Day 1

It has been quite an eventful first day. First I told all of them to get some sleep on Tuesday night. But do they listen to me? No…. So they were a bit tired. They did manage to sleep on the plane and then we were greeted by our drivers to take us to our hotel. It is cute and nice but the students are a bit jealous because I have a view of the Eiffel Tower (completely random).

Our first stop was the Garnier Opera House which is one of my favorite places in Paris.

We walked there from the hotel since the weather was very nice. Yarden said she liked the Gold Foyer which is the room I would like to get married it. We found out it only costs 50,000 Euro for a night. Bargain. They were practicing for a ballet and we got a sneak peak that Rachel really enjoyed. We learned that in the late 1800’s this was the place to see and be seen. Sexism was alive and well and we learned that the men would bring their wives on Monday nights, daughters on Wednesday nights, and mistresses on Fridaynights. Hmmm the French.

We then decided to take the Metro to practice going around like a Parisian. After refreshing in our hotel we went for a tour of our neighborhood Montmartre which reminds me of Florentine but more extreme. We learned that this is the hipster neighborhood of Paris. The residents are called BoBos (Bohemian Bourgeois). The guide made a joke. How can you tell the difference between a Bobo and a homeless person? The Bobo has an Iphone 5. Montmartre was located outside the walled city of Paris so at the time a big industry of alcohol and prostitution developed since they avoided Parisian taxes. And at some point Jews also moved in who were escaping other parts of Europe and were looking for cheaper places to live. Today there are no Jews and little of the prostitution but they definitely have A LOT of shops selling sex toys in the neighborhood. Besides that problem the neighborhood there lots of artists, musicians, clubs, restaurants etc.

We learned the story of Misstic. A woman whose lover spurned her by saying “I never want to see your face again.” So to get back at him she made a stencil of her face and hung it all over Paris wherever she thought he would go. He left town and she became a well-known artist who is still alive today with the motto “Love, Glory, and Botox.”

We also learned about Marcel Aym. He wrote children stories and one about a man who can walk through walls. There is a statue of this and if you shake his hand you can make a wish. You can see some of the students did it.

We ate dinner at a cute restaurant near our hotel and most of the students went to sleep rather early since we have to be up at 7:30am.

Day 2

The Metro was quite an experience during rush hour. I guess for the New Yorkers it was no big deal but I think Kira is still in shock. Talk about an intimate way to get to know the French people. But it is fun traveling around the city like a native.

I should mention in the morning we had a French breakfast which consists of croissant, bread, butter, jam, orange juice, and coffee/tea. Not my idea of a breakfast but later in the day when we passed a very fancy café we saw people eating the same thing.

Our first stop this morning was the Israeli embassy. I would like to take a moment to make a commercial for Aardvark as a program. No one does what we do educationally and this is a clear example. You can take your kids to Europe on vacation, you can let them run around there on their own doing god-knows-what, or you can send them on an educational tourism program like ours. We got to learn and see things that you never would as a regular tourist. We spent a fascinating 3 hours there. First off the students were dressed great and they acted very mature. We were dealing with high-level university talks and they were paying attention the whole time.

At first we met with Mr. Zvi Tal who is the Deputy Chief of the Mission (the number two guy in charge) who gave us an overview of the France-Israeli relationship from an historical point of view until today’s modern challenges. We got the impression that currently for the most part France is a pretty good ally of Israel but things can definitely change. I had asked the students beforehand to be prepared with questions and they were ready to go with Natan being the first brave student to break the ice. I had also asked Rachel to impress the Deputy Chief by asking her question in French (and yes he was impressed). Mr. Tal outlined the classic anti-Semitism that effects French society, the new anti-Semitism of the far left, and the newest problem of the Muslim violent anti-Semitism. He spent a lot of time with the students even though this is a busy time for him due to one of the Israeli ministers visiting the country.

He was followed by a presentation from Mr. Elad Ratson who is the director of the Public Relations Department. Mr. Ralston laid out how the embassy deals with all the anti-Israel hatred and pointed out a couple of cool things that they do like bringing Israeli Imams to France to speak in the mosques. They don’t say just good things about Israel of course but they do have some things to say to change perceptions amongst French Muslims who are just used to vilifying the country completely. Another project is to bring Christian and Muslim Arabs in Israel who run startup companies together which conveys the message that they get along in Israel as opposed to the rest of the Middle East.

But the most fascinating part was the tour of the building in the end where we got to learn about some of the secret, behind the scenes things Israel does. I admit that I was completely shocked that we were being told such secretive information that I am not going to write here and that I don’t want the students to write to you about. Let them tell you on the phone. But it is amazing and highly creative how Israel goes to great lengths to help protect our country and win over hearts and minds to our cause.

