Monthly Archives: July 2014

Hey I finished my blog post!

We’ve all been home for a few weeks now and in some ways, it really does seem like our trip was a lifetime ago. In others, however, it feels like it was just yesterday. I’m really struggling with ordering ice cream in English. It sounds like a completely absurd situation, but I ate a year’s worth of gelato in France.


Here’s some of us outside one of the caves! (Photo credit to Mr. Porter; this is also on our Smug Mug). There are a lot of things I’ve taken away from this trip, but the most important element to me are the people. Firstly, we’ll all see each other in the fall, so that human element I can literally take away with me. Secondly, like Mr. Porter, learning more about “prehistoric” people was one of the most touching things I did during the trip. Even the most accurate picture can’t capture what you see in the caves, since I think the most striking part is the way the artists used the natural formation of the rocks as part of their works. One of our tour guides told us that they must have seen the animals in the rocks first and then used the paint to bring out what was already there. Given paint and a cave, there’s no way I could produce the same effect.

People today, people yesterday, and my kitten all seem to believe that the world was “made” to suit them (this argument below is partially taken from “Brilliant Blunders” by Mario Livio). Of course, we know that our universe supports life because if it didn’t, no one would be alive to know the difference. So yes, our planet is the right distance from the sun so that we don’t burn up or freeze and our water can stay in liquid form, and if we didn’t have carbon on our planet, we couldn’t be alive. That being said, it’s easy to assume that either the world has always existed the way it is today or that the present day is the culmination or the peak of all things that came before, yet some of the same forces that allow us to live also preserved proof that things have come before us and things will continue to come after us. In the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, there are two skeletons of children from a “prehistoric” period who were found in caves. They could have died violent deaths, which we were told was a rare occurrence. The pervasive violence that is found today simply did not exist on the same scale thousands of years ago, according to our tour guide. While our universe and planet can support us, they have also supported other organisms and other groups of people. Humans today are special in many ways, of course, and naturally we have made many advances, but things like violence that didn’t exist in previous time periods also plague us. We’ve evolved since then: we’ve changed, but since one of the main points of natural selection is that there is no overall ‘goal’ or ‘plan’ for a species, there is no way to say that we are ‘better’ than our ancestors who ventured into the caves those thousands of years ago. This trip reminded me that it’s a question we need to keep asking.


It’s been how many weeks since the trip?!

Now that it has been over a month since I left my Piette group at the airport, I have finally built up the stamina to write this blog post. When I first got back from the trip I told my mom that I do not remember any of the trip. But of course she begins interrogating me “what did you do the first day?, the second? What happened next?”. I think I managed to get to day four before I got confused as to where we were when.

But now over a month later I now can remember the chronology of the trip and all of the individual stories for each destination. For the past week I have been visiting family in California, they each wanted to know about the trip and I was able to give them a concise review of Piette. Hallelujah! I was able to tell them about the infamous Piette pebble, the beaches in Normandy, the castles and the caves. I told them about some of the jokes we have and how the whole group became really close.

For me personally I have been able to think about and remember the trip and all its glory. I will never forget the bus rides on our massive red coach bus with Christian, the gap yah video after which we all chundahed everywhere or how the faculty and students gelled into one group. Even writing this post now, I am remembering more stories and highlights of the trip. The trip was fabulous.

It has been fun, but I have to work on my food project. See you in the fall…


DSC_0689Since our return from France, I have been plunged into a six week rowing program that has left me missing our funny family. My team traveled for 5 hours in a bus to a regatta in Saratoga last week, and I was laughing to myself about all the hours I have spent in busses this summer. But this one was blue and definitely not as cool as our obnoxiously American red French bus driven by the one and only Christian. So I sat in the back and was fully expecting Dr. Blunt to pop his head out from the seats explaining how board he was, or someone to poke an already snoring JT… and I found myself missing all of our crazy adventures and especially our inside jokes. I cannot tell you how many times I have used one of our catch phrases and gotten some pretty weird looks because no one understands. So, I have decided to list out a few of my favorite ones.

Boys Gite: No shoes no rules


Literally dying right now

Shut up JT

Guys, we have to find a gelato place here.

I’ve seen donkeys run

Santander or Santander?

God Damnit Peter


Absolument pas


This is…stupid.



And by the way, I took this picture on the morning we left the Gites, the only day we ever saw the sun the whole time we were there. I miss all of you, and hope that your summers have been amazing. I can’t wait to see you all again in the fall

The Petite Program

Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, in the earliest part of the summer, the Parker twins, Gwen and Steph, were preparing to go on their first trip out of the country – a school-sponsored trip to France called the Petite Program. They had applied to the program in December and had been preparing since March and couldn’t wait to leave. School ended and they flew home to Virginia where they and their mom bought and packed everything they needed.

