This page presents testimonials of past fellows on their experience at Coubertin. They were collected and prepared by board member Patricia Eckhert.
A quote from the April, 2016 Wall Street Journal magazine:
“In many fields today, there is certain knowledge that could potentially be lost forever,” says Ivan Pericoli, the co-founder of the Paris-based homewares brand Astier de Villatte, “To us, there is something so fragile and beautiful about that.”
As I read this quote, I am reminded of the experiences of the American Friends of Coubertin Fellows, whose experiences I attempt to capture in recent interviews with them.
Some of the adjectives used by the Fellows to describe their experiences at the workshops of the Fondation Coubertin include:
“really incredible experience,” “profound,” “intensive, immersive,” “very valuable,” “historical backdrop of where our craft arose from,” and “amazing.”
Each has his or her unique way of translating an extraordinary experience—but the stories of their experiences as Fellows of American Friends of Coubertin struck me as beautiful, something fragile and very special.
Mr. James W. Goedert
Carpentry workshop 2015/16
James’ first comment was to describe why the location and layout of the Fondation Coubertin, 45 miles South of Paris by train, was significant to his experience. The solitude in the countryside, in sharp contrast to the City center of of Paris’ rich culture, monuments and museums, pushes him to work on his craft, yet have an “historical backdrop of where his craft came from” which is pretty incredible for an American”.
He explained that there are two alternating periods of ten-week sessions of classroom work with ten-week sessions of hands-on workshops. He likes this arrangement because it allows time to work on speaking and learning a new language while in the classroom, then using the French language exclusively in the workshops.
Upon arriving in Paris, the Fellowship begins with an intensive 3-week language course. Very impressed was James with how quickly the instructors picked up on strengths and weaknesses of each individual. They would immediately modify curriculum for each individual if he were struggling with a certain issue, e.g. feminine pronouns. They would have printed worksheets, a Joan of Arc article, for example, delivered by noon, to each student to assist in mastering his specific need. They were great at “packing a lot of punch into one week”. Picture this with a swimming pool and vineyards surrounding.
James celebrated his thirtieth birthday at Coubertin in January, 2016. He comments on the fact he was the “oldest person” there. The average age is about 24 to 25 years old. A member of the Compagnon could begin “the Tour” as a trade as early as age 15, in conjunction with his school studies. There is no true equivalent in the U.S.A.
The workshop has state-of-the-art machines for woodworkers, as much contemporary as traditional. He is involved in a refurbishment of the façade of the offices at Fondation Coubertin but can pursue and use the equipment on weekends for whatever work he wishes.
“The classroom work has been a really incredible experience”, states James. It is a Renaissance education in math, geometry, physics , perspective drawing and philosophy classes. Intensive it is, with classes beginning and 8 am in the morning and ending at 6 pm daily. Lunch and dinner, including many who work at the Fondation, are enjoyed together as interludes in the long day.
Part of his requirement to complete the Fellowship is a 20-to-40 page paper on the Fellow’s topic of choice. James chose “art after the computer, parametric architecture, generative design and interactive art” as his topic. Attached is his paper. If I may take editorial license, I must say my experience reading it was mind-expanding. See what you think!
Part of James’ experience which he wishes to impart to future Fellows (and the Fondation) is his suggestion to begin early to interact with the other workshops. He says he did not have the comfort zone to reach out on his own, but now in his eighth month, he has made connections with stone carvers and bronze workers. “Very ripe for personal development with other trades and people,” he sees “endless knowledge he can glean.”
Ms. Meghan Shogan
August 2011 to November 2012
In preparation for my interviews with American Friends of Coubertin Fellows, I created a list of questions. When I spoke with Meghan, she opted to draft her written response to each question.
1. Q: What were your biggest and best “take-away” experiences for your time at Coubertin?
A: The time spent at the Millefeuille language school was one of my favorite experiences as part of the whole Fellowship package. Also, I will never forget the first day I arrived at the foundation. I saw the Chateau that I was going to be living in and heard amazing classical music in the air (from the musicians in residence for the month). Coubertin is not only a wonderful building trades complex but an institution for the arts. We interacted with poets, musicians, writers, sculptures, etc. It was a paradise for arts-lovers, and even the French students knew they were lucky to be in such an extraordinary place.
2. Q: Describe your experiences re: new language, logistics, personal , professional growth, interactions in the workshops, “wow-factors”.
A: The language barrier was the most challenging and also the most rewarding part of spending time in France. It took a very long time before it finally “clicked” in my mind, no matter how hard I had studied ahead of time. Learning another language isn’t just a useful tool for communication, it is also a way to expand your mind. I have expanded my thought process in a very abstract way where I can describe a feeling or thought in words not available just through the English language.
