Friday, November 7, 2008

La Soiree Terroir

Last week, Rebecca's students were on break. After they spent the week with their families, they came back to the University, and the College of Engineering had a party called "La Soiree Terroir" (The Regional Party). Students brought foods (meats, cheeses, tarts, cakes, etc.) and drinks (wines, cognac, ciders) from their home regions in France to share with the students and faculty.

When Rebecca was invited to the party a total of 5 times in one day, by both students and the fellow faculty, she was a little dubious.  Was this an elaborate gag? Like the old "pool on the roof" trick?  

Rebecca's class is, like most classes, composed of the geeks, the aloof cool kids, and those that fall somewhere in between... and yet everyone was full of the same intense energy in anticipation of this event.  In our experience, the hipsters of US institutions (be they in high school, college, or other-wheres) do not often attend school functions, much less those that celebrate the diversity and regional pride of the student body. At the University of Illinois, for instance, such a social gathering would not generate the amount of interest that was apparent in the students and faculty here.  Try to imagine students from East St. Louis challenging the Chicago hipsters to a casserole-off.

One confusing exchange took place with her colleague in the English department, Helene. Helene mentioned that the party was a perennially good time.

"Are you going?" Rebecca asked.

"No, I have to teach at 8 a.m. the next day." Helene replied.

" at 8 p.m." Rebecca wondered aloud.

Finally, after some cajoling, "we" decided that it would be a good opportunity to interact with students outside of class, taste some specialties of France, and practice our French colloquialisms at the same time. Around 8, we biked out to campus (the party was to be held in the main hall of the first floor of the Engineering building) and were greeted with this sight:

We were a little surprised. As we moved through the crowd, we were periodically accosted by Rebecca's students recommending, in charmingly slurred blends of French and English, their home regions and the specialties therein. After visiting a few booths, we realized why everyone was so excited about this party. Hint: it wasn't the food.  In fact, quite a lot of the food--which was balanced precariously on folding tables--seemed to be accumulating on the floor.   Apparently, each year, after the food runs out, the party relocates and continues with just the drinks.

After a little hectic wandering and a totally unsystematic inspection of the various options, we tried (shudders) blood sausage with sweet purple mustard (cold; "It's better hot," Rebecca's student told us).  Next, a kind of cake stuffed with pork sausage (in retrospect we should have tried the one with what looked like barbequed duck). And finally, a slice of coconut cake (excellent).   In the meantime we were plied with various wines (from the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Corsica), cider (from Normandy and Bretagne) and an iced Cognac-orange juice mixture (from the South somewhere).  

There were lots of other kinds of foods and drinks that we would have liked to sample, but in the end we were overwhelmed by the incredible number of people, who were becoming more and more boisterous with each passing moment.  One of Rebecca's first-year students who was acting as a reporter and being videotaped came up and tried to interview her.  Another came up and apologized for skipping the last three weeks of class.  Then, students who were not in Rebecca's class began approaching us enthusiastically in garbled English.  Finally, when two young men ascended the stairs to the balcony above and began to disrobe, we decided that it was time to leave.  

The lesson we learned, which we probably should have intuited from the start, is that while these students certainly are proud of their home regions (there was lots of chanting, yelling, and singing), they are also college students: they are young and they like to party. They are not so different from their American, British, German, etc. counterparts.  In the end, rather than offering up ambitious representations of regional France, most of the efforts were put forth in the service of increasing the intensity, silliness, and disorderliness of the night.  Some of the foods were clearly store-bought versions of regional specialties and were of questionable quality.  The wines tended to be very sweet, and the other beverages were mostly fragrant, cloudy drinks that might not appeal to people outside the region of origin.   

But overall, it was a real experience, and it was fun to see what the students are like outside of class.

No comments: