Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Facing History in Nantes

The semester is over, the year is new, there is ice on the ground in Lewiston (but, alas, no snow), and a new semester awaits, but before I sharpen my skates and revise my syllabi, several thoughts remain from Nantes. I developed some of these ideas in a presentation that Kirk, Ebbe, and I gave at an alumni event in Paris at the beginning of November, and it is to those ideas that I return again as a way of paying some tribute to the work we did and the experiences we shared.

It was a privilege to work and travel with these 25 students for three and half intensive months, to gain a sense of the ways that their lives and studies inform each other. More than in any other teaching experience I have had, I saw how interests and experiences shape what lessons individual students seek and which ones they shape into their own. I quote some of their work in this essay in an effort to offer a flavor of what I am talking about but also because they put some of these ideas much more elegantly than I. (I should note that students have given permission for me to quote their work in this essay.)

As a historian, I was thrilled to teach in Nantes because, quite simply, France has a lot of history. It is hard to miss this fact. As Max Arnell put it, “To be blunt, there is a castle sitting in the center of the city, and people walk by as if it was nothing. The University of Nantes was founded in 1460, and this is no great wonder. History is on a different scale here.” For others like Lewiston, Maine, native Kate DeAngelis, this awareness of France’s past was much more personal.

My grandmother has told me stories of how our ancestor Robert Giguere immigrated from Saint Aubin De Tourouvre in the diocese of Chartres to Beaupré in Quebec, Canada, in the early 1600s. I am constantly in awe wondering if I am walking on the same cobblestone roads as long lost family members and other people who have played their role in France’s history.

The personal connection differs for Raina Jacques in part because the stories are so much less complete. “African slaves were not allowed to keep their names when they were brought to Haiti and converted to Christianity. My last name, Jacques, is more than likely a name of a French planter that bought some of my ancestors during the slave trade....” This link was all the more difficult to miss (if still difficult to explain) because Raina lived near a church named after her namesake. “My time in Nantes caused me to try and understand the connection between St. Jacques and his importance for the French and Haitian people.”

These kinds of thoughts inspire others whose last names are not French, too. “Perhaps France is so inspirational,” Maud Welch asked early in the semester, “because we are eager to find our place in its extensive history?” I wondered that, too, and it was part of the inspiration behind teaching “Atlantic France,” a course that would introduce us to French history even as it also suggested some of the ways that outsiders like us might be connected to it. In Nantes, a former port on the Loire River, these connections often stare you in the face if you know where to look.

At the very end of October, shortly before students and teachers took some time for vacation and travel, I took students around Nantes on a short walking tour in search of some of the evidence of its bygone life as a bustling port. As a city at the head of the tide on the Loire, Nantes’s history is bound up with the Atlantic. Romans built the town they called Naoned because of its location between Loire Valley grape vineyards and the marshes that produced sea salt near the river’s mouth. The Dukes of Brittany built their great château there to defend this strategic port on the duchy’s eastern border with France. And at the dawn of the eighteenth century Nantes became France’s premier center for Atlantic commerce. The principal engine for this growth was the slave trade. Cloth from India and firearms from Europe purchased people from sub-Saharan West Africa who were in turn shipped to the Caribbean, where they were forced to produce sugar that was sold in Europe at great profit.

The class read about some of the details of this infamous commerce in Robert Harms’s book The Diligent: A Voyage through the Worlds of the Slave Trade. As Noah Sleeper summarized part of the book, “The slave trade, built upon a supply and demand system that was complemented by the West Africans’ already existing history of slaveholding, allowed France to expand her colonies and therefore gain influence in more areas of the world in addition to the wealth that the resources of the colonies provided.” Harms had helped us imagine some of the ways that the trade worked. I wanted us to see some of its results in Nantes, a city whose merchants would be responsible for the capture, transport, and sale of some 450,000 people from West Africa during the 1700s and early 1800s.

We stopped outside some of slave merchants’ homes on the Île Feydeau. These opulent townhouses, now leaning more than Pisa’s tower as they settle into the mud, still retain some of their splendor from the days when they were the homes of Nantes’s most fortunate residents. Ground floors served as warehouses for loading and unloading the boats that tied up right to the quays at their doorsteps. First floors served as business offices and upper floors housed families and their servants. The branches of the river that lapped their doorsteps and made the neighborhood into an island were filled in in the early twentieth century, but the houses remain as mute witnesses to this bygone era of prosperity.

And Nantes merchants wanted us to recognize the roots of their prosperity. Above the windows and doorframes of many homes on the Île Feydeau are carved faces known as mascarons. Some of them depict gods and goddesses from Classical Antiquity who were patrons of trade, abundance, or the sea. Others are more fantastical spirits or demons. My favorites included four faces, each apparently representing one of the known continents. A turbaned man seemed to stand in for India; another with a helmet looked close enough to a Classical figure to symbolize Europe; a third with a feather headdress probably personified tropical America; and a fourth with clearly African features almost certainly represented Africa. Here, then, were symbols of the four continents that provided the wealth that made this home possible. 

Their quiet smiles, though, were deceptive. With these mascarons the merchant who built this house acknowledged the importance of international trade for his wealth, but he suggested nothing of the complexity of the negotiations with African merchants nor of the pain, the work, or the dreams of the people who were bought and sold. Some students had already recognized this disjuncture between beautiful appearances and more complicated foundations in other scenes in Nantes. As Emma Hitchcock described,

I drifted up the Erdre River last weekend [in late September], on a boat tour with my family, and was enchanted by the beautiful chateaux along its banks. I could not help but think…of the slave labor and tainted money that must have played a part in their creation and histories. The stories of the many slaves who played a huge part in shaping Nantes’ history are easily forgotten. Figures such as Gerard Mellier and Réné Darquistade [two Nantais politicians from the early 1700s who promoted the slave trade], who may have had brief moments of sympathy towards Africans but mainly reaped the benefits of their enslavement, are the people about whom we have the most information. Therefore, they are the type of people off whom we base our notions of what it means to be "French".

