Les Orphelins d’Aix-en-Provence

Le Cours Mirabeau, Aix-en-Provence France. Photo by Bob Cromwell

Blond and muscular, Professeur Le Blanc had a tendency toward worn leather jackets, a messy mustache, and a cigarette-voice that came from a lifetime of sucking on Gauloises. He taught stellar French, and kept an unobtrusive eye on us, his little band of summer students.

It was 1971. I’d just completed my college sophomore year, and had landed in Aix-en-Provence, France for ten weeks of intensive French. The program was a small arrangement between the professor and my midwestern university. Michael, Marilyn, and I were French majors. Others, like my business-major friend Linda, and Paula, studying music, had signed up hoping for an interesting adventure.

Le Blanc taught in the US during the academic year, returning to his hometown of Aix (pronounced “Ex”) each summer with a handful of twenty-somethings. The University of Aix-Marseille provided him with a classroom, student housing, and cafeteria meal cards. Over the years, he’d also assembled a collection of support people, mostly teaching colleagues, and drivers for our field trips. Since there were only twelve of us, we fit into three Citroëns, tootling around the south of France several afternoons a week, visiting Arles, Avignon, the beach at Cassis, Les Baux, and ultimately (they never told us our exact location because the natives protected their celebrities) milling around outside the iron gate of Picasso’s chateau and studio.

Aix-en-Provence, an ancient spa town, grew from a gallo-roman site. Today, fountains and glass-front businesses dot its shaded main street, the Cours Mirabeau. Winding streets lead to Saint Sauveur Cathedral, the university, and several open-air markets. With Cézanne’s Mount Sainte-Victoire in the distance, the lavender fields perfuming the air, and the legendary Mistral wind drying our laundry in minutes, everything was glorious.

Everything, except the campus food. That was dreadful.

The cafeteria served a watery version of ratatouille almost every day, heavy on courgettes — zucchiniand light on everything else including the spices southern French cooking is known for. By week two, we’d had enough mushy green meals to last us to senior year. We went as a group to the professor to complain. He listened, and after some maneuvering, announced that the following week, we’d report for lunch at the local boys’ orphanage.

At first doubtful and reluctant, we outright resisted when we heard his two rules: No asking for seconds on food, and no gift-giving to individual children. We clutched our backpacks closer to ourselves, asking how food at some harsh Dickensian institution could be better than tasteless courgettes. Besides, how would parentless children respond to us? How would we respond to them? Le Blanc insisted it was the perfect solution. So, on Monday, we showed up at an old building with dim lighting and drab institutional interiors. Which hid quite a surprise.

Warm and efficient nuns headed a program that encouraged equanimity and insisted on respectful social discourse. The tables were not in those long horizontal rows they have in boarding school movies. These were round, so the diners could see and talk to one another. And they were low enough to fit eight little people, ages six to twelve. A social worker sat at each table, keeping the conversation going and making sure each child got what he needed.

Market en pleine air, Aix-en-Provence, France. Photo by Christian Mackie on Unsplash

No one lined up cafeteria-style for food, either. The nuns delivered the steaming food to the tables, and we passed it or served each other family-style — another nod to social interaction. Probably the biggest surprise was that, behind the kitchen’s swinging door, was one of the best chefs in the city. He started us out with delicious soups like chicken noodle or beef vegetable (we never saw another ratatouille), followed by local fare–fresh caught fish, regional cheeses, and fruits and vegetables from the outdoor markets. The sisters told us they wanted the children to eat well because good food gives a sense of well-being.

And if les américains, their term for us, thought they were going to sit off by themselves at full-height tables, they were wrong. The good sisters had plans for that, too. We needed to learn French and the boys needed fresh faces and lively conversation. Just like in grade school, they assigned us seats among les orphelins.

Because we sat at the same table group for both lunch and dinner, Franco-American connections developed quickly. Our French, tentative at first, improved with the boys’ input. They drilled us on pronunciation (oh, that impossible French /r/), corrected our grammar, and taught us slang. It was all good-natured, even their laughter, and soon we were communicating in an easy way.

In turn, we got to know our hosts. Ten-year-old Dénis and his buddy, Albert, were obsessed with motos and football. This led to some cultural confusion, since Europeans call motorcycles motos, and soccer, football. Dominique, twelve, loved art and drew spectacular cartoon super-heroes. Etienne, a shy hat-wearing nine-year-old–and hands-down my favorite–wanted to know if we’d ever had an operation. That puzzled us until he explained he’d just had cranial surgery, and had to protect his bald skull from the blazing Mediterranean sun.

