It’s the quintessential pipe dream of bucolic entrepreneurial bliss: Move to the French countryside and start a bed and breakfast.
A Richfield native has moved past the dream stage and done exactly that.
Having settled in French wine country, Megan (Lindstrom) Martel made a homecoming last month, with a group of young French companions in tow for an international educational experience at Richfield High School.
Martel, who graduated from the school in 1997, has been facilitating these kinds of partnerships since 2012, when she and her French husband, Julien Martel, opened Rouge Bordeaux, a former parsonage in an area of southwestern France surrounded by vineyards and medieval castles.
The bed and breakfast is more than a vacation spot, though. It serves as a language and cultural educational center that welcomes visitors from around the world.
Martel began her journey in Madame Keller’s French class at Richfield High School.
“I wasn’t necessarily very good at French,” she admitted.
But she was enamored with the language and culture, enough to study French as part of a double major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While a student there, she studied abroad in Paris.
“I just loved being foreign,” Martel said. “It was a great thing for me.”
She loved being able to tell people she was American, and the interaction that would ensue.
“Everyone was so interested, and it’s fun to be foreign,” she explained.
After receiving her undergraduate degree, that affinity grew as Martel taught English in Toulouse, in southwestern France. Her path toward realizing the French bed-and-breakfast dream became more clear when she moved back to the States.
After receiving a master’s degree in international education from New York University, she got a job at Tufts University in Boston running a French exchange program for the school. To celebrate the achievement, Martel threw a rooftop party at her Soho apartment building.
That’s where she met her future husband. “At that time my English was really bad,” Julien Martel said through a heavy accent.
Their conversation switched to French as Megan told her new friend about her new job, which would require her to split time between the French Alps and Boston.
Julien had been studying at Drake University in Iowa but was soon headed back home and offered to show Megan around next time she was in the country.
“It was just friendship at first,” Julien said.
Then, “she called me one weekend,” he recounted. “I took her all around my favorite places in Lyon.”
It was still just a friendship, he said.
“The next year when she came back, I went to see her again,” Julien continued. “It was more than friendship then.”
They married in 2008 and moved to Bordeaux. Julien had completed an education in law, accounting and finance, and Megan was working for a French university in her field of international education, when they found an old stone parsonage for sale in the town of Auros, about an hour drive from Bordeaux in southwestern France.
The couple decided they wanted to pursue work similar to Megan’s career in international education, but on their own. So, in 2012 they purchased the parsonage from the city of Auros – “it was in complete shambles,” Megan said – and started a bed and breakfast that doubled as a language school for students from the area. Ever since, they’ve been hosting workshops and forming international partnerships with several schools.
Megan brought 10 of her own students from France to the Twin Cities late last month. She said she picked February to expose them to a Minnesota winter, although unseasonably warm temperatures thwarted that goal.
They would get a Minnesota experience nonetheless, complete with a trip to the 5-8 Club for Juicy Lucys.
Greeted at the airport by Richfield High School students holding a sign saying, “Bienvenue au Minnesota,” the Martels’ French students headed straight to Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, making the same pilgrimage that Richfield students know well.
After six days in southeastern Minnesota, the group returned to the Twin Cities, where they were hosted by local families. Five of Megan’s travel partners spent a few days shadowing students at Richfield High School, while others spent time at school in Orono.
“That Richfield has opened it’s doors to these kids is really special,” the Richfield alum said.
She believes the city’s diversity has helped the high school cultivate such a welcoming environment.
As for the learning environment made possible by the exchange, Richfield High School French teacher Kristen Gupta-Turnbull noted the interest students found in the differences between their respective schools.
For the students from France: “Their school’s really, really strict,” Gupta-Turnbull said. “They said the teacher just teaches, and the kids don’t talk.”
To the Richfield French teacher, learning a foreign language is about more than learning to communicate.
“Some people like language for language’s sake. I really like it as a tool for learning culture,” she said.
Gupta-Turnbull and the Martels hope to start an exchange program that would bring Richfield students to Auros next year. There, they would find the culture that captured Megan’s heart 20 years ago.
She discovered on her first visit, “You could spend hours at the table eating and talking. … The quality of life was so different to me. It was slower, and it felt less stressful.”
With that in mind, the framework for a Richfield-Auros exchange is in place.
“I have all the host families in France just dying to open their doors to the Richfield kids,” Megan said.
Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @RISunCurrent.