Paris and Beyond: Chance Encounters, Lifelong Learning

Pascale Abadie and Kirsten Halling, Wright State University

The Wright State University French Ambassador Program is the longest running professor-designed and professor-led study abroad program at our university, counting a total of 185 student participants since its inception in 2003. Over its twelve-year existence, the short-term program has developed into an on-site course on the history of Paris that traces the political, architectural, and cultural evolution of the City of Lights from Roman times to the modern era. Students visit important sites, monuments and museums in Paris in chronological order, experiencing history in the places where it unfolded. Two day trips, one to Versailles and one to Normandy, round out the program. The 3-credit course is taught entirely in French, and requires that participating students communicate at a minimal novice high level. While the language requirement restricts the pool of qualified applicants, it motivates students to take French and provides French majors with the opportunity to enroll in an upper-level summer French course. The program costs are kept low to allow economically challenged students to participate, and departmental, college and university level scholarships help students pay program and course costs.

Course contact hours include three pre-departure meetings held in the spring semester and two full weeks in Paris during the month of May. Coursework includes a pre-departure PowerPoint presentation on a cultural or historic site, an interactive workbook to enhance on-site lectures, and a post-trip blog that is linked to the official university website. Every other year, students have the option of adding a one-week internship teaching American culture in an at-risk high school in Bordeaux, the Basque Country, or another region of France. While most students hail from Wright State, enrollment is open to non-WSU students beginning mid-January. Program highlights include: following in the footsteps of French personalities such as Napoléon Bonaparte and Marie Antoinette, experiencing the ongoing debt of gratitude to the heroism of the Allied Forces during a day trip to Normandy and the American Cemetery, and learning about the French political system through a French language tour of the French Senate.

Each year, the French Ambassador Program brings chance encounters that mark students and professors with lifelong memories and authentic learning experiences. In the context of the course, students learn inside information from tour guides and trip leaders’ friends and family members, experiencing an aspect of Parisian life that most tourists will never see. When on-site seminars end, students benefit from free time, during which they meet servers, restaurant patrons, passersby, French students, and fellow travelers, with whom they practice French, exchange ideas and impressions, and even discuss politics and cultural practices.

Last January, past Ambassador Program participants followed the tragic events at Charlie Hebdo with a sense of urgency arising from their personal insight into the French newspaper business. From 2010 to 2013, Sabrina Champenois, currently the chief editor for Next Magazine, the monthly glossy periodical published by the national daily, Libération, would give Wright State students a French-language tour of the newspaper’s headquarters, introducing students to the different departments for each of the newspaper’s sections (Domestic, International, Culture, Sports, etc.). Each year, students would discuss their career plans with Sabrina around the very conference table where the paper’s chief editors meet every morning to plan the articles and themes. They learned how the newspaper is composed of page proofs, which are posted on a wall for final editing, with each article contributing to the coherence of each day’s edition. The site headquarters, located in an old parking garage, reveals the humble origins of the socialist daily paper, founded by existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. When students reached the end of the tour, at the top of the building, they were treated to a rare panoramic view of Paris from the terrace of the Libération building. After the requisite photo shoot, they enjoyed coffee in plastic cups with chain-smoking journalists who were curious about the “American invasion” of their newspaper. Unfortunately, the tour was impossible to schedule this year, as “Libé” currently houses the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, with a consequent increase in security. However, those who were able to visit the paper during the years prior to the terrorist attacks now have an intimate understanding of the sacred nature of journalism and the risks one takes in expressing one’s opinion.

