11am, Arrival at Charles de Gaulle airport. After retrieving our bags from the carrousel, the art/photo and culinary groups meet up with Fatima, a French university student and intern from Centre Educatif International (CEI), our in-country partner for all French programs.
We boarded a coach bus and departed in the direction of the French capital, Paris. Our lodging for the next three days, Hotel Roubaix, is an eccentric and bedazzled boutique hotel located in the 4tharrondissement of Paris. The walls of the hotel are covered in a bizarre mix of Art Deco super hero posters, impressionist tableaus framed in gold leaf, and ornate porcelain tableware. Perhaps the most popular feature of the hotel is the early 20th century, three-person mini elevator, which, despite moving at escargot-like speeds, quickly becomes the preferred mode of transportation among the students.
With all of our belongings tucked away in our rooms and with cameras in hand, we hit the pavement! We headed south several blocks to the plaza facing Le Centre Pompidou, France’s premiere museum of modern art. Here, we enjoyed our first meal together of savory crepes, paninis, and pizza. The topic of discussion: the subtle differences in taste between American and European soft drinks and cheese pizza. Before the symptoms of our post-lunch, “food comas” begin to set in, we continued our journey to Norte Dame. Located on the Île de la Cite, an island in the very heart of Paris. Notre Dame is the 2nd largest, and unquestionably the most famous cathedral in all of France. Unfortunately, the moment we queued up, the angry clouds gave out and it began to rain hard, or as the French would say, “comme les vaches qui pisses”. In the end, we braved the elements and hurried inside for refuge. Damp and groggy-eyed, we returned to Hotel Roubaix for a rendezvous with Julie, our program coordinator, for a quick preview of our program’s itinerary and general logistics. Shortly thereafter, we marched back into the rain for dinner at a French restaurant nearby. Students try filet de canard, poached salmon, beef carpaccio, and escargots at a local restaurant. With full stomachs and hearts, we all returned to the hotel and our beds for some tumultuous, jet lag-fueled sleep.
On day two, we took the metro #4 line south to the right bank where the CEI offices are located for an introduction to the art and photography component of our program.
Waiting for us, were our two art instructors, Thomy Keats and Hélène Mourrier. Thomy, our resident camera guru, works throughout the year as a professional architecture photographer and member of a Paris-based street photography collective. Hélène, our art teacher and default group matriarch, is a prolific freelance artist and LGBTQI+ activist with a seemingly endless lineup of projects in various mediums.
Hélène and Thomy gave a brief introductory lesson on the principles of art and photography and passed out art supplies to each student: colored pencils, watercolors, painting gum, sketchbooks, and more. As we left CEI, we made a quick pit stop at Les Deux Magots, a legendary Parisian café known for its strong, bitter coffee and several cups of their delicious, albeit expensive, Chocolat Chaud des Deux Magots. Sufficiently caffeinated, we then walked to Le Centre Pompidou to attend a wonderful exhibition of American painter and iconoclast, David Hockney.
Following the exhibition, we took the metro to L’Arc de Triomphe and then to the Seine, Paris’ arterial river for a ride on a bateaux mouche, an ultra-touristy ferry boat. Despite the cold winds and drizzling rain, the students snapped some fantastic pictures of the riverbanks and the illuminated Eiffel Tour.
On our final morning in Paris we headed to the 19th arrondissement for a full day of art workshops with Thomy and Hélène. Half the group spent the morning with Thomy at a community arts center, where the students learned to develop black and white photos in a darkroom.
The other half accompanied Hélène to the Ecole National de Beaux-Arts to attend an open gallery event, showcasing the contemporary works of the school’s newest cohort. In the afternoon, the group switched activities to get the full experience. We ended our jam-packed day with a delicious meal at a Thai restaurant in the Marais neighborhood.
At 9am the next morning we said goodbye to Hotel Roubaix and Paris and boarded the bullet train towards the south of France to the provincial city of Aix-en-Provence.
Over the next three days Aix became our artistic and gastronomic playground. Our students took their learning to the street by navigating about town, snapping photos, sketching drawings, and ordering some of the best food France has to offer.
The following morning, we visited the former workshop of Cezanne, the famous 20th century impressionist known for painting many versions of Mont Ste. Victoire. That afternoon we explored the bizarre Fondation Vasarely – known for its hexagonal show rooms and massive optical illusion art installations.
We finished off our stay in Aix with a nice group dinner near Cathédrale Saint Sauveur before we made our walk back to Hotel Mozart to say ‘au revoir’ to Thomy and prepare for our departure from Aix.