This is a huge point: It is only when we recognize the breadth of France’s interconnection to a wider world that we necessarily recognize the inadequacies of images of France rooted solely in berets, wine, and striped shirts. Destinee Warner understands this idea more broadly when she writes, “French history is in constant dialogue with history elsewhere, and this history has profound consequences for why French people are in a sense ‘French.’” Kathy Kenlock puts a similar point in a different way, “France needs to...be inclusive of all the cultures that make up its history rather than isolating the history of its past colonial nations from its own.”

As Kathy is suggesting, by studying a history of France’s connections to a wider world (connections that are frequently quite painful), we have the chance to recognize the much greater range of people whom we might see playing a role in French history, willingly or not. In doing so, we might, to return to Emma’s observation, expand our understanding of who we understand to be “French.”

It means, however, asking troubling questions about the pain that paid for the houses we admire. It means, too, that more of us, even those “from away,” have a chance of finding ourselves in the history of this country we are visiting. It also means that we can find new meanings in the homes we saw and the names we carry. Or that we can think differently about which parts of French history appear in Nantes street signs or chocolate candies or kebab sandwiches. It means we listened with more attentive ears to contemporary Nantais’ debates about the memorial they are erecting to commemorate the slave trade and also acknowledge their ancestors’ role in the trade that made slavery possible.

This semester in a place where history is so abundant but also so hidden has highlighted just how much it is important to seek inclusive histories not just in France but in the other places we call home. I hope we continue to look at other homes, including Bates, with similarly sensitive eyes. Wherever we write our histories, our searches for inclusiveness should not ignore difference but should seek, if I may paraphrase the college’s new mission statement, to engage it.

--Professor Hall

Monday, November 7, 2011

Student Pastiches on "Letters from a Peruvian Woman"

"Aza, my dear Aza! Like a morning mist the cries of your tender Zilia rise up and have dissipated before reaching you. In vain do I call to you for help, in vain do I wait for you to come and break the bonds of my enslavement. But alas, perhaps those misfortunes of which I remain unaware are the most dreadful!..."

For my course on French identity, students were asked to write a pastiche or imitation of the novel Letters from a Peruvian Woman by Francoise de Graffigny, whose emotional opening is quoted here above. Zilia has been abducted from Peru and spirited away to France where she encounters a host of troubling, bedazzling and generally perplexing customs and behaviors. The exercise gave students some space in which to explore their own feelings of distress, wonderment and frustration. The three below--Max Arnell, Maud Welch and Kristen Poulin--captured particularly well both the cultural disparities and the melodramatic tone of the 18th-century novel.

--Professor Read

Dearest sister,

I have found myself transported, through means that I do not know, to a foreign land, which is at once similar to our own and yet vastly different. The population speaks a language which I feel familiar with, and yet when I try to speak it, I render myself useless, and become an object of ridicule for all to hear. It is very troubling.

There also seems to be little relationship between the form of the language on the page and the sounds of a native speaker. When I see a sign, reason is restored to the world. Their writing is quite similar to our own, though they often adorn the tops of words with a variety of small lines, which are termed "accents." I do not know the exact effect that these accents have on the word, but I cannot find a relationship between the written and the spoken. I am at least thankful that the alphabet appears to be unchanged. It is a familiar sight in an unfamiliar place.

When I first arrived, I seemed to be in a holding area of some sort, with many other transplanted individuals, all as confused as I. At long length, we were called downstairs by the most grating series of tones imaginable. Perhaps it was my confusion, but as of now I can think of no other sound that has such a negative effect on my spirits. As we descended the stairs, a most glorious contraption rolled into view. It was a train, but it appeared like no train I have seen in the United States. The nose was sharply pointed, and the cars well furnished and comfortable. To a devotee of New Jersey Transit, this train seemed to be heaven on rails. As we left the station, the true glory of the train was revealed. This train did not lumber along, shifting like a lost drunkard. No, my dear sister, this train flew along the rails, so smoothly and quickly that the illusion of flight may well have been a reality.

Despite the blurred landscape, I was able to discern some details of this strange country, which I have since learned is called France. It seemed to be mostly countryside, and the buildings and infrastructure appear to be much older than our native New Jersey. The houses and shops are made of stone and brick instead of wood, and the streets are so narrow that it is unlikely that Zanzibar [Ed. note: Zanzibar is the name of the family minivan, a Honda Odyssey] could pass freely. I have arrived in a large city, which, according to the signage, is named Nantes. However, while attempting to talk to the citizenry of this fair city, the name sounded more like Nant. This leads me to the conclusion that there are more than one Nant, but I have yet to find a divider. 

This city! I cannot get enough, dear sister. My eyes rove over the ancient architecture, the cobbled streets, the majestic chateau, the welcoming sidewalk cafes, and more wonders than I could list. The trams! There is a glorious above-ground rail system, reaching though the major arteries of the city in such a way that a passenger need not wait long to be effortlessly ferried from his location to his destination. Thanks to this magnificent system, Nantes would seem to have precious little need for personal cars. If individual transportation is a must, bike lanes abound, but ownership of a bike is still not necessary. The citizens of Nantes seem to possess a strength of civic spirit unmatched in New Jersey, and have developed a wide-reaching network of what appear to be bike stations. One can walk up and borrow a bike just as easily as one fills a gas tank at home, and with far less expenditure.