Finally the day came when they were leaving. They and their mother woke up at 0DARK:30 for a flight from Richmond to Boston. They arrived in Boston with enough time to wander around the city and mentally prepare for their upcoming adventure. Eventually, however, the time came to see the girls off so the twins and their mother returned to the airport.

They arrived at the airport early so that they could have one last dinner together before the girls left. They eat and they laughed, but soon they finished and had to wait in front of the Air France counter for the rest of their group. About 20 minutes after they had sat down and were quietly reading and playing on their phones, two boys checked into their flight. They came and sat down next to the Parkers and one phoned his parents to tell them their flight had been delayed until 11pm. Mrs. Parker, being who she is decided to get up and find out if that was the same flight the girls were on. Unfortunately, it was and so, the Gwen decided to call Dr. Trottier, the main chaperone and the chaperone in charge of culture, to inform her of the major delay in the schedule.

Rather than calling herself, Gwen decided to give the phone to Steph because she was able to break the news more softly. Steph told Dr. Trottier, who was in a van with many of the other people on the trip, while other people began arriving. By then only three people had arrived: Logan (who had 3 brothers), Susan (the best-dressed day-student on the trip), and Virginia (the only Freshman on the trip). After that the rest of the group arrived, and the fun really started.


*A note: this story is partially fictional (the names mostly, to protect people’s privacy). Also, the story will be in several parts, this is part one. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments.



So it has been four weeks since our trip ended. The trip exceeded what I expected in almost every way. I didn’t really know what the trip would be like before we left. I wasn’t that interested in history/archaeology/foreign language before, but I saw the trip as a great interdisciplinary opportunity to try out these fields in a way that I learn best: experiencing it hands-on. I’m very glad I did this because I now know more about French history than I would have learned otherwise. I think it is harder to think about European history where we live across the Atlantic in a nation whose beginning was all about gaining freedom from European rule. Napoleon never walked on American soil. Being in France and seeing the places where historical figures lived, like Versailles, and died, like Place de la Concorde, made the history much more relatable. In the words of Professor Lancombe who lead the archaeology site, “Context!”

And being on a real archaeology dig? That was amazing. Where would I ever get that experience except on the Piette trip? I’ll admit it, the dig was uncomfortable and slow, but it wasn’t boring. It was great to see how the site operated and to actually work in the units.
I had never had French cuisine before, so eating in France was great. I was excited to try out a different type of food. In Paris, the dishes weren’t anything too unusual, although I hadn’t had those particular recipes before. They included meals such as veal, perch in white sauce, and turkey in wine sauce. When we got down to Sarlat though, the food changed drastically to goose and duck products, such as fois gras, duck confit, goose gizzard salad, and pâté. I was happy that I tried a few of these dishes, but I didn’t really care for them.
One thing I wish we did more of was speaking French. Mostly, we just ordered food in French. In Paris on a few occasions, when I ordered in French, the cashier would reply in English. I would keep talking French and they would keep talking English. It was somewhat humorous, but I imagine them all thinking “hey kid, it’s gonna be better for both of us if we just speak in English.” All of our tour guides spoke English to us, which was necessary because not all of the students on the trip take French. When we went to the cave at Mas D’Azil, the guide spoke in French. I was surprised how much I understood of what the guide said, and was very happy about it.

In my mind, the trip was very successful and I had a great time. Special thank you to the teachers and the friends I made on the trip!

Piette travels

This trip was an entirely new type of experience for me. As I said in my first post, I have never left the country before besides driving trips to Canada. I enjoyed being far from home immersed in a different culture. France is a European nation, and many things about it aren’t so different from life here in the US. There are some pretty obvious distinctions, especially in Paris, such as lots of crêperies, motorcycles, small European cars, and baguette sandwiches. Other things took a little longer to realize. I’m sure I would have found out a lot more if I spent more time in France, but this trip was the perfect length to get a good gist of it. People keep asking me if the people in Paris are as rude as they’re often claimed to be. I didn’t find them rude, but servers and cashiers definitely were more focused on their jobs and less on chit-chat.

La Defense from the roof of the MAN
La Défense from the roof of the MAN. The central arrondissements are out of view behind it.

The French do a good job of protecting historic places. This is shown in the large number of buildings that date back hundreds of years. Even the standard apartment buildings in the center of Paris all adhere to similar historical styles and have the same height. In Paris you don’t have tall buildings all over the place, which surprised me. When we went on the roof of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, we could see far across the city. The only place with sky scrapers was the business district, La Défense, nearly seven miles outside of the heart of Paris.


