For years, I have been looking at the EH catalogue for
this college, the oldest Catholic Women's College in the country, because
of its programs. The offerings specialize in an entire week with one
country and its history, culture, cuisine, art and so forth. Since I was
already in Kentucky, a mere 350 miles away, I thought I would try this EH
all about France.
Ever hear the one about Harry Truman and his yearning
for a one-armed economist? No? Well, that is the story that haunts me
whenever I think about this EH. Truman wanted a one-armed economist so the
expert would not keep saying "on the other hand…" That is the
way I feel about St. Mary of the Woods College. (SMWC) It was neither all
good nor was it all bad ; just a frustrating mixture of both.
felt a literary foreshadowing from the beginning. I had reserved a room
for the night before the EH began, on March 25, and this was easy enough
to arrange by phone. However, when I arrived, after a long drive from KY,
there was no key to my room at the guesthouse as promised. There was
nobody in charge, not even a concierge, so, tired as I was from my
journey, I walked about a half mile to the guardhouse, and told my plight
to the security people. I took this walk three times. First, the
coordinator had to be called to get the proper key. Then, the key did not
fit the trick lock. Then, I was locked out of the bathroom, which opened
to an adjoining room and was locked inside the bathroom on each adjoining
On the other hand, I did make the acquaintance of two
nice security people named Harold and Tom. Be warned, if you are going
there, to make a treaty with the person in the next room so you will not
be locked out of the bathroom! Still, the guesthouse is a very pleasant
place. The rooms are large, there is a lounge for guests on each of the
two floors, and there is a device on the bulletin board if you are shut
out of the bathroom. The guards are available if you are locked out in the
middle of the night. You might want to dress accordingly before going to
bed. No problem, as everyone is quite friendly.
More on Accommodations: The guesthouse is very clean
and home-like if you can get a key to your room. There is a comfortable
lounge downstairs with a color TV set without cable, and a kitchen. A
powder room can be used in emergencies if you are shut out of your
bathroom and the bulletin board tool is missing. The grounds are very well
kept and pleasant. On the other hand, most of the entrances to the
buildings are littered with ancient cigarette butts. It was rumored that
none of the buildings are air conditioned, although this place is in
Food; … Lunch and Dinner can be considered fair to
good. There were plenty of fresh vegetables at the salad bar. There was
also a sandwich bar, so the buffet line went smoothly. These two meals
were held in a very spacious large hall. Breakfast, on the other hand, was
very strange. Breakfast was in a swollen closet in a dormitory building.
As one entered, fruit was on the right, and the liquids, juice, coffee,
milk, was at the center of the right hand wall. As one proceeded along
toward the left, there were containers of dry cereal that had to be shaken
because they were stale. Then we had to reverse to the right to get some
milk for the dry cereal, bumping into people going toward us. All of this
had to be done without any trays and with paper bowls and plastic
utensils. If you go there, bring three hands for breakfast, and do squeeze
the bagels, some of which are artifacts from Paleolithic times Would you
expect French toast at a French Elderhostel? Hah! You have to bring your
own hot food such as oatmeal, grits, eggs, or pancakes or meat. Breakfast
was very cold, brittle, and unsatisfying. On the other hand, it was very sociable,
as many of us kept bumping into each other in that oversized closet, and
because there were no trays, I almost learned to juggle.
Program: The program promised the following: French
opera, language, cinema, history, architecture, rare books, horsemanship,
views of France, literature, virtual visit to Paris and the Louvre, a
musical evening, France in America, aquatics, wine, and a farewell dinner.
Maybe I skipped something, as the promises were not all kept.
Frankly, my dears, I would rather that SMWC
concentrated on a few good aspects of the Franks instead of squeezing so
much superficiality into four days. This amounted to a few interesting
sessions, but on the other hand, there were some hours when France was
merely mentioned, and the rest of the class had nothing whatsoever to do
with La Gloire de France. These other times offered all the fizz and charm
of an uncorked bottle of champagne a day or two after Bastille Day.
The two-hour class on French opera conducted by Fr.
Bernie was nothing short of brilliant…but it was too short in view of
the whole program. More! Bravo! This class was well organized,
informative, and full of fun. Fr. Bernie is a very talented teacher. Would
that more hours were spent this way! This was the first presentation, and
it led me to expect a continued high standard at SMWC.
