It’s been almost a week now since our small group returned from France, and I find myself still processing all that we saw and did. I’ve reviewed the SmugMug photo gallery several times, reread the blog posts, and repeated my story about the trip to family, friends and coworkers who are all eager to know “what it was like” or “what was your favorite part.”
There is no short answer to that first question. The experience was so rich and full that there simply is no way to summarize it. Saying it was “great” is the easy response, but if someone really wants to know what it was like, they’ll need 15-20 minutes to spare to hear the details. As for the second question, “what was your favorite part,” that is virtually impossible to answer. The trip was filled with wonderful moments, each special for its own reasons. Trying to identify a favorite thing would be like trying to select your favorite brush stroke in a Monet painting.
The grandeur of Versailles, the works of art in the Lourve, the emotional impact of the Normandy beaches, the remnants of the artificial WWII harbor at Arromanches, the beauty of Monet’s garden, the architecture in Paris and Sarlat, the sense of history conveyed by the various medieval castles and chateaux, the models of Leonard da Vinci’s inventions, the 1000-year-old Bayeux tapestry, the awe-inspiring cave drawings and artifacts left by prehistoric man, the wooly mammoth bones, the cave bear nests, the participation in an actual archaeological dig, the gorgeous countryside that flew by the windows of our bus, the views of the snow-capped Pyrenees, the long dinners, the wonderful food, the sense of camaraderie that developed among all those who participated in the trip. The list of favorite things goes on and on.
If pressed, however, the one thing I would list as being the most important thing I got out of the trip is my greater understanding of and appreciation for prehistoric man. Admittedly, it is the topic on which I was the most ignorant prior to going on the trip. I certainly had no idea that southern France played such an important role in the history of prehistoric man. But over the course of the two weeks, that ignorance was replaced by a new understanding of the amazing capabilities of prehistoric man, their relationship to ourselves, and the reasons why the geography of southern France provided such an hospitable location for prehistoric civilizations.
During the trip, we visited two different prehistory museums, went inside four caves once occupied by prehistoric man, worked on an active “open air” archeological site that is contributing new information to our understanding of life in the Upper Paleolithic era, and visited the ruins of a medieval castle, Commarque, that is built upon a cliff that also houses caves in which Paleolithic people once lived.
We typically think of prehistoric man as brutish “cavemen”, Cro-Magnons, who grunted and hunted and were barely distinguishable from the rest of the animal kingdom. But I was slowly disabused of that notion as we had the opportunity to view the tools and clothing and artwork they created. Intricate, delicate, detailed and beautiful. The artifacts left behind by these people who lived 10,000-30,000 years ago make it clear they were not some inferior version of ourselves. They were us. They were humans who were simply figuring everything out from scratch. How to survive, how to eat, how to think, how to invent, how to create, how to cooperate, how to communicate. They are as much apart of our history as the Greeks or the Romans or the Renaissance men of the middle ages. We benefit from their achievements and stand on their shoulders just as we stand on the shoulders of all the civilizations that preceded us.
As a species, homo sapiens have been around for less than 200,000 years, barely the blink of an eye in relation to the age of the earth. Other species, including other humanoid species, have lived far longer than we have. In realistic terms, we are just getting started as a species, and only time will tell if we will live as long as those species that have preceded us.
These are facts that I vaguely knew before I took the trip. But thanks to this trip, my understanding of these facts is not only much deeper and more enduring, but I have the proper context in which to place them. Reading about history in a book is all well and good, but traveling to the places where history took place and engaging with it using all your senses allows you to connect with that history in a way that would otherwise be impossible. It brings history alive, makes it intimately human, and raises questions in your mind that you otherwise would have never thought to ask yourself. For me, and I hope for the students, this truly was a trip of a lifetime. And for that I offer my deepest thanks to Dr. Claire Gallou, who conceived and organized the trip and put together an itinerary that was spectacular, fun and educational.