Pardon me for my rambling, but whenever I feel like I have adequately described my location a new and untapped facet of my experience jumps to the overactive forefront of my brain. I must now attempt to describe to you the indescribably delicious delights of French cuisine. When I first attempted to procure a meal, I was wracked with anxiety that I would purchase something disgusting in my poorly-informed linguistic folly. I need not have worried, for without fail, every dish I have tried has been more than delectable. The bread is tough yet supple, and the subtle differentiations between type and bakery beguile the taste buds. Dearest Jessie, I know that you above all others will appreciate the following sentiment: French cheese is unparalleled. The varieties are endless, and I cannot possibly hope to try them all, even if my unexpected arrival in France was permanent. I do not know how the cheese can be firm and yet creamy, spreadable yet solid. With meats, too, the French do spectacular things, but knowing of your devotion to the cause of vegetables, I will not trouble you with any more talk of this, dear sister.

The true wonder of this place is not in the food or the magical tram, but in the universal quality of the people. The people here are not so different from those at home, but lacking an effective means of communication, I am forced to watch life unfold around me in effective silence. Their language seems to be rich and full of emotion, but as of yet unintelligible. I can hear the melodious usage of words and phrases, but the meaning is far outside of my grasp. Once I am able to grasp this most difficult of languages, I will be able to share this experience with you more fully. I will continue to write to you as an awestruck erstwhile inhabitant of Nantes, but I have a great journey ahead to become a true citizen.

Max Arnell

Max (far right) with Maddy, Emma, Maud and Josh at the Eiffel Tower

Dearest Cousin,

I have journeyed across the vast Atlantic to a land where cobblestone streets are cluttered with street cafes and cheese appears to rule the hearts and minds of the people. Ada, you would be stunned by this multifaceted city! I do not know what time period I dwell in, nor what culture I have entered. Elegant 19th century facades line narrow lanes, bells toll on the hour and accordion players toss their caps onto medieval street corners. Yet, this aged world is juxtaposed with modern inhabitants moseying hand in hand, decked in red skinny jeans and striped sailor tops. They speak in a tongue with such speed, vigor and fluidity, I hardly know when their phrases begin or end. Elongated buses and miniature cars beep and burp their way through the crowds of naïve foreigners. So, I find respite in a striking cathedral ten times the size of any in the colonies. I cannot think unless alone, listening to my own imported breath, appreciating the centuries of silence.

I write to you seeking approval and counsel. When your letter arrived today, I felt as though a fragment of home were sitting on my desk. To hear your news, to hear of your life continuing with such natural progression, whilst I have abandoned all whom I love and all that I know! I flee seeking myself, hoping she will casually appear before me in this alien world. As conceited as it may sound, I am bewildered by time advancing anywhere other than here in the city of Nantes. Oh my darling friend, never have I felt such elation paired with pangs of perplexity and inadequateness. Never have I felt such pleasure in my independence, yet such desire for care and understanding.

I have found shelter within a loving family who has welcomed me with enthusiasm and attention. My daily panic is merely the fact that I cannot begin to express the extent of my gratitude. This language appears beyond my command. Just when I feel a brief instant of mastery, it escapes me. Is it truly beyond my ability? My fervent desire to comprehend my surroundings leads me to believe the fault lies within my failure to focus hard enough. My limitations lie in my insecurity. I must endeavor to concentrate, memorize and for God’s sake, LISTEN! Otherwise, I succumb to mortification.

At times, I feel like a self-imposed mute. Perhaps, a professional mime acting out his habitual movements would be more accurate. I grunt and squeak and squeal my emotions, while other effective oral communication is thrown to the wayside. I so want my sentiments to be heard, my questions to be acknowledged, and my thoughts to be weighed and judged accordingly! I appreciate the extensive vocabulary of the glorious English vocabulary more than ever. How marvelous that such a language should be engrained in us at infancy. You of all people know the workings of my mind and the wishes of my heart; please tell me I have done well to take this leap of faith. My disorientation blinds my reason.

I write from the courtyard of a chateau, one like you and I often dreamed of when we took the vows children take, strung the countless bracelets, wore the cheap silver lockets and plastic green glass rings- cementing our friendship, already tied by blood. Hand in hand we once encountered a make believe universe. Oh those rich medieval sagas of our fabrications! Cousin, shells of those pasts still reside in reality. The immense history beneath my very being, I hardly even dare to fathom now, for fear my mind with fail to do it justice.

I watch as teenage boys on bicycles pedal past me with baguettes under their arms and sheepish grins on their faces. I must remember to return their friendly nods, rather than gaze, coldly, through them. It is out of fear and perhaps folly that I do not return their greeting. The men here are forward and one must be constantly on one’s guard. For at night, this marvel of a city transforms into sloppy disarray. Groups of oily men stand, slurping their beers, wagging their tongues and rubbing their unshaven chins against their gruff, unwashed hands. Wearing black leather jackets to match their greasy pigtails and black leather boots to match their swaggering steps over vomit-covered cobblestones. I don’t understand a society that finds solace in inebriation or liberty in drunken disputes.

But, I digress. I am writing to tell you of the charms of this part of the world, enough of its repulsive aspects. This past weekend we boarded a train and voyaged to a small village. Clisson is merely fifteen minutes and two centuries away from Nantes. A castle rises magnificently above the sea of rustic, shingle-roofed homes. It is no wonder Francis II risked his life for its defense. We wandered the ruins, grasping for glimpses into its mighty past, scrambling into the mildewed crannies and inhaling the sweet intoxication of dungeon air. Looming neoclassical bridges linked a Jacques Milot’s estate to the ruins, but the romantic remains of a 15th century construction surpassed the post-revolutionary chateau in allure.

I think of you often for I know you would delight in such pastimes. I will not tell you of the delicacies of the cuisine here, for you would be envious of the products this country has to offer. The people live for their meals. It appears their cuisine is an art form, and many a civilian, a gourmet virtuoso.

