team building activity in which they had 40 minutes to run around the beautiful lake pictured below, and find 20 different “bornes” or stations which had different hole punches at each one. Once the kiddos were able to locate the bornes with their topographic maps, they had to match the corresponding number on the hole punch to the corresponding box on their paper and make a mark. They worked in pairs with their correspondants which made for some great exchange time and navigating of linguistic barriers. Despite the heat, all of the kids really seemed to enjoy the activity which then had a second and third “épreuve,” or challenge.

For the second challenge, the kids had to respond to 5 questions in French, however, the responses had to be written in English. This made for a lot of great gesturing for us to watch on our end as teachers. Finally, after completing that challenge, students had to run around the lake to find three objects, the feather of a duck, a sprig of thyme, and a branch from an olive tree (as they were surrounding the entire area). The highlight of that activity was seeing Roman coming back with not only a small branch, but almost an entire limb of an olive tree waving victoriously in the air!

After the challenge, we were quite hot, so we headed over to the shade to partake of some lunch, fill up our water bottles and then have a France vs US world cup match of soccer. Both teams had to stand up and sing their national anthem (I assisted our young men in this effort) and then the games were off. Sadly to say that France overturned us in this round, but I am sure that we’ll have time to get at least one more match in before our visit comes to a close. We bade farewell to our French counterparts and headed up to the tram and back into downtown Montpellier.

We wanted to give the kiddos some time to cool off before heading back out into the hot sun for FISE. So at the suggestion of Mylène, we headed to the local centre commercial and Mark and I sprang for some fabulous ice cream. The catch however, was that I stood at the counter and made each and every one of them order what they wanted in French. Thankfully, the staff found us to be incredibly charming and laughed all the while and applauded the French efforts of our students! Woohoo! The ice cream was also served in the shape of a beautiful flower, photo below, and really hit the spot on this hot hot day. We turned the kids loose in the mall for about an hour and then headed down to FISE which was on the water canal running through the center of town.

The games weren’t entirely in action before dinner, but there was some extreme skateboarding, scooter, rollerblading and wakeboarding to be watched. The kids were able to even participate in some of the activities, the best of which being when they piled in groups of three into large cylindrical shaped bubbles and tried to tread water. The result was something akin to watching kids (and some of the chaperones) in hamster balls spinning round and round while raucously laughing. Please enjoy all the photos below. Sadly, my phone died at about this point and I didn’t get any more pictures of the final events of the evening 😦 though I am sure Adrianna has some to send over whatsapp!

We finished of the evening with dinner at Bistro Romain with all the French correspondants and their families. Liam and Lucas took very brave steps to stand up in front of all of the francophones to thank them for their hospitality and generosity in this visit. They both did swimmingly well and didn’t falter at all in the target language! A great moment for both of them! After dinner the kids continued the FISE festivities with their French counterparts and went down to hear some of the live music and video action. We bid farewell for the evening but can’t wait to meet up again to see what our French correspondants have planned for us tomorrow. They are in charge of the day’s activities again, and I’ve been promised its a cultural experience they won’t forget! À très bientôt! -SB

Qu’est qu’on a passé une belle journée aujourd’hui!

Wow, where to start about what a full day we’ve had today! We started off meeting at our MS school and then headed off for a 15 minute walk to the tram which would take us to downtown Montpellier. All along the way, Mark and myself were rushing the kiddos just a bit to make sure that we made our tram on time, but alas, we rolled up to the station just in time to see the tram and wave goodbye! Mark and I took the moment with the kids to visit the idea of cultural norms, timeliness and how our expectations of how things can and should go, are going to be very different on this trip. We wanted to impress early upon the kids, the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings and observing the way that people in another culture interact in order to prepare our learners to attend classes at the MS later in the afternoon (which went swimmingly well).

After arriving downtown, we started off on our guided tour of the city. Students learned about The Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth and its markers can be seen through the city of Montpellier (photo). We also studied the architecture of the city, and noted how most of the buildings were constructed from limestone, as Montpellier was/is an important port on the Mediterranean from which many resources are still derived. Many of the shops we saw were at one time houses, but as the city grew, buildings got higher and higher. The shops remained downstairs but housing was made above and some the lowest levels of buildings date back from the Middle Ages!

We visited an old building, maybe one of the oldest in the city, I didn’t catch that part, where we saw the Gargoyles on the front of the house which were designed to represent the head of the family. We visited the well inside the house where our kiddos learned that well water was more for washing and not drinking back in those days, and that because of this, people drank more wine and beer than anything else, which is how both of those things came to be important parts in the French culture. In addition, we also noted that it was difficult to find storage for goods, and perishables were kept fish with the aid of salt! There are many, many salt marshes south of Montpellier.

