03/19/2014 08:45 am ET Updated May 19, 2014

Fruit at Breakfast

Have you ever been in a class where the professor served fruit at breakfast? Uh-huh, i have.

It was several years ago at a French course in, where better, France. I had enrolled in a six-week summer class at the Paris branch of a U.S. college, up for fun and wanting to cop some credits toward teaching French back home. Renting an up-some-long stairs apartment from a French colleague, I took the RER every morning to rue de Passy in the trendy 15th arrondissement. My fellow students were undergraduates from different U.S. colleges who lived dormitory style (almost on top of one another) in an inexpensive hotel on the Left Bank. They had also come for fun and, judging from the weary looks most mornings, a fulfilled wish for sex. I was old enough to be their father, and then some, but we managed, in some cases, to become friends.

I had signed up for two classes, one in conversation (whlch I needed), the other in contemporary French theater (which I wanted). Both required a good knowledge of the language. Monsieur Bensimon, lean and forty-something with wire-frame glasses, was at the helm of the theater class, and despite a serious mien, he arrived the first morning of class with a paper bag that spilled open to empty a lovely pile of fresh fruit on the table. With no explanation, it wasn't clear whether the food was for us, but after some awkward moments, he gestured and we took part. This routine was repeated every day of class, and it took no time for us to expect the goodies, as human nature would have it.

Some -- maybe many -- of the college kids figured that it would be a breeze to spend a summer on French theater, "sur place," That had a disconnect with Monsieur Bensimon's plans. He filled every class with a stunning array of knowledge -- it seemed as if he had read and remembered everything (sometimes illustrating the point on the blackboard in ancient Greek). We read the plays at home and in class, and he let it be known that going in the evening to see a play -- and meeting afterward with some of the actors whom he knew -- was only the dessert that followed serious study. The dramas we attended were those in small boulevard theaters that most tourists, us included, would have otherwise missed.

We were to submit thoughtful critiques of the plays we'd seen. Though from the college kids came amazed looks and quickly scribbled papers -- they were getting more than they had counted on -- Monsieur never withheld the daily breakfast. He liked me because I was serious and closer to his age, older in fact than he.

Summer mornings in Paris can be delightful. On breaks between classes the young ones and I adjourned to the leafy garden, drank coffee, and gossiped. There was a rumor that Monsieur Bensimon was keeping two mistresses happy simultaneously, though the source remained mysterious.

Romances among the students in our class started and ended. One girl, disappointed that a newly found boyfriend stopped coming around, lost no time in taking up with another. A couple moved in together. I saw the pained look on the face of one boy who looked as if he'd like to have traded places with the girl.

Time went by quickly, and the school sponsored weekend field trips to nearby chateaux. Monnsieur even chaperoned the class one day to Versailles where we were invited to borrow costumes from the wardrobe mistress for an end-of-class play we'd prepare. Even the least industrious of us loved the weeks of being more like Parisians than tourists.

And not put off by the dependably mediocre efforts of some students, Monsieur continued to supply berries, grapes and oranges every day. I don't think the food was a ploy, nor were introductions to Monsieur's actor friends designed to impress us. Monsieur, for our taking, gave his abundance of knowledge, and I went home better informed about theater and grateful to have met a teacher whose wisdom shared space with an exceptionally generous spirit.

So much for how the French discredit Americans.

- - - -

More about the class with Monsieur Bensimon appear in Ely's new book, "Life Up Close, a Memoir," just out in paperback and ebook.