I am slowly learning what it means to be French. My first lesson commenced on my first day with my patient host mother. I was not aware that all French babies are carried to their families by “cigognes”, or storks! French baby boys arrive in “choux”, their word for cabbage, and French baby girls in roses! She was dumbfounded by my ignorance. I was too overcome with joviality by her mimicking explanation to be embarrassed. And, so my education here is truly just beginning. I will write again when I have settled and recollected a sense of sanity. Please give your parents my love, assure them of my safety, but if you would be so kind, keep the contents of my ramblings to yourself. Who knows how I will regret them, when I have come to know this rich realm called France.

All my best wishes for your health and happiness,
Maud Welch

Maud (left) with Maddy at Notre Dame in Paris

Katee, my dear sister! How I do miss your face, and mother’s, and all things familiar. Why must I have chosen this? My time in France has been quite different from what I had imagined. It has only been a few weeks, yet my heart and soul equally pain as I think of how many days I must go before we reunite. Oh Katee, how I have been yearning to hear from you and to tell you of this new land in which I have arrived.

Ever since our tearful separation, I have been both confused and amazed by that which surrounds me. I will never forget my first moments in Paris where I learned that smoking had no limitations. This country seems not at all concerned with the dangers that we have associated with this horrid habit. How sick I felt having to walk through cloud after cloud, breathing in the poisonous air. Oh! And, must I even mention the absurd practice of being forced to pay to dispose of one’s bodily waste! I had not even been given the chance to look out at this new land, and yet already knew in my first few moments, that this fate I have chosen for myself would be one surely not absent of hurdles.

When approaching the city of Nantes where I plan to reside for the coming months, I found myself caught by surprise with the landscape. How marvelous to travel but merely five minutes outside the bustling city and find yourself surrounded by hills and hills of green with only cattle in sight. It would be as if Boston and our home near Durham, Maine could be found within the same two miles radius.

Oh but my dearest sister, to have never lived amongst anything close to that which holds city characteristics, could you imagine my surprise when dropped in the middle of a foreign city? The system that one uses as transportation brings to me much anxiety and confusion. I try to follow the maps and decode the colored lines and numbers, but never with much success. The buses here, with never enough seats for all its passengers, fly down and around the quite narrow streets, jostling its commuters back or forth. My first day here came with a lesson on how to use a type of travel unfamiliar to us in the States. These “trams”, as the French call them, travel above ground on a track, but are not nearly the size and capacity of that of a passenger train found in the States. They are numbered similar to the buses here, and again have limited seating. Oh, how perplexed I was at seeing these “trams” take off down the track, seeming to only stop for merely a few seconds at designated areas. Immediately, when the doors opened while at a stop, exchanges between people getting on and off the “trams” occurred at a rapid pace and before I could fathom what was happening, the doors had shut and the mass was traveling further down the tracks. Oh Katee, how will one go another three months like this? Left to travel about with only the option of being caught body to body with those unfamiliar as we stop and go and stop and go, all the while struggling to grasp an object to stable ourselves. How I miss our morning carpools to work where we sat comfortably and in control of our vehicle, deciding at leisure when to come and go from the house. My travels are not so “free” here, as I must carefully think out every trip I make and am held powerless to that of the bus and tram schedules.

Oh sister! How I have rambled on too long and yet, you know nothing of my residence or with whom I reside. The Lavanant house, whose location and surroundings would not doubt appear unusual to you, stands sandwiched amongst similar houses on a street no bigger than the width of our family’s SUV. The color is all I have to separate my new house from the others, as each one is oddly narrow and tall. Oh Katee, could you imagine my worry at first glance? Not one plant for a garden or blade of green grass! This type of crowded living is unknown to you and me. And, the parents of every household tend to occupy the room on the third floor, also unknown to us. What does one do when they become older? Must they still climb all of those flights of steps? Oh, what a spectacle it must have been to see me try to wedge my two over packed suitcases up their steep, narrow staircase. One thing you must know Katee, is that everything in France is smaller. Personal vehicles are the height of my shoulders when walking along the curb, milk and juice containers are a fourth of that bought in the States, and all kitchen appliances are but half the size we use.

Oh, but this does not just apply to objects my sister, as my eyes have been unable to seek out one overweight individual in this society. It took but only my first night here before realizing why this is so. It did not take careful observation for me to see that mealtimes were much more than a time for us to fuel our famished bodies. Oh, sister! How my first meal with the French was all too similar to those at Grandma and Grandpa’s Christmas parties. Oh, do you remember when we were younger? How we lingered around the kitchen just waiting for the hot crossed buns to come out of the oven. And, we were never able to take our eyes off of the pies in the corner of the room while we were supposed to be eating our super! Oh, how the French, of course unintentionally, make me feel as if I am that impatient child again. I am constantly reminding myself to slow down while eating, as I often am finished a good while before the rest of the family. And, must I say I am frequently left wanting seconds and thirds! Their portion sizes do not compare to those at our dinner table. I sit anticipating when the next course will come and when the dessert will finally be brought out. At home, we often eat, muttering a few words in between mouthfuls, while here, they sit chatting amongst themselves, frequently stopping to take a few bites, before proceeding on with their recount of their day. We begin supper around eight o’clock and I do not retreat to my room until close to half past nine. Oh sister, how wonderful it would be for us all to make time in our schedules for family meals when I return.

While I enjoy my time with the family, I must tell you that no meal goes without a headache. Sister, if only I could have you here with me! How delightful it would be to have someone to share in my every reflection and understand my thoughts with ease. I have so many curious questions I long to ask and so many stories throughout the day that I wish to share, but so many times I just bite my tongue, as it takes a great deal of energy to try and break the language barrier.

Oh sister, I try so hard to understand this French language and yet there are only but a few words that seem familiar and in no way help me to express myself. Overwhelmed with this constant foreign exposure, I have yet to feel rested and refreshed since my arrival nor am I able to rid my head of this pain, no doubt caused by the constant processing of my new surroundings.