Logistically, everyone was helpful. There were challenges, such as going to the doctor, navigating around Paris. The bureaucratic process of getting my visa and my Gray card for living in France was enough to pull my hair out, but Francoise was very patient and helped me every step of the way.
I had no problems with the classroom portion of my time at Coubertin, having come straight from the academic world. I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree before coming. The interactions in the workshop were more challenging. The stone department is known for being very tough.
Just being around French culture and taking weekends to take advantage of the proximity of Paris was an experience in and of itself. I tried to go to Paris every weekend and I went to every museum and sucked up every bit of culture I could during my stay.
3. Q: Since returning to your stone-working, what impact on your work and career?
A: My experience has had a huge impact on my career. When I was still in France, near the end of my visa and looking for job prospects back in the US, I was hired over a phone conversation just from describing what I had been working on in France.
From observing the organization practices and work methods at Coubertin, I am able to bring that knowledge home with me and envision how I could create or help build a stone shop in America the way I want it to be. I am also able to prove myself as a stone cutter to anyone who questions my abilities. I’m mostly working in an office setting now, but for anyone who doubts my background I can pick up a saw and show them that I can do it.
4. Q: Any fun stories or memorable anecdotes?
The two groups of Compagnon students I was with, both the first and second year, were some of the most memorable people I have met. We took a trip to Mont St. Michelle where we stayed in a lodge and the group sang traditional Compagnon songs. It was like stepping back in time to the Middle Ages and being in the dining hall of a castle.
It was also fun to develop some French traditions during my stay. During the winter, we would have a special Raclette night at least once a month and everyone looked forward to it.
I remember the first couple of stones I cut that I really messed up, and how the shop manager threw them in the trash bin in front of me. I also remember, at the end of the year, how they gave me a really beautiful, complicated piece of stonework to complete and I kept speed with the other Coubertin fellows. The shop manager had given me that stone for a reason at that point in time, and I had earned the respect of the other stone cutters.
5. Q: Appreciation? Negatives?
A: I wasn’t exactly welcomed to the stone workshop with open arms. The shops are used to dealing with youth who still have room to learn and grow in their trade and the managers know how to help them along. But these young men have much more experience and strict training than anyone coming from the US to begin with, and I was fairly lost.
They didn’t really know what to do with me at first. I was with about 3 or 4 French stone cutter fellows who were very young, lacking life experiences and hadn’t travelled outside of France yet. This is also an organization who is not used to having women workers, and the stone cutters in particular are extremely traditional compared with the other trades. Because of this mind set the young stone cutters were threatened and resentful of my presence there and took opportunities to make it more difficult than it had to be. At the time it was challenging to persevere and get through the year, in addition to all the other challenges of living in a foreign country. I did stay a portion of a 2nd year and was with a more mature group of students, many of whom had already spent a year abroad. I had progressed a lot in my abilities by that time and I had no issues with this second group of students and we remain friends.
I wish I had been a bit more mentally prepared for these challenges. I had done a summer apprenticeship in England at Lincoln Cathedral and had felt very welcomed. I thought it would be the same situation in France but it was much more challenging. In the end, it was to my benefit because it pushed me to work harder and learn more.
I am so appreciative of all of the permanent workers at Coubertin, to Gilles and François, and to all of the members of the AFC for this opportunity. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It is the experience of my 20’s that has pushed me to grow professionally and personally more than anything else.
Mr. Addison de Lisle
August 2014 – August 2015
Having grown up in Damariscotta, Maine, Addison described his good fortune to be able to live for a year in France as loaded with “lots of amazing experiences”. Right off the plane landing in Paris was the adventure of learning the French language. He took the TGV to Avignon, then a taxi to the school where the August grape harvest was underway. “Really an incredible experience” was meeting the diverse students there – a Swedish Girl, an Australian housewife, a German girl in international banking, among others. The school was “intensive and immersive with all speaking and lessons in French. English was only a last resort. They were provided with bikes after class to explore the countryside. One memorable ride was a 40 kilometer trip to see the highest Roman aquaduct, the Pont du Gard.
The highlight of his year, professionally, was the privilege to work on a restoration of a balcony for the Louvre’s West side garden. It was early to mid -19th Century cast iron and was “in bad shape”. Ten or more sections of elaborate floral and animal designs were removed for restoration. There were one hundred pieces per linear meter – all riveted and rusted.
Meeting Serge Pascal, famous artist in metal working, and learning the technique of repoussé (not taught in the USA) were all part of the privilege.
Visiting the Musée d’Orsay, Cluny, Louvre and seeing historical examples of repoussé, of forged iron and cast iron all around Paris on door knockers and 16th century iron works on doors and windows was a “very valuable experience”.
Now attending graduate school at Southern Illinois at Carbondale, Addison is working on an MSA in blacksmithing. He is ever so grateful for the unforgettable memories and unique skills acquired at Fondation Coubertin.