Next week, my granddaughter is off to France for a semester at the Universite de Montpellier, one of the oldest universities in the world. It was chartered in 1289 but had been established hundreds of years earlier. Its School of Medicine was opened in 1137 and is today the world’s oldest medical school still functioning. In the early sixteenth century, Nostradamus was one of its most famed students.
In 1957, I was doing my doctoral studies in comparative literature at the Universite de Poitiers, one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1431 by Pope Eugene IV and issued a charter by King Charles II. Among famous students who attended were Francois Rabelais and Rene Descartes.
Poitiers was a medieval city not far from the large city of Tours where I lived and commuted to classes. Tours is in the beautiful Loire valley and is referred to as le jardin de Touraine, the garden of Touraine. The French spoken in Tours and surrounding area is considered the purest dialect of French, maintaining much of the dialect from the fifteenth century.
When I lived there I discovered on a map that there was a synagogue in Tours but I was not able to locate it. A clerk in the hotel de ville, the city hall, directed me to a small and hidden building surrounded by tall grass. Excited, I hastened to find it. But it was closed and padlocked.
A neighbor from an adjacent building saw me and cried out: “Monsieur, il est ferme. Peut-etre le Dieu des Juifs est en vacances”…. Sir, it is closed. Perhaps the God of the Jews is on vacation.
He was not being offensive. He was simply reminding me that in August most of France is on vacation.
The city of Montpellier in the south of France is quite different. It has a substantial and well-established Jewish community dating from many earlier centuries. There is a Chabad center, a number of synagogues, and an active communal Jewish life.
That was the redeeming factor for me when my granddaughter announced that Montpellier was her first choice and she had been accepted.
The France of today and the France of 1957 are very different. When I was a graduate student in that year, all of France was tranquil and peaceful and romantic. Unfortunately, it is not the case today. Perhaps France is still romantic but sadly very far from peace and tranquility.
I would have preferred for my granddaughter to pursue her semester in Switzerland under the shelter of the Alps, like Heidi in Johanna Spyri’s 1881 children’s story-book.
I am concerned for her safety in spite of her self-assurances, “Don’t worry, Saba. I will be fine”. From her mouth to God’s ears.
Tragically, there is no truly safe place on the face of the globe. People walk into a movie theatre to enjoy a film. A crazed gunman enters, shooting wildly and killing many innocent people. Other people are sitting in the Max Brenner café in Sarona delighting in their pastries and cappuccino. Suddenly, two wild well-dressed young Arabs begin shooting. Many dead patrons whose pastry and cappuccino remain on the table untouched.
Is there truly a safe corner where men and women and children of all ages can enjoy some moments of beauty and tranquility without having to look left and right over and over again. Is there a terrorist in the bushes or beneath the tree? “Children, stay close to Ima and Abba. Don’t go wandering”. No one knows when or where lightning will strike. Is this how we are meant to enjoy the days of our lives?
So, like me, my granddaughter is off to study in France. Because her mother is Morocco-born, French is a spoken language at home making it much easier to study French literature on French soil. She and I have our own French connection.
I only pray that hers will be as secure and enjoyable in 2016 as was mine in 1957. J’espere!