You can see from one of the attached pictures that the embassy is located in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the city. Pictured with our students are two cars: a Lamborghini Aventador and an apparently more impressive Bugatti (I have no idea what I am talking about. Thanks Gil for pointing out how special and expensive they are. To me…they are just pretty cars).

We then walked towards the Eiffel Tower where we past the make-shift memorial to Princess Diana on the spot she was killed in the car crash. I tried to convey to the students how huge that news was, and her funeral, and how the whole world watched and was saddened.

Of course the students loved the Eiffel Tower. I reluctantly went up there with them because I am their fearless leader but I hate heights and was not so happy. We got rained on a bit at the top even though Dr. Google said no rain…but it didn’t last long.

Then we made our way to a kosher restaurant to meet with 4 Jewish college students. We ate dinner with them and shared information about France, the USA/Canada, and Israel.

It was fascinating and really important for our educational goals. Two of the boys were very clear…they and all their families were going to leave France and basically every person they know are planning to leave because of the anti-Semitism. People remember the Shoah and are not waiting around for another one to happen. The current debate is deciding between the USA and Israel. They predicted within 10 years there would be few Jews left. The two girls who were there were less sure. One said that she was less religious than the others and part Asheknasi (as opposed to the majority of French Jewry which is Mizrachi). She seemed committed to stay in France for now along with her family. Then suddenly she remembered that her mother is planning to move to Israel when she retires so it is not out of the question. The other woman was debating with herself and her family if they should stay or go. She has a grandmother that is determined to stay in France. She said she was born in north France and wants to die in north France. So their plans are on hold.

I also want to stress for a couple of the families that these 4 Jewish students were very moved by the fact that we came to visit them in France and it was important and nice for them to meet young Jews and know they are not alone in their struggle.

The students will go out a little tonight but not too late since we have another early wake up.

Day 3

Watch these clips from Mel Brook’s History of the World Part I. I didn’t show them to the students during their orientation because I don’t think they would get the comedy (so I used Robin Williams and Steve Martin instead). The first clip with the great Cloris Leachman shows the peasants planning their uprising against the French Monarchy. The second clip involves Mel Brooks being King Louis in Versailles and Harvey Korman as Count de Monet. What I like about Mel Brook’s comedy is that he doesn’t really have to exaggerate too much to show history in a non-text book manner. And that is where we began our day…out to the countryside.

It started off as a hunting chateau until Louis XIV, the arrogant maniacal king who thought of himself as a half god began to build this marvelous palace and spectacular garden area. Our tour was of the gardens and even though we were there for hours we only saw 25% of the place. I guess the main message we learned from Versailles is that it was a place for the king and 15,000 nobelman and that it was disgusting and smelled horrific. People defecated wherever they wanted including inside. Louis only took a bath a few times in his whole life believing that he would get sick and die if he did. During the day everyone had to act very proper. There was even a specific way people were allowed to walk (when you see your children make them demonstrate). But at night the hypocrisy kicked in and let’s just say it was X-rated.

It was clear to us from the tour how opulent the place was and how much it costs to build. And while Paris was starving the aristocracy was having a grand time which led to the French Revolution and the eventual killing of the royal family.

Back in Paris we got to visit Notre Dame. First we went up to the towers to see a spectacular view of the city and to see up close the gargoyles. All I am saying is that there are a lot of stairs. A lot! No need for a stair-master this week.

Then we went into the church itself. It is huge and I can imagine hundreds of years ago how intimidated the average citizen would have been in the face of the imposing church.

Day 4

Weird, walking, wild, and wacky were the themes of today. Since it was Shabbat and the weather was very nice we walked today and it gave us a chance to see a lot of the city.

We started off weird with a visit to the underground sewerage system of Paris. And yes it was smelly. But it was a first for the students and something they will always remember. Plus I wanted them to appreciate the people who work in the sewerage system every time they flush a toilet for the rest of their lives.Day 4

From there we went to Napoleon’s tomb which can be described as wacky. Talk about a megalomaniac. His tomb is huge. But still remember from the schedule that he was very important for the Jews so we do have to give him respect for helping us.

Our visit to O’Chateau was definitely wild. The sign outside reads: “Wine!

Because no great story started with a glass of orange juice…” We expected to learn about wine. We didn’t expect an Asian-looking guy who was French and spoke heavily French accented English. Plus I am pretty sure that the guy doesn’t really want to work in wine but as a stand-up comic. He was really funny (at least the parts that we could understand due to the thick accent). He talked about drinking rose’ wine with his hommies. He told us that in life you can slow down but never stop. And finally in France a meal without wine is called breakfast. We got to drink white, rose’ and deep red wines from different parts of France. We also has some cheese and bread to go along with the wines. Rachel choked, Yarden was knocking things over, and Natan was banging on the table.

