Our Stories

Claire Barker: Renaissance Woman

Claire Barker's mother and father, Nancy and George Barker, encouraged her to follow her heart. That journey has taken her both back in time and forward into the future.

Barker, who graduated from Willamette University in 2004 with a bachelor of arts degree in religious studies and French, plucks the strings of a handcrafted lute. The ancient Renaissance music she plays is soft, complex and hauntingly beautiful. This impromptu concert in Salem is a rare treat. Barker, who has just completed a seven-month assignment teaching English in France, is back in the U.S. only for a few days. She soon begins a two-year master's degree program in Renaissance studies in the ancient town of Tours, France.

Her fascination with all things medieval began when Barker came to Willamette. At first, the McMinnville High School honors graduate was sure she'd major in physics. "I was deadset on the sciences," she says, smiling at the memory. Her words carry the lilt of a soft French accent. "I wanted to follow in my father's footsteps and become a physician. After a year, I found I was much better at other things than chemistry."

She opted instead for a double major in religious studies and French, something she'd been studying since high school. "I find the French language really attractive and I love using it to communicate with others. I'd studied a lot of French in high school and at Linfield, so I was able to finish my French major really quickly. I also found that religious studies just clicked for me."

It was the lute, however, that transported her back in time and awakened her love for the Renaissance. "I'd been playing classical guitar on my own for years," says Barker, as her fingers glide effortlessly across the small instrument's 13 strings. With its short, thick neck and bulbous body, the lute resembles a munchkin's guitar, yet delivers a surprisingly resonant sound. "John Doan, my music professor at Willamette, asked me to bring in music that I liked. When I brought in Renaissance music, he told me I was playing the wrong instrument."

Doan, associate professor of guitar, collects historic musical instruments. He let Baker play one of his lutes, an instrument popular in medieval Europe. She instantly fell in love.

She began studying about the Renaissance. She took a class in Latin; one on the life and work of Leonardo Di Vinci. In her sophomore year, she studied in Paris. Her classes included the Reformation and the Renaissance and, of course, the lute. "In France, I looked up the French Lute Society and got the names of teachers and lute makers."

She commissioned an artisan to build a lute just for her. "He'd only been making lutes for two years, so he was still affordable. He let me choose the woods for it. Since I have small hands, he made me a 57 centimeter lute rather than the standard 59."

After growing up in McMinnville (population 26,000), she found the sprawling city of Paris a bit daunting. Her lute helped ease the transition. "With its 10 million people, I was terrified about going to Paris. It was really scary. But I quickly got involved with organizations like the French Lute Society and I just loved it. I came to realize what a wonderful city Paris is."

In her senior year, Barker began searching for what she might do after graduation. Through Willamette's French department, she learned about a teaching program administered by the French Education Ministry. "The French government encourages native English speakers to come to France and teach English."

Fluent in French, Barker was quickly accepted into the program. She didn't know where she'd be living and working until she arrived. As fate would have it, she was sent to Amboise, a small medieval French village. "Amboise is very beautiful and even has a castle. The view of the town from our house was amazing. In my front yard, there was a 350-year-old cedar tree and, at the end of my driveway, an 11th century church. Leonardo Di Vinci is buried in one of the chapels. Getting to move to a town where Di Vinci lived the last few years of his life and is buried is pretty incredible."

Barker shared part of a house with Carolina, a Spanish language assistant from Costa Rica. Barker taught conversational English to small classes of high school students and adults 12 hours a week. "The teaching was baptism by fire. They just give you the classes and say 'Go teach.' My job was to keep students interested and encourage them to speak in English. One entire day, we debated the issue of medical marijuana. They liked learning from me because they said I speak like people they see in the movies."

It was at Thanksgiving that Barker had her first serious bout of homesickness. "Nobody in France was celebrating Thanksgiving. There was this void of festivities that should be happening, but wasn't. My friend, Corrina, and I decided to make our first ever turkey. We invited 22 people, all from different countries. They brought specialties from their own regions. Some American friends had thought ahead and brought canned yams and marshmallows and other traditional Thanksgiving foods. It was quite a feast."

Her hardest moment, however, came with the death of a family friend during her second semester of teaching. "There was no way I could be home in time to support them. I could call and write, but it didn't feel like it was enough. I also wanted to attend the service and grieve too, but it was impossible to get home. My school understood and gave me the day off. I slept the entire day."

When Barker's teaching assignment in France ended, she reapplied. However, the French government gives priority to new rather than returning teaching assistants. They told her she'd be an alternate, selected only if someone drops out of the program at the last minute. Undaunted, she began casting about for other options that would allow her to stay in France. She found the Center for Superior Studies of the Renaissance (CESR), in the 16th century city of Tours, France, and was accepted into a two-year master's degree program in Renaissance studies.

"I'll be studying Latin, paleography, history, religious beliefs and practices, politics, art history -- everything about the Renaissance. The courses are taught entirely in French, which is a little scary. It's difficult enough getting a master's degree in one's own language; even more so in a second language."

Once she completes her master's degree, does Barker plans to teach about the Renaissance? Perhaps, but it may be in a non-traditional setting. "I'm thinking about going into tourism. In high school, I went on a couple of guided tours to France. This past year, I took middle school boys to Scotland for two weeks and a large group of high schoolers to England for a week. At the end of my stay, a French man I know brought a group of Oregonians to France and I traveled with them. It was great because we had this wonderful combined knowledge. He's say 'This was built in this century,' and I'd say, 'And if you go around this corner you can buy a delicious, inexpensive crepe.' The two of us working together was great."

She plucks out the last few notes on the lute. "My dream is to find a way to live in Oregon full time and travel regularly to France. I love France because it breathes history and, for now, I like living there. But the architecture of France can't compare to the natural beauty we have right here in the Northwest."