A colleague recently brought me a copy of the first article that I wrote for the Durham Herald-Sun while I was on sabbatical last year. I am also working on my annual 8th grade trip to France. I will take my students to Paris and to Arles in March 2010. So, my sabbatical, although never far from my thoughts, is on my mind these days. I have decided to take a trip down memory lane and share my beginning.
Towards food and friends in France
For as long as I can remember, August has signaled the beginning of a new school year for me. August 1964 brought me to Miss McBee's first grade class in Spruce Pine, NC. Since 1980, I have been teaching French at Durham Academy Middle School. Each new school year has brought excitement, anticipation and, to be honest, a fair dose of nervousness.
This fall, however, I did not join my colleagues for the opening faculty meetings nor will I be there to greet my advisees and their parents. After 28 years at Durham Academy, I am on sabbatical leave for the first semester of 2008-09 school year.
I am in Arles, France, in Provence. I have been here since mid-June. I visited Arles for the first time in 1987 with a group of students and was fascinated by the Roman history and architecture. In the summer of 2005, I came back to Arles for two weeks. I had read quite a bit about Vincent Van Gogh's stay here, and Dorette Snover of C'est si Bon! cooking school in Chapel Hill told me about Chef Érick Vedel's cooking school, Atelier Cuisine et Traditions. Food and art. Perfect.
I returned once again to the cooking school in the summer of 2006 with a group of friends as their translator and guide. Later that year, I was offered room and board for the summer of 2007 if I would be Chef Vedel's assistant. That was an offer too good to refuse. Now, with the sabbatical leave, I am back in Arles working once again, this time until December.
My days here begin early since Chef Vedel also runs a five-room bed and breakfast. I have learned to make crêpes from scratch and am now perfecting my own orange brioche recipe. I have developed a decent kitchen vocabulary. Last summer, I was completely lost the first time I was asked to fetch une louche. I dumbly stared at Chef Vedel while trying to make up my mind whether or not to fake it or to confess that I had no idea what he wanted. Trust me, I will never forget the word for ladle! I am still not very good with the names for the seemingly endless supply of fish and seafood found in the market that comes from the Mediterranean Sea. However, I now have a food dictionary and can look up morue, poulpe and daurade when need be.
I wash dishes, do laundry, clean rooms, and work with room reservations. In short, I do whatever needs to be done, in addition to assisting the chef in the kitchen. We have a washing machine, but no dryer. Sheets, towels and clothing are hung from the second story living room window. The B&B rooms are found on three upstairs levels, linked by a winding staircase, no elevator. The family side of the house and the guest rooms are joined by a large kitchen.
Shopping for food, preparing meals and eating have taken on a completely new meaning for me. Each one is a pleasure in and of itself. The Wednesday and Saturday markets in Arles are an explosion of colors and smells. Listening to vendors and customers discuss how a particular item should be prepared and served is a joy. Cooking is a continual experimentation and exploration to find the perfect combination of ingredients. The French say that flavors se marier bien, or marry well. I love that! Meals in France are an occasion to talk, share ideas, laugh and feed friends and loved ones. Dinner can, and often does, take three hours here, ending near midnight. I feel as if all I do is think about what I will have for my next meal! Provençale cuisine is amazing, yet so simple.
My students should know that I am indeed once again on their side of the fence. Friends correct my pronunciation and help me find the words I need to express myself halfway coherently. They are endlessly patient when I ask the same questions over and over. I am, of course, learning words and expressions that are not in any textbook I've ever encountered. My knowledge of gros mots or dirty words has increased, as well as my food vocabulary.
I miss my children, family and friends, but this experience will leave me forever changed. I will return to the classroom in January invigorated by having lived here for six months. I am indeed very fortunate!
Written August 14, 2008
Published in the Durham Herald-Sun September 2008