France wasn’t really in my 2016 travel plans, but last year an opportunity came up that I knew I had to jump on. It was a scholarship for American French teachers, sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington D.C., for a two-week pedagogical “internship” at a language school in the city of Vichy. Very nearly all expenses paid – tuition for the language school, room and board with a host family, a round-trip train ticket from Paris to Vichy, a $600 allowance to defray the cost of a plane ticket, and 200 euros in spending money.
Um, yeah. Sign me up, please.
The only problem was that the scholarship is super competitive. Like, only 20-teachers-nationwide-competitive. Added to that, I didn’t even find about it until literally three days before the deadline Still, I figured I’d give it a shot (it didn’t cost anything to apply – but I did pay to overnight my materials to Chicago) so I cobbled together the application materials as best as I could (realizing that I had lost my passport in the process – thank goodness I had made a copy of the first page for my records!) and crossed my fingers until the day the notifications were to be sent out to the recipients (it was a Friday).
Well, the day came and went and I hadn’t heard anything. I let myself feel disappointed but ultimately moved on – I had rushed to get the application together, after all, so I couldn’t be too surprised – when Wednesday arrived and so did the e-mail that started with Félicitations!
I may have cried a little in front of my students. They were nice about it though!
A few months later I was on a train from Paris to Vichy.
Vichy is an interesting place; it’s in the center of France, right in the midst of a chain of dormant volcanos called Puy-de-Dôme. For literally centuries, Vichy has been known as a place of healing and restoration – there are numerous natural springs that provide the city with mineral water. Some is freely drinkable, and you can fill up as you like at a couple of local wells. The water is naturally carbonated and tastes slightly salty. The others are found in a beautiful art nouveau building in the center of town and can only be drunk with a prescription from the doctor citing your specific ailments and what variety of mineral water you need to drink to cure them.
There are also hot springs and spas are in abundance. Likewise, outdoor activities are in abundance – rowing, biking, horseback racing at the Hippodrome, a lovely riverside park for jogging or rollerblading. It’s a place that values health, quietness and calm. It was lovely. I was surprised at how much I loved it there, particularly considering Vichy’s more recent history.
While Vichy has long been known as a sort of “resort town”, just slightly more than 70 years ago Vichy became known for something else. The French government, on the eve Germany’s invasion of Paris, packed up and left the City of Lights while simultaneously assuring her citizens that there was nothing to fear. Yet the Parisians awoke one day to bombardments, and also to find that their leaders had fled – to Vichy. Vichy became the new capital of France, and forevermore a symbol of the French government’s ultimate collaboration with the Nazi regime. Maréchal Pétain, the president of the Vichy regime, was complicit in the deportation of thousands of Jews – including children (originally denied by the Nazis, Petain sent them anyway) – to ghettos and ultimately, death camps such as Auschwitz.
In Vichy, there are no traces of the war years. No museums, no memorials, no commemorative plaques on any buildings as there are in Paris. The quiet calm of the city makes it hard to believe that such atrocious ugliness happened there. Yet I’m sure the citizens of Vichy – largely made up of elderly retirees – must carry the memory quietly within themselves.
Or perhaps, just as the water of Vichy has healed the many thousands of people who have come to drink from its springs, the city itself has been healed, too.