In Lauren Upadhyay’s “Advanced French II: Film and Literature” course, her Upper School students read the novel “Rue des boutiques obscures” (“Missing Person”) by the celebrated French author Patrick Modiano. Published in 1978, the mystery centers on an intriguing private detective named Guy Roland, who is searching for his lost self in wartime Paris.
“We have been talking about the setting of the book – during the German Occupation of Paris –and how the past influences the characters and places in Modiano’s writing,” explained Dr. Upadhyay, adding that her students were looking at “how identity is influenced by place, how it evolves over time and the lenses that change our perception of ourselves and others.”
She pointed out that Mr. Modiano connected his writing to his Jewish identity by highlighting important landmarks around Paris that are vital to both French and Jewish history.
To deepen their understanding, Dr. Upadhyay arranged for her class to participate in live literary and cultural tours of Paris. Thus, on a recent Friday afternoon, they observed a modern urban scene unfold on a large screen. Along with buzzing cafes, busy pedestrians and breathtaking views of the Seine, the brisk stroll touched on numerous sites featured in Mr. Modiano’s novel.
Thanks to the expertise of their insightful guide Gil Stoltz and a bit of technology, the class was able to experience the City of Lights from the comfort of Room 207. An American living in Paris, Mr. Stoltz offers tailored virtual walking tours across the city, a role that combines his twin passions: Paris and history.
To help illuminate the interwoven themes presented in “Rue des boutiques obscures,” Mr. Stoltz led the students on an energetic excursion on Zoom, his smartphone held high. They began on rue Pierre Fontaine, in front of La Comédie de Paris, where the surrealist artists used to meet and next door to where Josephine Baker danced. Up the street, they passed the legendary Moulin Rouge cabaret.
“This is where La Goulue, Jane Avril, Mistinguett, and other notable performers played from the late 19th century and through World War II,” Mr. Stoltz told the group en français. From time to time, he shared his screen to show the students supplementary photographs, maps and drawings related to the author’s narrative. He also recited several lines from Mr. Modiano’s book.
The tour continued on Boulevard de Clichy and around the Cemetery of Montmartre. Then, through the bridge of rue Caulaincourt, they reconnected with rue Lepic, where at number 54, Vincent Van Gogh lived with his brother Theo between 1886-1888. The students then crossed Place Emile Godeau and saw the Bateau-Lavoir in the 18th arrondissement, the abandoned piano factory where Picasso and Modigliani worked.
Dr. Upadhyay asked Mr. Stoltz questions during the tour and wrote various French words and phrases on the board for her students to copy in their notebooks. For their part, they were thoroughly engaged in the lesson, asking their own questions and making observations throughout the period.
For the majority of the tour, Mr. Stoltz narrated the trajectory, mostly in French with a little English sprinkled in. For the remaining few minutes, he reversed his phone, putting a face to the voice who was leading the students on the tour. Behind him, the streets of Paris unfolded.
For the final stop on the itinerary, the class followed him with their eyes as he traversed the steps to the Sacré-Cœur church, next to the climbing cable cars, and looked out over the city, a gesture reminiscent of a passage in Mr. Modiano’s novel, which he cited as he walked.
As this fascinating film and literature class moves forward, Dr. Upadhyay’s students have been discovering the French street artist JR and the French filmmaker Agnès Varda as well as creating their own identity- and place-inspired projects.