We then walked to one of the bridges over the Seine river that has attached to it thousands and thousands of locks.

Lovers come to the bridge and put a lock on the fence together and then throw the keys into the river symbolizing that their bond will never be broken (you will see pictures of it). One of our goals was to find the lock I put there last summer with Yaniv. Needless to say that was not going to happen since there are way too many locks. But I took a picture of a similar looking lock and sent it to Yaniv because it is his birthday today and I was spending it with Aardvark instead of him.

We then went to the Museum of Fashion and Textile. The exhibition was really cool but definitely made up of a lot of clothing that no one would actually wear. It was more for art than wearable. However I saw a shirt made out of porcelain plates that I really want. Well maybe just to wear for Purim but I liked the concept.

Finally we saw the comedy show “How to Become a Parisian in One Hour.”

All the sites of the France trip I already did in the preparation trip but not this one so it was a risk. But it turned out to be very enjoyable. The first shocking thing is that most of the audience seemed to be French. They were coming to a play in English making fun of the French. It was a one-man show and we will send a picture we took with him after the show posing for the camera blowing kisses like the French. We ended with a nice dinner and are back at the hotel.

The students can go out tonight if they wish. We need to check out of the hotel tomorrow at 10 and store our luggage as we go on our last day of touring. If there is time and internet access at the airport I will write the last entry there. If not it will come a day late. We will land in Israel early Monday morning and I am sure the students will get back to their apartments and immediately leave for the volunteering (yeah….right). I plan to sleep.

Day 5

First of all from yesterday I wanted to mention that Natan was a complete gentleman and when we had rain for one moment of our day he gave his raincoat to one of the girls. I also want to mention that Tori has been saving some of her breakfast/lunch and finding homeless people to give food too. It was a nice gesture of her time and effort.

Today we backed our bags, stored them in the hotel, and took off on our first adventure which was a tour of the old Jewish area of Paris called the Marais.

Once this was where jousting took place and then the residence of the king. But when that ended the neighborhood became poorer and a perfect place for new immigrants to move too. While Jews have lived in France for centuries a big wave of Ashkenazim from East Europe arrived in the early 1900’s. Later Mizrachi Jews arrived in the 50’s and 60’s from the former French colonies of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Today the vast majority of French Jews are of Mizrachi origin and they are the ones who are more religious/traditional.

Today in the Marais not many Jews live (they moved more to the suburbs) but there are still a lot of Jewish shops and restaurants. Curiously in France businesses are only allowed to be open 6 days a week so most things are closed on Sundays. Since the Jews observe Shabbat the Marais has been open making it very busy for the French to shop and visit.

We had a great lunch there fusing several cultures at once. We were in France in a kosher restaurant run by Israelis that was playing new wave American music while some of us ate French food.

We then went back to the foot of the Eiffel Tower to catch the boat that we missed a few days ago.

It was a nice hour ride on the Seine and we had nice weather during the tour. Afterwards we finally headed to the Louvre going straight to the Mona Lisa.

It was a struggle for me since we past an Apple Store and without naming names I had several who wanted to see the new Iphone 6. I of course won the argument and we went to see the picture…then I set them free.

We went back to our hotel to catch our taxis to the airport we are in now. And in treating this trip as a reality show (which I love to watch) I had them line up and thanked them for participating in the trip. I really enjoyed working with them but as in any reality show, not everyone could win.

I asked Gil, Ben, and Tori to step forward. Gil and Ben were since for a short part and missed part of the educational program. Tori,though participating in everything was quite loud giving Americans a bad name in Paris even though she is really Canadian. They were voted off the island.

Next Kira and Abby had to step forward. Kira would have starved on the trip without me since I had to help her be less nice and be more aggressive to order her food. Abby was just too nice and for Paris did not fit in. I asked them to leave the runway.

Yarden and Sam stepped forward. Yarden did not ask a question in Hebrew like I had requested. Sam ordered plane pasta which was an insult to French cuisine. They are the weakest link. Goodbye.

Finally Natan and Rachel stepped forward. I had only one picture in my hand. And that picture represented Aardvark International Next Top Tourist. Natan asked the first question of the ambassador and he gave up his raincoat. Rachel helped us translate all through the country and she asked the asst. ambassador a question in French like I asked.

So who gets is? the brave gentleman or the helpful impressor?

The award goes to Rachel. Yeah. Outstanding! You are Aardvark International’s Next Top Tourist.

It has been a lot of fun and educational. Thanks for sending your children.

This blog post was written by Keith Berman, Director of Aardvark Israel Programs.