Oh sister! So frequently do the weight of these obstacles before me force me to interrupt my work, as I give in to my homesickness and am unable to resist the flow of tears from my eyes. Of all my challenges, the absence of affection in French the culture will be the most troublesome to cope with. Perhaps it is just the family I am staying with, but it seems that hugging and kissing and expressing one’s love for their family is unknown in France. Oh sister! Inside, I am dying for your arms to be wrapped firmly around my neck. How I long to just be squeezed so tight by you and mother and for no reason in particular. We are constantly saying, “I love you” and hugging and kissing one another when we are just simply on our way to work or the store, returning home that very same day. Oh, I have realized how open we are with our emotions, much more so than my family here in Nantes. Dearest Katee! How long are these weeks when one is counting them? How will I go another three months without a hug? It is unfathomable to me and seems so unnatural. My soul is beginning to cry out for your comfort. All other things unknown I was sure I could adapt to and live with, but this absence of expression in society? It is for this sole reason that I know that a life in France is not a life for me.

But, let these sad thoughts leave me, for I must put on a pleasant face and visit with my new family. Oh dearest sister, please know that you and mother and my memories of home fill my every thought. I interrupted this letter many a time to gaze at your photos at an attempt to mend some of my loneliness. December 14th, the day my heart’s desire to run and leap into your arms will become actuality could not come sooner for me. I love you Katee.

Kristen Poulin

Kristen (center) with Noah, Simon and Oliver (Professor Hall's sons) and Mikayla at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. All three photos by Ebbe Sweet

Soundscape based on Madeleine M. Kamman's writing

Madeleine M. Kamman’s introduction to When French Women Cook talks of a lost France.  The France she once knew as a child is gone and replaced with a faster and louder world. In my soundscape I tried to imagine some of the sounds that might match her description of the better years, the ones that have “disappeared” and “slowly receded into time past.” But also then contrast those sounds with the new present that she is unsatisfied and uncomfortable with.

The first part of the soundscape represents the France she loved. The constant footsteps in the background match her description of the “mountains [that] were climbed on foot, not by motocars.” The chirping of the birds symbolizes “clean, fresh” air and vast sunny areas “mostly covered with blond wheat.” The crackling of wood is meant to signal the “aroma of wood burning,” that she talks about. The splashes of water are supposed to represent the “salmon, shad and eel in most of the river.” The soundscape is also interspersed with audio clips that are related to more classic food preparation. Other sounds in the first part include cracking of nuts, chewing, dings of an oven bell and food being scrapped in a pan. These sounds are all meant to represent cooking sounds from the France Kamman once knew.

The second part of the soundscape begins when the footsteps stop. All of the sudden the chewing gets louder and more frequent. More modern industrial sounds arise, like cars, blenders, horns and microwaves. The notable difference in volume level is also supposed to represent the contrast of more peaceful and calm past with a louder, more urgent present.

--Andrew Grant

Press play to begin
Kamman Soundscape by FSA Nantes

Original Kamman text:

I left France during the early days of 1960 and the France I left, my France, does not exist anymore; it has disappeared, slowly receding into time past.

When I was growing up, French cities were small, French houses were just a story or so high, unstereotyped, all different and all blaring the individuality of their respective owners. Fields were mostly covered with blond wheat to make bread, not lush green corn to make plastics; wines were bought in barrels and took a long time to mature.  The game one hunted for was really wild and I recall fondly the distinct smell of hare pelts and pheasant feathers.  There was salmon, shad and eel in most of the rivers, crawfish to be gathered at dawn from homemade traps lowered into deep cool pools, trout to be observed flowing silkenly through the clear waters of alpine torrents.  Mountains were climbed on foot, not in motorcars.  The air smelled nice; clean, fresh, and permeated with the happy essences of bread baking, the nostalgic aroma of wood burning, or the earthy smells of cattle ruminating in nearby barns.

Where are you, my France, where Sundays were gastronomic celebrations, where dinner tables were islands for animated conversations around plates of nuts being cracked and picked by nimble fingers?  Where are you, my France, where women cooked, where the stars in cooking did not go to men anxious for publicity but to women with worn hands stained by vegetables peeled, parched by work in house, garden or fields, wrinkled by age and experience.  Where are you?

Nowhere but in the folds of my memory and, in the pages that follow, I shall woo you and recreate you, bring back to life your women so that you know, dear readers, that there was once a civilization that was human, tender, enjoyable and lovable.

Maeleine M. Kamman
Newton Centre, Massachusetts
March, 1976

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bringing A Taste of Home To My New Home

About two weeks before I left for France, I was checking the syllabi for our Bates classes and checking the dates for our weekend excursions. I saw that not only was I going to be in Brittany for Rosh Hashanah, but I would also be in Paris for Yom Kippur. I couldn’t be more upset. Fasting in Paris?! I couldn’t even imagine. I emailed Professor Read immediately, and he said we would do our best to come up with some alternate solution for me.

Celebrating the Jewish High Holidays is something very important to me. At home I go to Synagogue for High Holiday services with my family. I figured that when I came to Nantes, this would be something I could do as well. I was excited to have this cultural experience of attending Synagogue in a different country. However, the more I looked into attending Synagogues here, the more complicated it became. In the end, I realized it just was not going to work out. I was really upset that one of the things that would make me feel at home was just not going to happen.
I told Ebbe about how I had given up on going to Synagogue and was going to do my own little service by myself and read some things my Rabbi was sending me. We continued talking about other ways that could make the holidays feel special for me. She told me her father had this excellent Challah recipe that we could make for Rosh Hashanah. I was so excited about this idea!