Like mine, the other tables were developing friendships. So when Le Blanc asked the twelve of us if we’d like our remaining field trips to include the children, we shouted a unanimous Oui! He hired a bus, and thirty people — French teachers, American students, children, chaperones, and a couple of sisters–happily climbed aboard.

Lavender fields, with Mont Sainte-Victoire in the distance. Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

Riding along, we sang. Musical Paula led with American standards like “Yankee Doodle” and the boys’ favorite, “Pop Goes the Weasel.” They asked for it on every trip, waited like cheetahs about to pounce, and at the appropriate moment, jumped up and shouted “Pop!” When it was their turn to teach us a song, they chose a drinking song, “Chevaliers de la Table Ronde.” (General translation of this humorous song : Knights of the Round Table, let’s drink the wine to see if it’s drinkable!) Sometimes we tried to tell jokes in our respective languages, which didn’t always translate. But Linda’s blague spread like fire from the front of the bus to the back (Question: What’s worse than finding a worm in your apple? Answer: Finding half a worm.). That kind of give-and-take was lots of fun.

Some of the best times of my whole trip happened on those bus rides. We sat with our buddies–for me, it was always Etienne–watching the vineyards and lavender fields roll by, sharing stories, or meditative moments. At our destinations, les orphelins would burst from the bus to run and investigate, trailed by the chaperones and sisters. Meanwhile, les américains headed to the site for their tour. Sometimes though, we could all be together, like the time we visited Fontvieille, to see Daudet’s windmill. The twenty-somethings listened to the tour guide discuss Daudet’s poetry, while the boys climbed all over the limestone outcrops.

Our lovely summer passed quickly. When mid-August arrived, it was time to say goodbye. We took pictures, hugged, and tried our best not to cry at our final meal. The head sister made a brief speech, thanking us for our generosity, telling us they’d never forget us. Etienne wouldn’t let go of my hand. I wouldn’t let go of his.

Mont Sainte-Victoire. aixenprovence-web.com

Our leave-taking came just as the white limestone of Mont Saint-Victoire turned rose in the sunset. The boys waved from the entrance as the twelve of us blew kisses and called au revoir. Many of us knew it was not au revoir but adieu, the French final goodbye. We would not see each other again.

There was very little talk on the winding streets back to campus. Our rooms were clean, our suitcases were packed, our return tickets set out on our desks. Professeur Le Blanc and crew had signed off. Families in the states anticipated our return.

Chapters end and new ones begin. Some of us continued to write to the orphanage afterwards, sending donations and cards. But eventually, life immersed us in other things. We grew into voting adults, found jobs, became parents. Les orphelins d’Aix-en-Provence grew into voting adults, found jobs, became parents.

Aix is still a university town, and the blocky student dorms still show up on google after all this time. The ancient fountains still bubble, and the ever-present mountain presides. But I can’t find any mention of the orphanage. That’s probably a good thing. Lodging large groups of parentless children has been supplanted by foster families and adoption, and made unnecessary by the fading stigma of unwed parenting. I can’t find Professeur Le Blanc on social media, either. It’s possible he’s gone, too.

I see Aix still sponsors study-abroad programs. I hope their menus have improved, because negotiating with an orphanage — food for French, friendship and field trips — wouldn’t fly these days. There’d be too much liability to do it the Le Blanc way.

We went that summer for ten weeks of intensive French and to experience another culture. And we did. But along the way, something unplanned happened. A simple request for good food led us deep into the heart of Aix. Which led us to a busload of live-wire children, who deepened our experience by magnitudes and broadened us by miles. I like to think they remember les américains, who taught them “Pop Goes the Weasel.” I like to think we opened their hearts the way they opened ours.

originally published at LeArniNg tO fLy https://wordpress.com/post/kristineheim.wordpress.com/805

Kristine Heim is a baby-boomer with a past: teacher, gardener, crafter, writer, traveler. She recently downsized by half and is trying to organize the squalor.

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Haunted-city dweller, bad French speaker, cold lake swimmer, Mississippi River habitué, daily piano player, fiction writer, wonderer, note scribbler.

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Kris Heim

Kris Heim

Haunted-city dweller, bad French speaker, cold lake swimmer, Mississippi River habitué, daily piano player, fiction writer, wonderer, note scribbler.

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