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Memories of a visit to Bordeaux

People sit at cafes around a fountain in Bordeaux

As I look back on my time teaching English during the summer months in Bordeaux, the Proustian effect is in full swing. As an American English teacher and professor, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to teach American college students in Bordeaux during the summer before the covid outbreak. Channeling my inner Proust, the great French writer adored these little cakes, I took a bite of my madeleine from the famed Blé Sucré patisserie in Square Trousseau in Paris and thought of my happy, healthy, vibrant students from the University of California, spending a summer studying French literature and culture in  Bordeaux.

They were assigned to read a classic adventure novel by the French author Jules Verne, Around the World In 80 Days published in 1873. The main protagonist Phileas Fogg, a very rigid and disciplined man embarks on the journey of a lifetime eastward around the world after betting his friends he could get round it in 80 days. This novel inspired me to make my own bet with my students and set them off on their own journey of a lifetime – in Bordeaux. We had 80 hours. And our focus was on artistic and cultural excursions on our days off and on weekends. I set them the task of writing cultural reviews and essays on their experiences. I wanted them to become Proustian scholars and experience firsthand the visual, auditory and sensory delights the city had to offer.

Museums and cakes

Small fluted cakes called Canele, a Bordeaux speciality

First stop was the Museum of Natural History, one of the most popular in Europe, created after the French Revolution. The museum now has a collection of more than 4,000 species and my students had fun engaging in interactive exhibits. On another day trip, we visited the Bernard Magrez Cultural Institute which provided an eclectic mix of 18th century architecture with elegant French gardens. As they nibbled on Canelés, I told them of the legend that these little pastries were made by nuns at the Couvent de L’Annociade de Bordeaux at the end of the 17th century.

Wide stone staircase at the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux

At the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux at the Place de la Comédie, I watched my students jaws drop as the visual assault of Corinthian columns, grand staircase and chandelier made of bohemian crystals left them speechless.

We visited the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. Here, nestled in the LaLande Hotel, the students were engulfed in an atmosphere that combined both contemporary and aristocratic artistic flavors in an 18th century mansion encompassing the soul of old Bordeaux. This house belonged to the Bordeaux aristocracy at the end of the Ancien Regime, a time referring primarily to the aristocratic, social and political system of early modern France under the late Valois and Bourbon dynasties. The beautiful building unquestionably enhances the artworks and antique furniture exhibited there.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art there are more than 1,000 pieces of modern art by over 200 artists, half a century of creation in beautiful rooms with vaulted ceilings. Here we participated in educational events and performances by local French artists. Located in the district of Les Chartrons, between the banks of the Garonne and the Jardin Public, we walked and cycled along the river.

And finally, the Proustian scholars stopped at the Palais Rohan Museum of Fine Arts, with its paintings and sculptures including Picasso, Matisse, Renoir. Later that evening, as we had our farewell Bordeaux dinner dining on the sun-drenched shores of the Côte d’Argent savoring oysters native to this region, the students read their fictional stories aloud to each other, which made for a perfect closing ceremony for our time in this fascinating city. Dessert was les Puits d’amour, or “well of love” a speciality of Bordeaux, which we bought at  the Capucins market.

We were all enchanted, enthralled and inspired by Bordeaux’s rich artistic and cultural history and returned to Los Angeles with our senses exhausted and overloaded. Just as Proust would have wanted.

Holly Ricciuti is an American High School English teacher and adjunct professor with a Fine Arts degree from UCLA. Holly has taught English and Drama in Los Angeles, New York, Italy and France, and currently teaches and lives in Miami, Florida.

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