Friday, December 7, 2012

A Dinner in Cannes, for Michelle

I have had the good fortune, the absolute delight to share my love of food with so many people over the years.  This blog really is at heart about the power that food wields in helping us form bonds with each other.  I have been a history teacher for 20 years and shared my love of food in class often – by describing food in history, talking about changes in the food supply or pointing out directions to a great ice cream spot not far from Notre Dame de Paris as every bit as important as understanding the Gothic architecture we are supposed to be looking at on a slide.  For a number of years I mustered the courage, energy and insanity to actually take students to Europe and share history and food with them.  There are enough memorable stories from these trips to fill a book.  But in light of the subject here – food – and the tragic passing of one of these students I would like to share one foodie story here.

In 2004 I had a group of upperclassmen ready to go for a trip from London to Rome in 17 days.  It featured lots of down time and demanded lots of responsibility on the part of students.  Two spots opened and the two best candidates were actually sophomores – best friends, joined at the hip – Andrea and Michelle.  I thought the world of them but wondered how they might deal with being the youngest in a senior-laden crowd.  They did great, formed many new friendships and grew up A LOT in a little over two weeks.  They wasted no time in trying to convince me to take them again after their senior year.  Nor did they shy away from injecting their two cents into the route selection.  Needless to say, they came along again a couple years later.  This time we went from Paris to Barcelona, across the south of France and down to Pisa, Florence and Rome. 

Kids on these sorts of trips have to know that food won’t be like at home.  We aren’t stopping at McDonalds or Applebees and some of the food may not be to their liking.  They have to be able to just eat what they get.  For my nerves, they have to eat without complaining... we’re guests in another culture.  I, after all, want my students challenged.  I want some authentic food, but meals more often tended to the bland, boring and teenage-American-friendly.  Andrea and Michelle were picky eaters, but never complained once on either trip.  They were awesome travelers. 

On their second trip we had one of those foodie experiences that could only thrill and horrify.  We arrived on the outskirts of Cannes, France just before dinner.  The bus unloaded and many of the kids headed straight for the beach.  A number of them had never been in the ocean before so they got a little Mediterranean baptism.  I am not sure that there can be bigger smiles than those of Midwestern teens’ with their feet in cobalt seas.  After some play we regrouped and headed into the restaurant across the street.  They had us seated upstairs in a huge room with a sea view.  It certainly seemed as though we’d have a good experience.

Then the first dishes came out.  I saw a few eyes get big.  I didn’t know if I should get excited or concerned.  Then I saw the plates.  My mind spun…

“Great!  Finally something real.  Finally something they haven’t tried, something truly from here.”
“Oh, no!  Nobody will eat but me.  I can’t have 20 kids heading into the evening starving.”
“Oh, no!  God help the first kid who rolls their eyes or complains.  Oh, no…please let them handle this well!”

In front of every one of us was placed a simple, beautiful plate of six grilled, whole sardines and a small salad.  It was pretty, authentically Mediterranean, hot and fresh.  It was the sort of meal I wished my students would see every night of this trip.  But it was also well outside my students’ comfort zone.  This would be a test.
 I started in on one fish, carefully slipping a fork between flesh and spine, lifting a beautiful filet right off the skeleton.  A few students watched and tried to imitate, doing a pretty good job.  Before long I saw almost every student doing the same…not an eye roll, not a sneer, not a ”yuck” in the room.  They handled this like champs.  A few remarked how much they liked it.  A few quietly mentioned later they didn’t like it, but figured they might as well eat.  And one just secretly shared all her six sardines with others who liked them.  They handled the meal like true travelers, and I could not have been more proud.  And Andrea and Michelle were the leaders of the pack.

During these two trips I watched Andrea and Michelle mature, broaden their horizons, and become mostly-fearless adventurers.  They stayed in touch through college, often dropping by for dinner.  While best friends, they went their own paths in life, supporting one another in being their own people.  When I am asked what’s fun or gratifying about being a teacher, I think about the honor of being a part of lives like theirs. 

I can end a work week content knowing that I make a difference.  But this work week I end with a heavy heart.  Michelle died from injuries suffered in a car accident late last night.  The world will be different without her.  Andrea has lost an amazing friend, as have so many other people.  Parents have lost a daughter and her brother has lost his role model.  Her laughter, smile, and love of life will be sorely missed.  But many of us are better people for having known her.  Thanks, Michelle.  Thank you for what you brought to my life and so many others’.    

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