Nobody ever comes to a place for the first time more than once. As obvious as that is to anybody, still there’s something profound underlying every beginning any of us experiences. The things that come before a new start stay with us while we “begin” again, and yet the things we are set to become are also right there, latent somewhere inside of our new start.
The start of a new Village Program is always a busy, crazy and emotional time for all of us, students, staff and faculty alike. The same can be said for our villagers here in Pontlevoy. On arrival weekend, you see people making sure that the streets look cleaner than they did yesterday. You see the baker and his family putting chocolate covered donuts out, alongside the croissants and the other classically French goodies. And you see smiles and waves from our locals, as they look at once excited and maybe just a tiny bit nervous. Excited because they love their home town and expect that the students will, too, just like the other groups have in the past. Nervous, maybe, because the village is so small and on some level, perhaps, the folks who hail from here wonder if their tiny town is going to be enough for the Americans, who in the French imagination are supposed to be folks who want big things, fast things and luxury things.
Those things aren’t here in Pontlevoy. What’s here are slow things, small things and quiet things. The stones of the buildings that make up the village are ancient. They didn’t change a whit when the Renaissance brought Leonardo da Vinci north to live and then die in the nearby town of Amboise. Again they stayed constant when the 18th Century Enlightenment and then the French Revolution ushered in more change than France (and maybe the world) had ever seen before. The 19th Century’s industrialization hardly changed Pontlevoy’s tiny cityscape. And the same constancy endured through two world wars and even during the stubbornly brutal occupation suffered by the town when the Nazis spent four years here as conquerors.
Mainly, change has visited Pontlevoy through people who find the village and make some small or large part of their lives here, mixing their beginner energy together with the “locals,” whose grandparents and great grandparents lived and died without ever going very far away from this one town. That mingling of beginner and local is its own engine for change, such that even very old, very slow and very quiet towns will pop to a new life when old and new make their small agreements to live well together.
The new Village always starts on a September afternoon. Sometimes with sunshine everywhere, more often with some rain clouds all around, and always with suitcases, tired students, and a village waiting in its cafes and behind its shutters. To see who the new American will be and how they will react to what “real” France is in a tiny village, that time–but most certainly not care–has all but forgotten.
The Village, our faculty, and our staff welcome the beginners with arms and hearts wide open to a semester of adventure, travel, learning and growth. And if we don’t remind our debutants the village will do it. Maybe Julien? Maybe Carole? Maybe Pamela or some of the many host families? Somebody will remind our new group that before their arrival Pontlevoy and The Village had all of the other groups. The classes of Americans who have come since 2002, totaling more than 600 students. And almost 90 faculty. Those citizens of The Village and of Pontlevoy who were here for their three months and then left? Gone but never forgotten. And not really even gone. Not when you take a walk out into the vineyards to look back across the fields at the great Abbey building, seeing it from a distance–so vast and so much a sentinel. Standing watch over the countryside as it has in one form or another for a thousand years. Awaiting everyone’s eventual return, as if to say…nobody leaves here, really. They just journey to wherever and come back when they can.