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…