Getting around Paris was mostly the same as traveling in any city. The Metro was essentially the same as the Boston subway. There were taxis (although apparently most of them were on strike) and buses, but all of our traveling was on the Metro, RER, or tour bus.

When we first arrived at the airport in Paris, we went through customs, which composed of a uniformed man in a booth stamping our passports. No questions. Arriving back in Boston, we had to fill out a lengthy slip (for restricted substances and declaration of goods), use an automated passport machine, and answer an officer’s questions. They were a little more relaxed about the ordeal in France.

I really knew nothing about French History (except what I learned in Dr. Blunt’s class!) or anything about prehistoric man. This trip was a great way to learn about these two subjects because we got the opportunity to experience them, for instance we visited historic sites and dug on an archaeological site.

Project progress

I got lots of great information and photos for my project in France. My project is the comparison of urban palaces with their rural couterparts, the châteaux. My final project will hopefully be an essay accompanied by some of my own photos.

The Conciergerie
The Conciergerie

On the first day in Paris, we went on a walking tour and saw the Conciergerie, a palace that was also used as a prison that housed Marie Antoinette before she was executed.
The MAN, to which we repatriated the Piette pebble, is housed in a gorgeous building called “le château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye”. It was originally built in 1122 by Louis VI as a fortress and completed by Louis IX.

Courtyard of the MAN
Courtyard of le château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye

In 1863, Eugène Millet converted it into a renaissance palace, and it was renovated again in 1962. The castle was initially built in the middle of a forest on the plateau of Laye as a military stronghold, but eventually became a residential building with a surrounding town.
We also visited the Palace of Versailles, which is a ginormous building. The palace had its beginnings as a hunting lodge (albeit a very fancy one) built by Louis XIII. Succeeding rulers added onto the original construction and made it into the distinctive palace it is known as today. It has been used by numerous powers in France as a headquarters or residence. When Louis XIII first built the hunting lodge, Versailles was only a small village. Under the French monarchs, the lodge became a large palace, and the Versailles became a city. Another urban palace we got the opportunity to explore was the Louvre. Although it originally was a fortress, it was rebuilt and expanded many times and became enveloped by the city. I found it interesting that le château de Saint-Germain, Versailles, and the Louvre all originated with some other purpose, but over time became palaces.

The walls of le Château D'amboise
The walls of le château D’Amboise

When we went into the Loire Valley we visited a few rural castles including the château d’Amboise and château de Chenonceau.

I have numerous great photos of the palaces and châteaux, so now my work is researching the two types of buildings. When we visited them, most offered pamphlets that gave brief histories. I need to do a lot of research to be able to do more comparison. I want to focus on the difference in the purpose and usage of the buildings.

It’s all about the people

The Piette trip was extra-ordinary.  Literally.  Not so much because of the Louvre or the Chenonceau castle themselves, though they too had a significant impact on our participants, of course.  Yet for me, and I believe for all of us, whether we noticed it or not, what made this adventure so special was the people who welcomed, cared for, guided, and taught us.  I was blown away by how eager each scientist, archaeologist, guide, host, historian, and administrator was to spend time with us and share with us passions, knowledge, lessons, and values, without prompting.  I did not expect this much enthusiasm, from this many extraordinary people.

Each of these people provided a mine of information, but also craft, eagerness, and kindness.  Each of them was an example of what happens not at the higher level of any art, when an expert enjoys success and can afford to be demanding, but what happens at the highest level: when an expert becomes interested in what is outside of his or her field of expertise, and when he or she becomes completely and genuinely humble.

Take our first host, Catherine Schwab, curator of the Paleolithic collections at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in St-Germain-en-Laye.  She knows everything about the prehistoric era.  She has published many articles, is invited everywhere to curate exhibits and attend conferences.  She holds a key position in a national museum, where millions of artifacts are stored, preserved, loaned, studied, and exhibited.  My interactions with her before the trip were, as I expected, formal and efficient.

Yet when we showed up at the museum on June 13, she took her formal hat off and spent the entire day with us, doing all of the guiding and commentary herself, conducting our private Piette room visit herself (all in very good English), taking us to the reserves herself, and staying with us the entire time as we observed the work performed in the conservation workshop.   She could have skipped the chapel, but she made a point of taking us there between two other locations.  By the end of the day (she did overtime for us, as did the workshop staff, without ever letting it show) she was all smiles and decided to take us onto the roof of the castle that hosts the museum, something that was clearly not part of the original plan.  She let us frolic up there until we had taken dozens of pictures and had gazed leisurely in the distance to see Paris, the gardens, the hills, the rooftops.  It almost seemed as though she had a hard time saying goodbye!  Luckily for us, we realized that we would see her again a week later at the exhibit opening we would attend in Les Eyzies, 400 miles south.