Chris Salmon was excellent in introducing us to some
simple French phrases and customs as well as a survey of outstanding
French classical literature. On the other hand, she also was in charge of
an evening of French cinema. I was anxiously awaiting this, as I wanted to
see, maybe, Brigitte Bardot pronouncing the formidable ewe sound. But what
did we see? A SILENT film, with a strangely accented French voice in
English!! Silent!! I can assure all of you that a silent film made in
France is very much like a silent film made anywhere else!! The
presentation of Virtual Paris and the Louvre was on a CD-ROM, which could
have been seen on any home computer. On the other hand, an hour and a half
of travel slides presented by Mr. Michael Buzash were very interesting and
worthwhile, as he offered many personal comments and observations.
Three and a half-hours of French History were
guillotined by a very boring teacher who. handed us a sheet titled
Highlights of French History and droned out fact after fact from the
Cro-Magnons to the Fifth Republic. There were some who were impressed with
the teacher's being impressed with himself in reciting so many facts from
memory. In fact, there were more facts than a fax machine. In my opinion,
French history was murdered. There was no humor, no context, no
interpretation, no demography, psychology, biography or geography. Not one
decent map of France was presented. Oh, yes, France could be seen inside
several world history maps mounted on a tripod, but these kept falling
down, just as the French Empire did. I almost drowned in the teacher's
stream of consciousness as he kept on and on about his boyhood trips to
French Canada and the virtues of Indiana wheat. I almost paid attention
when he mentioned Napoleon, but the teacher merely exiled the Little
Corporal again with the comment: "You all know about Napoleon."
And that was enough!!… The instructor gave his own epitaph to this dead
class when he said: "More was produced, than could be consumed."
I saved myself from sinking when I began to recite to myself,
alphabetically, what was produced in France, but I could get no further
than the letter B…Brigitte Bardot. On the other hand, as Bogart said to
Bergman: "We'll always have Paris…" and the Fifth Republic
parts of the program can be considered as "Also in France." It
was pleasant to know, for example, that the French appreciate good
horsemanship, and the horses respond to French training, but I could not
tell a French horse from a Kentucky one. The folk singer was very
talented. He was connected to French culture through his father, who was
French Canadian, but he knew not any French songs. On the other hand, his
rendition of Kentucky miners songs was excellent. And so it went with
architecture, a nature walk, a walk around the campus, an interesting
display of the history of the religious order, and a tour of the
hundred-year old church But I missed the French Connection quite
frequently, and had the impression these presentations were given merely
to fill in the program.
The final day was supposed to be the climax to our
Elderhostel…the piece de resistance, if you will. It began with a
monotone lecture on French-Canadian History, featuring the professor's
attempt at a class discussion: "Who knows who discovered the Saint
Lawrence River?" Then we boarded buses for our only field trip. The
first stop was the exciting promise of "Inland Aquatics" and of
course, adolescent that I am, I had visions of skimpy French bathing
suits, perhaps with Brigitte Bardot squeezing into one of them. No such
luck, as this turned out to be a tropical fish store. I tried hard to look
at one of the colorful fish and see Charles De Gaulle, but again I failed
at the French Connection. Next, we went to the Terre Vin Winery, which
sounded like a Gallic delight because of its name. This winery, however,
was devoted to the glories of Indiana wine, which we did sample. The
vintner told us she was asked to mention France, so she said:
"France, too, makes wines." Most of the wine-thirsty
Elderhostelers liked this place, and bought quantities of wine. As for me,
I had over 800 miles to drive, and thought patriotically of New Jersey
wine. Where were the French wines?
The Farewell Dinner, Thursday night was our last chance
to exchange pleasantries and addresses. We were crammed into a small
conference room so that some chairs were back to back, and the poor
waitresses had to reach across some noses to elbow their way to the dirty
dishes. The food was fairly good and featured cordon bleu, French onion
soup, and a demonstration of how French crepes were made. All went well,
until the Senior Coordinator, who was absent most of the time, interrupted
each table with the announcement "this is a commercial!" and
tried to peddle SMWC T-shirts! The French might say c'est tres. gauche….
And we might say…how tacky!! There is more savoir-faire in any Jersey
diner, where it is pronounced as savvy.
The announcement was made at the Farewell Dinner that
we had to evacuate the premises by 9:30 AM the next morning, Friday, March
31st to make way for another group. There would be only a
"Continental Breakfast" which is what I thought we were having
all along, so what could be less than that? I did not stay to find out.
There was no Farewell Lunch, as offered in other Elderhostels and no box
lunch to take along, as I have enjoyed from many other places.
To enter or to leave this Elderhostel, if you are
taking I-70, East or West, my urgent recommendation is to disregard the
directions offered by SMWC, as it will take you through a forest of signs,
and a gasoline alley of seedy establishments. A kind soul told me to
follow Route 40 after entering or exiting I-70, which goes right into Rte
150, and that is where you can find SMWC if you want to go there.
For a single accommodation, SMWC costs less than other
Elderhostels. On the other hand….