Last year, another chance encounter taught Ambassador Program students a lesson about the omnipresence of history in French daily life. The day after an emotional trip to the Normandy Beaches, which were celebrating the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, students waiting in line for the opening of the Musée d’Orsay had the unique opportunity to meet a 93 year-old American veteran who had been on those very beaches. Because the students had experienced the beaches and batteries, the American cemetery and its museum, they understood the sacrifices Allied forces had made to liberate the French. This was their chance to interview someone who had been on the front lines and had survived, and was returning to France for the anniversary of Operation Overlord. The conversation was so animated that the crowd around the veteran swelled to include other Americans, grateful French men and women, and even the members of an American choir group that was to perform at the seventieth anniversary celebrations. Students learned how Sgt. Clair “CP” Martin managed to dodge bullets while his comrades were falling all around him, how his swimming expertise saved him from drowning, how he jumped into foxholes, and how he finally managed to find members of his unit, making it to the next day, and then traveling all over France and Europe as a liberator. As he recounted his memories, still vivid and detailed, tears fell into the wrinkles of his face, inspiring respect and admiration, along with poignant professions of gratitude. More than one student used CP’s photo with the group as the title page for their course blogs and Facebook pages, deeming this moment the highlight of the entire trip. History was no longer a concept, but a reality to all of us on that day.

Since 2013, Ambassador Program participants have had the unique chance to visit the French Senate and plenary chamber in the Palais du Luxembourg, a Renaissance palace built originally by Marie de Médicis and transformed into a senate building by Napoleon Bonaparte. Securing a Senate tour is a challenging task that requires precise timing because reservations are only taken six months prior to the event, no more, no less. Security is serious, with metal detectors and ID checks, and tours must be accompanied and regimented. During an hour-long French-language tour, students learn about the French political system, comparing it to our own, visiting the chamber (hemicycle) where important votes take place, sitting in senators’ and ministers’ seats, which are of varying sizes depending on body types. Students learn that senators are not elected by popular vote, but by an electoral college, and that when the president resigns or dies in office, the President of the Senate succeeds him as Interim President of France, an occurrence that has only happened twice during the Fifth Republic.

This year, during our tour of the Senate, our large group inadvertently blocked the passage of a fourth term senator as he was making his way up the marble staircase, where a statue of a naked woman offers her buttocks as a good luck charm to current and would-be senators. Legend has it that prior to a vote, senators touch the right or left cheek of the statute to ensure that the vote goes their way. Ironically, the right buttock shines more brilliantly than the left! As students performed the amusing ritual, the senator joked that we should avoid touching the right buttock, indicating his political leaning.  Indeed, Senator Jean-Pierre Bosino, is one of nineteen members of the French Communist Party, a real minority these days in France given that the Senate comprises 348 senators and is currently right leaning.  A true gentleman, Senator Bosino obligingly posed for a picture with the Wright State group, and politely answered questions about the French political system. For many students, it was their first meeting with a lawmaker, bringing home the notion that the political system in France, as in the US, is run by people who want the best for their people, despite their political differences.

Next year, we will be adding a guided tour of Paris’ magnificent City Hall, a neo-Renaissance edifice that was rebuilt after a fire destroyed it in 1871, during the French Commune civil war. This building reflects the values of the French Republic in that it was designed to outshine royal palaces as a means of proving that the nascent Republic was more powerful than the monarchy. Rivaling Versailles in its ostentatious display of grandeur, the Hôtel de Ville’s “Salle des Fêtes” is the Republican version of the Hall of Mirrors. And while the immense grand staircase is inspired by the Luxembourg Palace’s main staircase, visitors do a double take when they realize that the massive, red-carpeted staircase has a mirror image that physically and symbolically trounces its counterpart. In short, the building epitomizes the transition from Old Regime autocracy to a powerful government by the people and for the people.

Next year, as we wind our way through the gorgeous rooms, listening to the guide’s insights on the importance of the City Hall in the political life of post-revolutionary France, who knows? Perhaps we will meet the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and will have the opportunity to share our opinions with her about the beauty of the City of Lights, the opulence of her workplace, and the scandalous lack of public restrooms in the world’s most popular tourist destination.

Screen Shot 2015-06-20 at 2.47.43 PMWright State Paris Ambassador Program Students at the French Senate, with guide and Senator Bosino.

This entry was posted in OFLA News: Association, Vol. 53, No. 3 - Summer 2015. Bookmark the permalink.

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