That night I talked with my host mother about the Jewish Holidays. It took me a while to explain to her in half French and half English that I was Jewish, that next week was a Jewish Holiday called Rosh Hashanah and that I would be baking special bread for the holiday. I was so excited that I had just had half a conversation in French and that I would be able to still do something special for my holiday!

Wednesday, September 28th—Eve of Rosh Hashanah.

Ebbe, Max and I went to Professor Read’s apartment to cook Challah. Google became a much-needed resource, as we had to convert the cups to liters and Fahrenheit to Celsius. One of the first steps was to put the yeast into the water. The yeast in France is different than what we would buy back in the United States. We all watched as Max poured the yeast into the water and crossed our fingers that it was in fact yeast and that we could continue on our Challah baking adventure. Luckily, it was in fact yeast and we continued on with our baking! We all took turns pouring in ingredients, stirring the batter and kneading the dough. Then we waited as the dough had to rise….

When it was ready we split the dough into two large pieces and one small piece. Max and I each braided our own Challahs and then we made a small, baby Challah for Professor Read. It was the cutest Challah I had ever seen! Again we had to let the dough rise…

Then after a little bit of time, it was time to cook the Challahs. We almost forgot to brush egg on the outside of the braided Challah to make it shiny. Professor Read quickly brushed on the egg and we put the Challahs into the oven. Professor Read’s European apartment filled with the smell of Challah. Luckily we set our timer for less time than the recipe called for, because with the French convection oven the Challah baked faster. We took the Challahs out at the perfect time and immediately started taking pictures of our masterpiece. We even made sure that we held the Challah in the perfect sunlight that was flooding into the apartment. It looked best still on the tray, sitting on the wooden floorboards. It was all very humorous watching us as we gathered around taking pictures of the Challah on the floor. 


When I got back to my host families house, I was greeted with smiles and curiosity about the food I had with me. I walked into the living room and saw they had decorated the table beautifully for me for the special day. The kids had each made me a card and my host parents had bought me a purse. Usually I don’t exchange gifts with my family for Rosh Hashanah, but it was very sweet of them to think of me. They explained to me they didn’t know what I usually did back home, but that they wanted to make it special for me. They even let me sit at the head of the table, usually my host father’s, Vincent, seat.

We ate very well for dinner that night, similar to what I would do at home. We first all tried the Challah. As I cut the bread I explained that I would say a prayer over the special bread. My family listened as I said the prayer for Challah in Hebrew. Then we each had a slice of bread to try and the kids kept saying “C'est treeees bon”. I was so happy the Challah had turned out yummy. Then we had chicken and salad that Christelle, my host mother, had cooked. After that we had the Kugel, a traditional Jewish noodle dish, which Ebbe, Max and I made while the Challah was in the oven. I was pleasantly surprised that even without the normal ingredients it tasted like what I would eat back home. Everyone liked it, except for my host sister Lisa who doesn’t like cinnamon. After that we each had an apple with honey. The kids were in absolute heaven. Christelle explained to me that now the kids will always want honey with their apples.

Although my host family did not quite understand what Rosh Hashanah was, they were happy for me nonetheless. This Rosh Hashanah was quite different from any other one I have celebrated. I was not at home and not with my family at Synagogue. Instead I was in France, with a lovely family who has taken me in as one of their own family members, eating Challah and Kugel that I cooked myself. Even though this holiday wasn’t what I expected, it was one I will never forget. I shared an adventure of cooking in a French kitchen with friends. I ate a delicious meal with a family who, even though I have known them for less than a month, cares about me as if they have known me my whole life.

This weekend I will be fasting for Yom Kippur and yes I will be in Paris. After celebrating Rosh Hashanah successfully, although certainly in a different way than I normally would, I am ready to celebrate Yom Kippur. I am going to fast. I am going to read what my Rabbi has sent me. All the while, I will enjoy the lovely city of Paris, to the extent that I can while fasting. I will adjust.

Celebrating my holidays in France is an experience that has taught me a lot. I have learned to adjust and make the best out of a situation. I have experienced something different and new and enjoyed it all the while. I have learned how to bring a little bit of home to my new home. What better way to do this than through food and sharing it with people who care about you?

-- Mikayla Foster

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Observations on Bates FSA Photographers

I've always loved looking at other people's photos of places that I myself have been. There is something so fascinating about seeing a familiar scene through someone else's eyes; each of us makes different choices in angles and framing, notices different details, and just generally sees the world in our own unique way.

Because of these differences in photographic observations and choices, I also love to watch other people take photos. In the moment that their shutter closes, I have the opportunity to see what they see, to experience the world as they do. I tend to always have a camera in my hand, and since I photograph whatever I see, it follows that I would have a lot of photos of people taking photos. I am compiling them here, so that you may all get a behind-the-scenes look at our experiences here in Nantes.

Professor Read snaps a group photo in Clisson

Emma in Clisson

Josh photographs skywards in Clisson while others look on

Ciara takes a photo of the château in Clisson while chatting with Lila and Jordan

Leena spots a classically-French house in Clisson

Maddy in Clisson

Maud at the beach in La Baule

Max shoots the challah that he, Mikayla, Professor Read, and I made last Wednesday for Rosh Hashanah

Orion in Vannes

Leena, Daniela, and Kathy photograph the entrance to the old city in Vannes

Professor Read photographs a cat in a Vannes window

Leena keeps her sunglasses from falling while shooting some flowers in Carnac 

Nathalie and Maud look out on some houses on Belle Île

While everyone else studies a large menhir, Max and Maud spot something photo-worthy in the other direction

Andrew gets a closeup of a menhir

Emma takes Maud's photo in front of the Aiguilles de Port Coton on Belle Île

-- Ebbe Sweet

Monday, September 19, 2011

Professor Read's Reflections on Our First Three Weeks in Nantes

"Everything leads me to believe that they are not from the same nation, and judging by the differences in their manners and their seeming characters, one soon realizes that Pachacamac allotted them very different portions of those elements from which he formed human beings."

