Category Archives: Camille

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.

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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.
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Les grottes

These past two days have been nothing short of amazing.

At this point in our trip, we’re embarking on the archaeological and prehistorical portion of our itinerary. While we have been staying in the medieval town of Sarlat and enjoying the rich history and culture there, we have been commuting each day to les Eyzies in order to study prehistory.

After Normandy, we spent a short amount of time in Blois, in the Loire Valley, exploring castles and chateaux and noting the transition from the medieval to the renaissance styles in France. Two mornings ago, we boarded our big red bus and drove about six hours into the countryside.

We arrived in les Eyzies-de-Tayac at 14h to attend the opening of an exhibition of Magdalenian art at the Musée National de Préhistoire. Standing in the reception area, my eight trip mates and I received some perplexed looks from the specialists attending the opening (the youngest of whom was at least 20 years older than us). The museum curators and staff were ecstatic to know that the such young people were interested in a field usually attractive to older people. We were ecstatic too, particularly when they started passing out fresh macaroons.

The exhibition was introduced in short speeches by the director of the museum and a government official. Complete with video simulations and glass cases detailing the different pieces of Magdalenian art the museum had collected, the new exhibition was a hit. Small glass cases contained fragments of bone and stone decorated with carvings of animals and delicate designs. We wandered from case to case, examining the precious specimens along with some of the leading archaeologists in the world. Because the world of archeology is so small, we also got to catch up with some specialists we had met at the Musée d’Archaeology National, which we visited on the second day of our trip.

The next day, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Sarlat. In the late afternoon, we drove into the countryside past les Eyzies to reach le Grotte de Rouffignac.

Tucked into the hillside, Rouffignac is not notable at first sight. A small opening in the side of a mountain, the entrance to Rouffignac could be easily missed. Stepping inside, the first thing I noticed was the change in temperature. While the outside air had been a balmy 85 degrees, even the first cavern of the cave system felt a good 15 degrees cooler.

A small desk was set up in the first cavern, where a kind lady lent us sweaters and handed us our tickets. Fifteen minutes later, after we had a chance to peruse the available gift shop plunder and read some background information on the caves, an older French gentleman led us into the second cavern of the Grotte, where the temperature dropped again. He closed an iron door behind us, and we were plunged briefly into darkness before the dim lights were illuminated. Walking into the back of this cavern, we boarded a tiny train that would motor us a kilometer into the rock.

My first impression of this train and the cave was that it looked like a scene from one of the Harry Potter movies, in which Harry and his faithful cohorts board a train in Gringott’s Bank to access Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. For the Harry Potter fans reading this, you may agree with me in that this scene is one of the most epic in the movie: our favorite trio zip through cavernous caves with mind-blowing rock formations and dripping stalactites. Traveling through the Grotte was a comparable experience.

Our guide narrated to us the story of the formation of the passageway by an underground river as we rolled through cavern after cavern. The majority of the walls were covered in scratch marks from an extinct species of cave bear whose circular nests were still intact in the caves.

As we travelled deeper, we began to see traces of human life – finger markings on the ceiling, some faint outlines of wooly mammoths. Soon it seemed every cavern held some drawing – wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, bisons, and horses were depicted in incredible detail. In the farthest cavern, the entire ceiling was covered in drawings, which the people of the Neolithic era would have painted lying on their backs (several years ago, the owners of the cave extended the floor of that cavern to allow for the preservation and viewing of such works).

What was remarkable about these paintings, asserted our guide, was that they were never made to really be seen. The artists themselves would likely never have been able to behold their drawings in full, lying on their backs so close to the ceiling. Art for the sake of art.

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This image is one from today – just outside the Font de Gaume cave. While we were not allowed to take photographs in the cave today (or yesterday, for that matter), nobody said anything about photographing the entrance. Doesn’t it look so mysterious?

What baffles me about these caves is that they have not changed for thousands of years: the structures we see today and the experience of walking through the caves is largely similar to the experience someone would have had many thousands of years ago.

Too reach the cave, we climbed about a half kilometer up the steep mountain. The ancient peoples would have had to do the same, yet without the aid of maintained paths and bannisters installed by the keepers of the cave. This photo I took just when we reached the top, staring into the black cave with rock outcroppings hanging overhead.

The image you see here shows the entrance to the cave as the prehistoric men and women would have seen it when they occupied this cave 15,000 years ago.

This cave we traversed exclusively on foot. The passageway was extremely narrow, requiring me to slide sideways and crouch at certain points. The paintings and carvings in this cave were remarkably well preserved. Today, the cave is sealed to the public and climate controlled (we were not allowed to stay in the caves for more than an hour, lest the substances we introduced to the cave deteriorate the images as they did in Lascaux).

Our guide showed us paintings and carvings of reindeer, wooly mammoths, horses, and a feline. Many of these depictions combined painting and carving, with the eyes and eye sockets often carved into the colorful painted animals. Our guide would often turn off the lights in the cave and shine only his flashlight on the work of interest, giving us a sense for the experience a prehistoric person would have had with a simple lamp of animal fat.

The paintings were on several different levels in the cave, and our guide maintained that the people may have used wooden beams to lift them to higher rock faces.

Just before we left the cave, our guide asked us all to crouch down on the stone floor and look up into a small overhanging rock face. There, outlined in black paint, was the clear outline of a hand. Some prehistoric person had placed their hand on that rock and sprayed paint over it to create a negative. Knowing that someone had placed their hand in that exact place was somehow very touching.

Being here

The theme for this next blog post is the difference between reading about history and experiencing it live. In other words, why travel 4000 miles to see all these sites when we could remain in the United States and gain much of the same information through photographs and history books?