SpSum2014_230Catherine Schwab with us on the roof of the MAN.

When she saw us there, Catherine was clearly pleased.  We could sense her stress as she had been frantically setting up the exhibit there all day and was about to let the first visitors in, a large group of experts in the field (and us!).  She again spent time with us in the exhibit, and smiled for group pictures.  I noticed how eager some of our students were to see her again.  She had become a role model, mentor, figure, or simply very interesting person to them and they felt something special with her.  The impression she made on them will stay for ever, and will, I’m sure, be with them somehow as they set off to decide what it is they want to do for a living.

Instead of a demanding, busy, unreachable figure, Catherine was genuinely interested in us, eager to share with us, and incredibly humble.  That is what I call the highest level of an art, science, or profession.  Thank you, Catherine.

Now, I don’t have enough space here to explain how each of the incredible people we met on the trip matched Catherine’s greatness.  But I will indulge in thanking them, roughly in chronological order.  I will probably forget some, not because they are forgettable, but because there were so MANY.  I must admit I did not realize that as I was planning Piette.

Philippe, the master artist of the MAN workshop (with the most unusual professional path), showed us how to make a cast of an artifact, went on to show us his metallic creations (made of steel wires, hidden in a cabinet) to hold artifacts the perfect way for an exhibit, and was looking for more things to show.  We learned how to take off layers of dirt and corrosion from glass, and how to cautiously sandblast pieces to bring their original splendor back to life.   He explained to us how his job is to look at all kinds of fields, practices, and professions to find the right tools for artifact conservation.  Dentist drill?  Check.  Philippe even stayed with us to go onto the roof — something even he did not get to do often!

Josh, guide extraordinaire (but that I knew beforehand, as the students will tell you!), clicked with us immediately and offered us the best tour of Paris and Versailles I could have imagined.   Born in Massachusetts, he lives in Paris now.  He shared his life story with us and had many, many anecdotes to tell as well as questions for the students.  He explained history as a story, and brought it to life.  He was genuinely interested in us.  He knew his craft so, so well and the day was a breeze.  He had gotten us a small VIP van instead of a tourist bus, so we could go to Montmartre and take the smallest streets.  Ok, there is more, but…   Thank you, Josh.  I’m going to work hard on getting you as a Tour Director to be with us throughout the trip one of these years.


Josh at the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre

Christian, the kindest human being one can imagine, and hence the best bus driver ever, had quite the life story to share, too, and agreed to take us on roads he could have refused to take his 53-seater on.  He was at the highest level of his art too, as students will tell you when they remember his parking and u-turn skills!  And he was extremely humble about it.

Christian at Commarque SpSum2014_506

Marie-Cécile Ruault-Marmande, of the Musée de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies prepared a unique visit for us.  Not only did she invite us to the opening of their temporary exhibit, but she put us in touch with the best of their guides for a private museum tour and a visit of one of the most impressive caves in the area, Font de Gaume.  Our guides themselves, at Font de Gaume and at the museums, were unusually kind, interested in us, and passionate about their art.

Our guide at Commarque was also named Philippe, if I remember well.  We spent only an afternoon with him, but I will never forget how personal the visit was with him.  He gave us a sense of the depth of the history of the place in an unobtrusive, casual way that made us experience it for ourselves, somehow.  He knew all the details about the property, too.   By the end of the visit I felt as though I had known him for years.

I had the same feeling about the owner of the gîtes where we stayed in Ariège, Frédéric Moncassin, former professional cyclist who is still very active on the scene.  While we were admiring his professional victory jerseys, articles published about him and other realia framed on the walls of the houses, he was offering to do our laundry!  He came to us every time he saw us and was the kindest, most flexible person imaginable.  He let our Tour Director work in his living-room for wifi access and offered his driveway to our gigantic bus.  We will be in touch and I can’t wait to go back next year.

Count Robert Bégouën, most famous prehistorian, who discovered some of the most important caves in the field, opened his mansion to us so that we could see his family’s private site museum.  I felt as though I were in a Harry Potter book.  He was so casual and open about our visit!  He and his family always refused to open the caves on their property to the public or to make any profit from them.  All they want to do is share the wonder.

Sébastien Lacombe and Kathleen Sterling may deserve the “Most Extraordinary” award, although comparison is almost impossible at this point. I don’t know where to begin.  They welcomed 9 untrained teenagers to dig at their fragile and unique open-air archaeological site of Peyre Blanque.  They had visited Andover in the spring to present their work and meet the Piette crew.   They joined us for dinner at the gîte.  They spent hours explaining to us why prehistory and archeology are so important for humanity, how digging should be done (CONTEXT!!), and why it should be limited (new techniques will surely emerge that will allow for better study of what is buried, so let’s dig out only 10% and leave the rest of our distant past untouched — how humble is that?).  Believe it or not, they want to do MORE with us next year.

SpSum2014_561Sébastien Lacombe shows a horse-shaped sculpted stone he found at the site.

Margaret Conkey, whose name students noticed on the wall of the Mas d’Azil museum, astounded me with her incredibly personable and passionate teaching.  Professor Emerita at Berkeley, having revolutionized the field several times with her new theories, former chair of the Society of American Archaeology, she spent hours with us at the digging site sifting through dirt and sharing anecdotes, asking about each student’s life and story.  She spent a long time with a group of our girls at dinner and quickly became a mentor figure for several of them.  To top it off, she spread the word about how happy she had been to work with us!  A few days ago, she agreed to become a member of the Peabody Museum’s Advisory Committee (PAC), and we are elated!  Thank you, Meg.


Meg and Sharan screen dirt together.

I could go on.  Remember, Piette crew: it was all about the people.  And we will stay in touch with them!


After coming back home and getting back into the swing of things, the idea that only three weeks ago I was part of a group engaging in an archaeological dig almost seems like a dream.  Yet, I know that the experience was very real and I enjoyed every minute of it.

In addition to this experience we visited numerous caves such as Grotte du Mas d’Azil (Cave of Mas d’Azil) and observed the Magdalenian era artifacts in the Musée national de Préhistoire (National Museum of Prehistory), and as a result I learned a lot more about this prehistoric era and what life must have been like during this time period.  The people in this era were nothing like the stumbling, bumbling image most people have of cavepeople.  They were resilient; creating cave art in close, constricted areas despite not being able to see what they were drawing, carving and painting.  Also, the figures that they chose to draw meant a lot to the lives of the people as one theory suggests that the animals that were drawn were representations of gods that the people believed in.  Their creations whether cave art or carvings were highly detailed and artistic and the presentation of this art was breathtaking.

While the open – air site had more flint  tools and burnt bone fragments, the discovery of these items was just as exciting and fulfilling as well when one realizes that their hard work allows for an artifact to be found.  Add in the fact that we were surrounded by the beauty of Pyrenees, from the looming mountains to the rolling hills, and it just made the entire experience worth it.

Living by the Pyrenees

When the team realized that we would probably not have internet access at the gîtes near the dig site, we were slightly anxious and more than a little peeved. How, we wondered, would we contact “our people,” stay updated on the happenings in the world, and keep the world updated on our own escapades?

While the first day being weaned from the World Wide Web was slightly painful, as soon as we descended from the bus to enter our gîtes, I realized that it might be a good thing to just appreciate my surroundings for a few days. Blocking the horizon and clearly visible from our gîtes sat the Pyrenees mountains. Green and lush at the bottom, the massive mountains were capped with snowy peaks and rocky outcroppings.

In the miles of land that separated us from these inconceivably large mountains were rolling hills of farmland and forest. Sheep grazed on the property just across the road from us, and the owner of our gîtes had two donkeys roaming the property just below our homes.

Our first morning in the gîtes, I woke up early to swim in the pool on the gîte property. I have had few moments as peaceful as the early morning in the Pyrenees with the sun just breaking over the mountains and flooding the sky orange.

Our drive to the dig site each day was equally stunning. I never needed to bring a book or music on the bus, as the view from the window was entertainment enough. Fields of cows and sheep sped by, framed by the mountains, gorgeous French homes, adorable towns, and dark forests.


Sitting on the top of a mountain, digging for ancient artifacts, surrounded by PA students and accomplished archaeologists, and learning about prehistoric peoples, I found myself living completely in the moment. After a few weeks learning about the history of France, its people, and their culture (see some modern culture down below), our time in the Pyrenees was the perfect conclusion to a fruitful trip. We finally had the opportunity to appreciate one of the world’s most beautiful areas and learn about a history that pertains to all of mankind.

Sam and Cam go on a grocery adventure in France. Note: We succeeded in finding peanut butter.
Sam and Cam go on a grocery adventure in France. Note: We succeeded in finding peanut butter.