Celebrating Goodbye

With my teaching assistant contract drawing to its close, and my life in Vannes, France also nearing its conclusion, there remained one final French tradition for me to experience. Friday night, the day after my last day teaching classes at the high school, I found myself sitting in the living room of my closest colleague and friend, surrounded by several other fellow teachers. Though the group consisted of people I have worked with over the past seven months, the situation was new to me. Unlike a typical mid-day break in the school staff room, or perhaps a lunch in the cafeteria, this meeting, at my friend’s house, had an entirely different tone. Known as the “pot de départ,” this assembly had been called in my honor, to wish me farewell and send me on my way home.

While the participants in this get-together resembled a group of associates convening to discuss their work, the endless supply of wine demonstrated that this was no ordinary work conference. The tradition calls for a drink to send off those who are leaving and offers a chance to say any appropriate last words. I had heard from other assistants that their schools had organized pots de départ for them, often at lunchtime on their last day; expecting a similar event, I was surprised when I learned that my pot de départ had been organized for a Friday evening. However, as I sat talking, snacking on the spread of hummus, pretzels, pita, and cake, and finding that my glass was never allowed to be empty, I understood why my farewell had been organized for the weekend. Teaching a lesson would have been an enormous challenge following this pot de départ.

The gathering brought together many of my closest friends from the vocational high school where I spent the year teaching English. However, only one of my friends present was a fellow English teacher; the rest taught a variety of subjects and never actually worked with me in a classroom. They knew me because they reached out to me when I arrived and made an effort to integrate me into the community. I will always be grateful to these men and women, for they had no obligation to do so. While some of my colleagues knew that my position was temporary and treated me as such, those present at my pot de départ opted to go out of their way to get to know me. As we sat drinking the delicious white wine that France is known for, and nibbling at the spread before us, we talked of the good times we spent together this year. The evening provided me with a real chance to say goodbye to my friends in an intimate setting, and it is one tradition that translates across cultures.

The pot de départ capped off a week filled with goodbyes. It started with a lunch at the school’s restaurant with all of the English teachers, the assistant principal, and the principal. Though the restaurant has a formal atmosphere, and dining with the school’s chiefs added to the setting, the mood lightened when the rolls were brought out and each was pierced with a miniature American flag. As we ate, I appreciated the respect shown to me by the administration of the school for taking the time to thank me for my work and wish me a safe return to Atlanta.

In addition to saying goodbye to the people who have made me a part of their lives here in Vannes, I took time to say farewell to the region itself. The past week has seen me make every effort to fulfill all the items on my French bucket list. It started with a trip to the nearby town of Carnac, famous for its beautiful beaches and ancient megaliths. After checking this off, my bucket list turned to a more local visit to my favorite pastry shop and the purchase of a Breton specialty I had not yet tasted, known as a kouign amann. Shaped like a compact cinnamon bun, the pastry is made in the typical Breton style, plain but filled with butter and sugar. It is a meal in itself. Following this success, I also made it the local market day one more time, for one last stroll through the various vendor-lined streets.  My eyes opened twice their normal size, as I avidly explored every corner of the market, trying to visually digest all that I had come to take for granted.

These last memories cannot compare, however, with the happiness I felt during farewell drinks that Friday night. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end, and after nearly five hours of good company, friendship, and of course, drinking, it was time for my pot to départ to end. We dispersed and went our various ways, and as I walked home, I thought once more about the hospitality of the people I have met here. From the first moment I arrived in Vannes, when I stepped off the train and my colleague was there waiting for me, I have been warmly accepted into this corner of the world. The numerous goodbyes I said this week reminded me how many people I have met because of this experience. The fabric of our respective lives has been woven together, and a new stitch has now been sewn between America and France. Though I depart and head home, I know that I will always have a home in Vannes, and there will always be friends here to welcome my return if I am lucky enough to make it happen.

Thomas A. Bledsoe

Thomas A. Bledsoe

Thomas Bledsoe is a resident of Atlanta, Georgia and a recent graduate of the University of Georgia. He has a degree in History, as well as minors in French and Religion. After completing his studies at UGA, Thomas moved to Vannes, France in September 2011 and will be there until May 2012. In France, he works as an English teaching assistant in a vocational high school and writes for the National Geographic France website. This is his second time living in France. In 2009, he spent a semester studying in Lyon, France as part of an exchange program. He will share his thoughts, observations, and experiences about life in France.