I think the best way for me to answer this question is through my experience at Omaha beach, the American cemetery, and Arromanches.

In my History 300 course this year, my classmates and I learned about World War II through the eyes of historians, reading secondary sources and analyses of the war and its origins. We even looked at some photographs of the time period, which revealed the shocking amount of destruction and pain that the war caused. These images and descriptions were certainly moving, yet in my mind, WWII was still the brutal and often fatal battle between the Allies and the Axis.

At the American cemetery at Omaha beach, the inscription on the stone memorial reads, “This embattled shore, portal of freedom, is forever hallowed by the ideas, the valor and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.” I walked up and down the rows of graves, reading the names and home states of each fallen American soldier.

Thousands of white crosses and stars spread out before me, each inscribed with a name and a home. In that moment, each soldier became to me not just a number in a horrific death toll but a life with memories and uniqueness. And yes, ideals and valor and sacrifice.

Knowing that some of these men were close to my age made the experience even more personal. Walking to the edge of the cemetery, I looked out over Omaha beach, standing on the promontory that so many soldiers scaled to reach higher ground. Looking out across the plain-like beach into the choppy sea, the footage I had seen of D-Day became infinitely more relevant.

I had the chance to visit Arromanches with the Piette group on the same day. Arromanches was the town at which the British built Mulberry B – the port to which supplies for the Allies were delivered across the channel. In less than two weeks, under the instruction of Churchill, massive parts for this floating port had been constructed, towed to France, and pieced together by the British soldiers on the D Day coast. In order to break the waves flowing towards the port, the soldiers sunk several retired battleships and 7,000-ton concrete blocks that had been produced in England.

In staring out across the water on the shore at Arromanches, my trip mates and I could still see these pieces of the port. While we could have learned much of the information about Mulberry and its significance in a classroom, experiencing the port in real life gave us a sense of the sheer massiveness of the port and the kind of determination it would have taken to construct such a structure in mere days.

Experiencing places in real life gives them an importance, relevance, and emotional relatability that is almost impossible to reach from looking at photographs or reading descriptions.

Versailles and Montmartre!

Camille en France

Yesterday morning, my roommates and I woke up and enjoyed breakfast at the hotel, which serves croissants, baguettes, and coffee to guests. We met in front of the hotel at our usual time (8:45) to meet our guide, Josh. We piled into a very official-looking van with tinted windows (for VIPs only, we were told) and embarked on a very active day.

Josh first took us to Montmartre, an elevated neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris with a beautiful church. While it is now a fashionable neighborhood with adorable cafés and desirable homes, Montmartre was created during Gaulish times. Because of its elevated position relative to the rest of the area and it’s proximity to the Seine, Montmartre was a strategically sound spot.

The church at the top of Montmartre is unique and covered in symbols. A massive structure, the church contains the largest mosaic in Europe. Both the mosaic…

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The arrival

Camille en France

 I am currently sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Victoria, feeding off of the internet hot spot I found here this morning. It is hard to believe we have only been here for a day and a half – the group has already adjusted to life à Paris, which, let me tell you, is unbelievably good. 

But let me start from the beginning. I flew alone to Paris from New York, planning to meet the group there shortly after my arrival (they flew together from Logan airport). I strolled through security floating on a sense of independence, which quickly dissipated when I walked into one of Newark’s international terminals to find swarms of people moving in seemingly random directions and obscuring my view of gate 42. I fought my way through and plopped down on one of the airplane benches to read and people watch for an hour before…

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La destinée des nations dépend de la façon dont elles se nourrissent

When I applied for the Piette Program almost six months ago, the prospect of traveling to France seemed distant. Sitting in my creaky school-issued desk chair in Paul Revere dormitory, I scrolled through the document describing the program, lingering on the photographs of Normandy and gawking at the descriptions of the activities proposed in the itinerary. “I need to go on this trip,” I thought to myself. Or actually I must have been murmuring to myself, because just a minute later, my roommate yelled through the door, “Everything okay in there?!”

While I have spent much time this past term preparing for the program and attending seminars planning for the trip, actually disembarking from a plane in France is still inconceivable to me. Yet here I am, the day of departure, my bag (partially) packed in my room, passport carefully enclosed in a Ziploc bag (just in case, my mom said), and my French language book stowed in my carry-on.

I have been to Paris once before, in the summer before I entered the fourth grade. At that point, I had not yet begun to learn French, and so I anticipate that the France I will experience beginning tomorrow will be very different for me than that of nine years ago. Having just completed French 520 at PA, I hope to be able to communicate very well with the people we encounter on our journey and to better understand the French culture and attitude.

These next three weeks, I will be taking a break from my gluten-free lifestyle to enjoy the fabled French baguettes and to fully execute my research project. I will be studying how food and the culture surrounding meals plays into the lives of the French people. This will entail making careful observations at restaurants and markets as to the French attitude towards food and the role food plays in “la vie quotidienne” of the French people.As Brillat-Savarin said in Physiologie du goût: “La destinée des nations dépend de la façon dont elles se nourrissent.” Obviously, I have been prepping for this project for many years: here is a sampling of my Parisienne food research (2005):

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France is also the country from which my name originates; consequently, I feel a special connection to the culture already. My brother, Malachi, was not particularly amused by my antics:

Café Camille
Café Camille

While I have never been outside of Paris, I am very excited to learn about the architecture we will be studying across the country. I have always been in awe of the French architectural feats:

 

Bateaux Mouches
Bateaux Mouches
La Tour Eiffel
La Tour Eiffel

Merci infiniment. A bientôt.