Through sickness and health, to France and back: a family adventure

Carol Prentice

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Here's the thing: A couple of years ago now, my husband, Robin Walz, a history professor at UAS, tossed his hat in the ring for a chance to teach for a semester in Angers, France, through the Northwest Council on Study Abroad (NCSA). Suspecting that I might have minor misgivings about his spending five-plus months in France's Loire Valley while I stayed home tending hearth and home, he had the foresight to consult me. So, sure, a couple of years ago I gave my permission for him to apply. Our high-school-age daughter saw the opportunity before I did.

"Hey, Dad? If you get the position, I mean, just if you do, could I come with you and study French?"

"Sure, honey, that sounds great."

Hey, wait a minute. Why didn't I think of that?

So a year later he, in fact, does get the position and I'm sizing up the situation thinking something is askew. My husband and daughter are taking off for France and I'm spending winter in Juneau with our son, dog, cat and hamster keeping the pipes from freezing? I don't think so. Through sickness and health, to France and back. That's how I remember those vows anyway. So through a sequence of good luck and, well, more good luck, I find myself leaving martyrdom buried in the Juneau snow and am packing my bags.

Guidebooks have a way of making even Tulsa, Okla., seem a must-see destination; Angers, however, really does appear to be a near-perfect locale. Located 288 km (179 miles) southwest of Paris between the Maine and Loire rivers, it is a city of 150,000 to 270,000 inhabitants, depending on which guidebook one consults (maybe that's with and without tourists, like Juneau with five cruise ships docked). The 30,000 students make it a lively spot for café and nightlife.

Angers is home to the famed Apocalypse Tapestries, dating from the 1300s, depicting prophesies from the New Testament in 74 scenes. Better still, the tapestries are housed in the Angers Castle, one of the best-preserved fortresses in France, surrounded by a moat and stunning gardens. And best of all, we will be living down the street on the corner of Rue Saint-Laud and Rue de la Roe - maybe a 10-minute walk. It is reputed that residents of the Loire Valley speak the purest form of French, an attribute that will be entirely wasted on me.

I feel like Charlie, of Willie Wonka fame, when he opened that fateful candy bar containing one of the golden tickets. We depart in two shifts - Robin and Heather left on Jan. 16 and will return to Juneau just in time to build a sand sculpture of the Eiffel Tower at Sandy Beach on the Fourth of July. Shane and I follow their flight pattern a month later to join them for three of their almost six months, returning May 10.

Juneau is full of families much more adventuresome than ours - families navigating sailboats through Pacific waters, quitting jobs and moving to New Zealand, circumnavigating Australia by plane. Still, the idea of a family living day-to-day life in a historic, picturesque city in France for several months holds adventures of its own. Our daughter, a sophomore, will attend the Lycee Sainte Agnes, a Catholic High School, where her three years of French study will be put to the test. Our son, a fifth grader, will hopefully attend the affiliated ecole, also Catholic and exclusively French-speaking. The choice was simple - Sainte Agnes accepts foreign students, the modest fee is within our budget, and home schooling isn't in my repertoire. I will continue to work on a part-time telecommuting basis. We will live in a city-center apartment - three flights above a row of shops - that is maintained for visiting professors (and, in this case, their families). We will practice that ancient ritual of walking to our destination. We will shop at the local grocery, cross the street for fresh bread and fill our prescriptions at the pharmacy just below our apartment.

I look forward to relaying stories of the our experiences in Angers - the people we meet, the attitude of the French toward Americans, the perceptions of a 10-year-old boy and 15-year-old girl as they attend school in a language not their own, and the misadventures of daily life.

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