Van Gogh in Montreal

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(HOST) On a recent trip to Montreal with his French students, commentator Mike Martin was struck by the importance of experiencing things firsthand.

(MARTIN) A few weeks ago, on a damp, cold morning, some of my French classes and I set out for Montreal. We piled into a yellow school bus and headed north. We chatted in French as we bounced around on those black bus benches and crossed the border without a problem.

Getting around a big city like Montreal was pretty different from our bus driver’s usual route, so she was a little nervous. But we coached her along, and by the end of the day she was zipping down Sherbrooke like an old pro.

We went up to the Fine Arts Museum to see an exhibit called “Right Under the Sun.” The show’s unifying theme is Provence, that sun-soaked region in the South of France that artists love for its intense colors and rich landscapes. Our guide led us on a tour of paintings by Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh.

When you see the Eiffel Tower in person, it’s pretty different from seeing it in a book, and it’s the same when you see a Van Gogh painting in person. Seen up close, the violent brush strokes and gobs of swirling paint look as if they might come right off the canvas.

As my students leaned in, tipped their heads, and pointed out the sometimes weird, incandescent colors to each other, I could tell they were starting to get into Van Gogh. Like, what was he thinking when he painted this courtyard scene of his insane asylum? Or, for that matter, when he cut off a piece of his ear and sent it to a girlfriend? And how can it be that he didn’t sell a single painting when he was alive, but they now fetch as much as $80 million?

After the museum, one of the students asked if we could go to the old-fashioned Atwater Market, so we headed over there for some culture that you can eat. The girls practiced their French by asking about the fancier pastries. Most of the guys opted for the Jamaican jerk patties. I bought some fresh figs and then got lost at the cheese vendor’s stand. The cheeses just had so many shapes and sizes and smells and some of them were even on a bed of straw.

We ended the afternoon on Saint-Denis where they have fashions you just don’t see in Vermont. Some of the kids tried on clothes in a boutique and took pictures of each other with their phones.

On the way home, we were still uncomfortable in our yellow school bus, but we were happy. I found myself reflecting on what you can learn on a field trip. Nothing against all of those nice people in French textbooks, but there’s really nothing to compare to actually tasting the food, seeing the original paintings, and talking to the locals.

Van Gogh certainly understood this. When he left the studio and painted in the fields of Provence, he was doing the same thing as we were: learning through direct experience.

I’m Mike Martin of Burlington.

Mike Martin writes about issues of culture and education and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School. The exhibit “Right Under the Sun” will be at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until January 8th.

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