Tout me fait juger qu'ils ne sont pas de la même nation; et à la différence de leurs manières, et de leur caractère apparent, on devine sans peine que Pachacamac leur a distribué dans une grande disproportion les éléments dont il a formé les humains. 

Françoise de Graffigny

Such are the initial observations of the French as told through Françoise de Graffigny's heroine, Zilia, in Lettres d'une Péruvienne [Letters from a Peruvian Woman, 1747]. A strange lot, these French. Something other than human, perhaps. They have an entirely foreign character, different manners and seemed to have gotten the short stick on a number of more civilizing traits. To be fair, Zilia's consternation is completely reasonable: she's been twice kidnapped, first by the Spanish, then the French, and the storms at sea have left her rather green at the gills.

I've chosen Graffigny's novel as an entrée into the study abroad experience as a way of making explicit some of the thrills and spills of encountering new cultures. I have been amused and touched by the reactions that some of the students have posted on the course website--many, while not feeling transported here against their will--are living very poignant, often emotion-filled days as they struggle to navigate new ways of living and seeing the world. 

Students visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Nantes

First and foremost is language. Graffigny's novel, while a robust critique of contemporary French society in all its inequities, is also a not-so-thinly veiled condemnation of the status of women and learning. Language, writing and study are central to the heroine's assimilation (or lack thereof), just as their privation is felt by many of Graffigny's female contemporaries. Zilia is certainly not illiterate, but her manner of writing--quipus, or texts knotted into strings--is as foreign to French script as one could imagine--"These knots strike my senses and seem to lend greater reality to my thoughts." She then laments of life in France: "My strange fate has robbed me of everything down to the pleasure that the unfortunate take in recounting their troubles." As my colleague Joe Hall echoed in a poignant and very widely-shared sentiment: "I am exhausted. I am working really, really hard all the time to be able to talk like a CHILD." Joe doesn't give himself quite enough credit, but the sensation of inarticulateness is one that we all share as second language learners. I have been studying and traveling in France for 30 years and still come up short when reaching for certain confidences or shades of meaning that evade my grasp. We find respite, however, often in the unspoken, unwritten ways of simply being human with other humans: laughter at a rain-soaked adventure; tears on the anniversary of 9/11; shared anger at the byzantine bureaucracies that persecute both French and foreigner alike: there is an indecipherable form and an endless line for all who need a stamp, or ticket or wifi connection.

Zilia's lot is also defined by unrelenting scrutiny. She is constantly under surveillance and assumptions are made about her that obtain, often, to the expectations of her hosts/captors and not to her personal experience or will. Our host families are generous, engaging and curious, and part of the awkwardness of cultural explanations has clearly to do with language. But much of it is about negotiating broad generalizations about one's culture of origin without falling into stereotype. The French families have proven very curious and probing about ethnic origins (interesting for a society in which it is illegal to record such statistics for official purposes) and quite reserved on issues of religion. I was asked quite directly from a host parent if she were allowed to even mention religion, a query informed, clearly, by a nation with an extremely contentious debate over separation of church and state particularly with regard to Islam. Our international and cultural diversity is a great strength, providing wonderful openings into what it means to encounter France from multiple perspectives: Saudi, US, Ecuadoran, Canadian, Jamaican, Haitian. The most confounding culture to explain, however, may well be that of the small liberal arts college experience so far from the pre-professional focus--and largely state-sponsored financial realities--of the French system! Try as we might to amass the vocabulary necessary to explain this--and health care and our treatment of the former chair of the International Monetary Fund--we inevitably fall short but keep trying.

Finally, Zilia's story is highly--one might feel overly--determined by romantic longing. Graffigny very consciously plays with the reader's sentiments with regard to passionate, romantic love as Zilia knots, and then pens, letter after gushing letter to her beloved Aza. Aza and Zilia, A and Z, poles apart, linked, tellingly, by Zilia's talents as a compelling narrator of their doomed love. While perhaps romance of this sort may visit some of those on the trip, there is the far more universal romance of cultural encounter and all of the thrill and discovery that it can entail. All of us come with expectations of what marvels might await; French society can fulfill these pretty successfully and immediately with but one trip to the local market or patisserie. But there are other romances that will be revealed and told in both spectacular and intimate ways, and I hope that we can, each of us, find ways to convey them in order to make better sense of this experience and of our own ways through it. 

We all sampled these French patisseries for Andrew's birthday

The end of Letters from a Peruvian Woman is, to my point of view, stunningly and beautifully understated. Zilia is finally reunited with her beloved Aza, and, sadly, things do not turn out so well. He has strayed and has finally made it to Paris just to break up with her. Ouch! Déterville, her protector and provider since her "rescue" from the Spanish, thinks that maybe his crush on her can finally be consummated. Not so. What Zilia wants is a deep friendship and time and space in abundance to read, write and contemplate life--a romance of the mind. Kind of like Françoise de Graffigny, but that is another story... I wish for us all such excitement but also piece of mind as we navigate the language hurdles, the unrelenting scrutiny and the awe-inspiring, unexpected outcomes along the way.

Our first dinner together at a crêperie in Nantes
--Kirk Read

Friday, September 9, 2011

Photograph Scavenger Hunt Through Nantes

On August 30, 2011, three days after arriving in France, the 25 Bates students participating in the Fall Semester Abroad in Nantes were sent out to find and rephotograph scenes of downtown Nantes. Each of the five groups had five scenes to track down. Some were quite easy to recognize; others had changed dramatically. Here is a small sample of what they found and the sometimes irreverent, sometimes lyrical, reactions the visits inspired. Keep an eye out for the time-traveling Jethro Trenteetun.


From Nathalie, Maud, Leena, Raina, and Ryan

Allée du Port-Maillard from the Château des Ducs de Bretagne

Evidently, the most immediately apparent change was the road that has filled in the river since the date of the postcard. The tram line of today’s Nantes has replaced the dirt buggy roads used by horse and carriages. Another noticeable difference between these two eras is that one dome of the LU factory has disparu. The moat is a more recent edition, as it is not seen in the original photograph. Its implementation and functionality is questionable, as one would not assume medieval attackers frequent the Chateau in modern day.

Allée de Turenne

Nantes, a major European port city during the 18th century, has clearly lost a significant part of its maritime essence. The architecture of the buildings has remained relatively untouched, with the original frames, roofs, chimneys, and balconies in place. However, the canal has been replaced, yet again, with pavement. This street has become a pedestrian hub, with frequent traffic and public transportation (as well as American students dashing between vehicles).


From Lila, Daniela, Destinee, Noah, and Olivia

This was our favorite site to photograph because of the similarity between present day and the post card photograph. We used the map to look for churches that might be in the background so that we knew the general area in which to look for this building. The church steeple seen on the side is kind of eerie but also very magical.

This is the photograph that least resembles the postcard, most clearly because the waterways no longer exist in this section of the city. In relation to the Chateau museum, we found it interesting that so much of Nantes’ history relied on the river trade and was even referred to as the ‘Venice of the West’. It was also known as the largest slave trading port in France. Yet, today, the only remnants of the waterway are the buildings, which line the street of what is now the tram, and also postcards, which depict the history, such as this one!


From Maddy, Max, Kristen, Kathy, Ciara

La Place Royale

Although most of the buildings were leveled by American bombers in 1943, reconstruction following World War II meant that this central location looks much as it did in 1865 when the fountain was built. The building on the left remains the home to cafes on the first floor. It was difficult trying to locate the angle from which the original picture was taken because another corner of the square had a similar look. The defining feature was the direction in which the seated woman on the fountain was facing. Place Royale is still bustling with life, despite its age.

A brief interruption for a Personal Reflection from a wandering Batesie:

During our visit to the museum of Nantes history at the Château on August 31, I found the exhibits “Trade and Black Gold in the 18th Century” to be the most fascinating, and thus, spent most of my time in the 18th century section of the Chateau des ducs de Bretagne. These seven rooms are dedicated to Nantes’ colonial trade, as Nantes was France’s largest slave trading port. The rooms not only depict the slave industry but also the influence of the slave trade both economically and socially on the development of Nantes. Population growth was one major effect of the prosperity brought by Atlantic trade.

Specifically, I was very interested in the horrific neck and ankle shackles that were used on the slaves. Due to my inexperience with the French language, I was unable to read much without the help of someone else. I fortunately worked around this obstacle and discovered that the shackles were only used in cases where a slave had previously tried to escape.


From Gretchen, Mikayla, Jordan, Orion, and Andrew

Standing bold and bright
Illuminated in night
Uncorrupted sight

Named after a French general of World War II, Rue du General-Leclerc-de-Hauteclocque is one of many beautiful scenic streets in Nantes. Unlike other historic places in Nantes that have gradually changed over time, Rue du General-Leclerc-de-Hauteclocque has managed to maintain its original form from when it was made, with the Hotel de Ville today seen as completely untouched and the Saint Pierre Cathedral resting eloquently right at the end of the street. Our group’s main observation expressed how the old photo of the street was practically identical to our own. With barely anything removed or remodeled, Rue de General-Leclerc-de-Hauteclocque is definitely a street that simply embraces how Nantes’ elegant past continues to grace the ever-changing present.

In the old center of town
Now the Colt’ Café

After using the map to navigate ourselves to Rue des Carmes, our group found a building on the corner of the street identical to the one in the postcard. It is now the Colt' Café, located in Le Bouffay. In the past this building was known as the "Apothecaries' House". The building still has the original timber-frame from the 15th century. It is now one of the few still standing timber-frame buildings in Nantes. The Colt' Café, painted a deep orange and cream color, is ideally placed near many stores, such as the department store La Fayette. In the past the Apothecaries' House was also ideally placed in the, now, old center of town. If you are looking for a break during a busy day of shopping, the Colt' Café is the place to go.


From Jethro, Josh, Kate, Nina, and Emma

Once upon a time, Jethro went to France. In France, he saw many things! He even did a little dance! He flew around with his wings! Then, Jethro found a magic postcard. It would take him to times before. Finally, he wouldn’t be en retard!

Historic building where music and culture collide, this opera house is a large source of Nantes’ pride!

Now, you’d think that the people of Nantes would potentially be able to recognize a part of their own city. Given, it WAS about 80 years out of date, but hey, it’s still their city. Most of our other pictures were easy to find and capture; and if we couldn’t find them, we had no problem asking some friendly local where La Rue de la Juiviere was. We stopped in at antique shops, had a bit of café au lait, and basically wandered around the centre-ville to our destinations. The hard part was this last photo. Not only had the 2 parts of the river been filled in, but the bridge featured prominently in the old postcard was no longer there. Oh, on top of that we had no address, only a mention of the Tour Bretagne, easily the ugliest thing in Nantes. Kate and Josh, after consulting with the concierge of the Adagio as to where the river had been filled in, set off to cover that ground. We ended up walking all the way up the river to 50 Otages , only to realize that we weren’t in the right place. A few blocks further and we were at the Tour Bretagne. We spotted the spires in the skyline of the photo and realized that we were exactly opposite of where we needed to be. So yet again, we trekked even further, searching for any building that looked like the ones in the photo. Eventually (we came almost full circle) to a spot we’d passed many times and twice earlier that day. We’d found our photo! There was much rejoicing. At least we only had a short walk back to the Adagio…