We talked about how Montpellier became the meeting point from whence the French king would collect taxes so the facades and staircases of buildings were altered to show off. In fact, silks fabrics were even dyed with Rouge de Montpellier, worms crushed from oak trees to make red dye! We all got a bit squeamish about that!  After finishing our tour up with a view from the top of the l’Arc de Triomphe, we headed down to give the kids some free time in the town. Some headed off to exchange money, others for a meander around town, and then we headed back to Jacou for a soccer pause and afternoon classes.

Attending classes was easily mine and all of the other adults’ favorite part of the day. Before even being allowed to attend classes, the principal of the school came and gave a speech about the school itself (which I translated for the kiddos) and the information they received was shocking to some. Our kids were surprised to learn that in this MS, drinking, eating and using cellphones is strictly prohibited, to the point where if any of those infractions occur, a parent needs to come to school for a meeting with the administration. They learned that students have two hours of classes followed by a ten minute recération, then two more hours, followed by an hour pause for lunch, then two more hours, followed by a fifteen minute recréation, and then the final two hours of the day. At Jacou, students are only allowed to use the restroom and talk to other students during recréation, they are not allowed to leave campus without an adult to accompany them, and the rules of discipline are strictly enforced by a vie scolaire, or student life, administration. They had so many good questions and in particular about about laïcité, or the separation of church and state. In France, not observing or making space for and representation of religion in school, is part of the daily norm. Their ears really perked up at this, and they immediately began asking questions such as, “what if a student is Muslim and they want to wear a hijab,” “what if a teacher is,” “what if a student needs to leave for prayers on Friday afternoon, then what?” This was the moment at which I was most proud of our students, seeing the emphasis they placed on respecting the values of other traditions made me feel like we’re really doing something right as a community. However, they were shocked to find, that from the French perspective, not observing any religious holidays or codes, was, from their point of view, also representative of equality. It’s a conversation we continued to have long into the meeting, but alas, they had to leave for afternoon classes!

Students were divided into groups of two or three, per French class regulations, and they attended two periods of afternoon class. Before attending the classes they also visited several other classes in session, so they could see what was expected of them in terms of behavior. In France, comportment is managed in a much more extreme fashion; students do not regularly talk in class, they do not work in groups. Class is often lecture based and the students take notes, listen and follow the instructions of the professor, usually situated at the front of the class. This was quite an about-face for our kids who are used to dialoguing, working with others, interacting in 1-to-1 exchanges with teachers, and being able to advocate their points of view. We didn’t have a lot of time to discuss any of this following their visit because they were all so eager to depart school with their correspondants.

The bell rang for the end of the day and Mark and I were hard pressed to get all of them together for a quick debrief for tomorrow as they were all eagerly surrounded by their French peers and vibrating to take off for another evening in the country side. Today has been such a joy from and educational and cultural perspective, can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings! Gros bisous! – Sarah

 

Arrivés à Montpellier

Hello Parents ! We are safely arrived in Montpellier after a very uneventful (yay) trip across the pond. We had a good time knocking around the airports and arrived on time to the MS in Jacou without a hitch. We sat and refreshed ourselves for just a moment and shortly after our host families arrived with cakes, cookies and drinks that they had prepared for our welcome. The Mayor of Jacou even came to welcome us to the town and made a lovely speech about how he hopes that this experience will be one that the students carry with them for the rest of their lives.

It was very exciting to see our kiddos interacting in the new French-dominant environment. I am really looking forward to hearing about how their evenings in host families will go tonight, it was such a pleasure to see some of them trying to interact with their host parents in the target language! Once all of the students were off with their families, the adults headed in their respective directions. Tomorrow we will be meeting up at the MS at 7:55am. From there we will be walking to the tram which takes us to Montpellier center. We have an English-guided tour of the city, complete with a scenic view from above the l’Arc de Triomphe de Montpellier.

Our host families have kindly agreed to provide lunch for our kiddos, which Mr. Isakson will also supplement with a variety of local cheeses and breads as well! Yum! From there we will proceed back to the MS and have a meeting with the Principal and AP of the school. Our kids will get a run down of what daily school life is like, and then it’s off to class for the rest of the afternoon! Students will most likely not be grouped together – due to class size restraints – so they’re in for a real taste of what being a middle school student in France is like. So many authentic experiences in such a short time!