His preferred portrait

Bwog needed an excuse to hang out with our professors more, so we’re dropping by the office hours of our favorite teachers and asking them about their research and favorite foods. Liz Jacob visited beloved French Professor Vincent Aurora, an espresso-fueled whirlwind of knowledge and passion, who imparts to his students far more than just French grammar and swear words.

So how did you end up at Columbia, and why French?

Why French? Well, I was good at it when I was in high school. I liked languages, and the one that got my attention the most—the one that seemed I could make the best living out of—was French. So I went to Georgetown, where they have a very good language program and where I was a French major. Then, I came to Columbia to do my grad studies, and part of the deal was that if I taught, I wouldn’t have to pay tuition. So, I started doing it, and I liked it. And I’m still here, twenty years later!

Do you have any vices?

[Noting the wine bottle and glasses sitting on his office shelf] Wine. Red wine. Yesterday was a snow day after all. So classes were canceled and…fun ensued. It was a snow day.

What are you researching now?

Right now? I always like Surrealism. Surrealism is the thing that gets me because it’s so hard to understand. You just have to learn to let your unconscious rather than your consciousness perceive. You’re reading a dream, in many ways. And there’s something really rich and raw about that. That’s what I do. It’s the same pleasure doing that as doing a crossword. There’s always one or two answers that you can’t get.

Working on anything you plan to publish?

Oh, I would love to publish, but it’s very difficult. The way you get published in this country is that you have to write a letter describing what the story’s about and then you send it out. The problem is, I don’t think my ideas are that…normal. [Laughs] Because nobody seems to understand them! One that I was working on just recently takes place in fifth century Tunisia, so it’s not a big seller of an idea. Not too many people are interested in that time period.

How many shots of espresso do you take a day?

Maybe about eight. [Pours himself another shot] Actually more. This is about my fourth or fifth, and my thermos is full. [Laughs] So I would say about fifteen.

Read on for Professor Aurora’s encounter with the Pope, his thoughts on 5th century Tunisia, and his research on muscle relaxation techniques.

I’ve noticed that you tend to stretch in the middle of class. Any reason why?

Well, every once in a while, you feel a certain stiffness, and it should be taken care of immediately. You can’t wait. It’s like…I don’t know. If you have to sneeze, you must sneeze. Do you remember that story of Tycho Brahe? Tycho Brahe was at a table, and he had to go to the bathroom. But since he was with the king, he just held in his urge, and I think he died from his bladder exploding at the table. And this is a great scientific mind, but the only thing that’s remembered of him now is that he died of holding in his own feces. [Laughs] And I don’t want to go that way. So if you have to stretch, stretch.

Do you have any hobbies, obsessions, or secret fantasies?

Yes, yes, and yes!

My obsession? It’s so nerdy. I have nerdy obsessions. I’m a little bit of a nerd. I like things like…

Like 5th century Tunisia?

[Laughs] Yes, I like ridiculous, abstruse historical contexts. I love Latin. I have to do Latin everyday. I like to write it. I have my Latin chat room. It’s a world of nerds, and they all think I’m a woman because my chat name is Aurora. I haven’t corrected them. When any woman comes into their domain, they all rush, and suddenly, I have this conversation from people all over the planet who want to speak with me. I’m not going to step on that. That doesn’t happen everyday.

I also love sword fighting. With rubber swords. I absolutely love it. My son got me turned on to it, but now there’s no day without a light saber battle. We must fight, and actually, after all these years, I’m becoming quite good at it. Real fencing is too expensive, but if they had a rubber fencing group, I would be all over that.

I hear that you have a story about the Pope.

I met the Pope once. It was when I was studying at the University of Nice. My best friend at the time was a guy named Tom. Now Tom was very religious, thinking of becoming a priest, and his father was the lawyer for the Archdiocese of New York. So he calls me up in Nice and says, “I have two tickets to meet the Pope. Would you like to go?” And I said, “Sure! It’s the Pope! Pope John Paul II! Let’s do it!” Now for him, it was like a pilgrimage. For me, this was like going to see Mick Jagger.

So to meet the Pope, we had to move through layers and layers of Swiss guards, and as we were walking through, Tom was starting to shake. I asked him what was the matter, and he said, “Look at all this opulence. Jesus was a poor man! This has nothing to do with Jesus.” I had heard of crises of faith, but I’d never actually seen one, and there he was—shaking and white in the face.

But, eventually we were escorted directly to the front row, and we realized that the Pope was actually going to come to bless us. Tom was shaking, kissed the Pope’s hand, and said, “Is this it? Is this it?” The Pope didn’t understand what he was saying, so he just said, “Bless you my son,” and he moved on.

Within weeks of that day, Tom gave up his plans to become a priest, and instead, he became an investment banker. And to this day, when I think of crises of faith and a failed life, I think of my good friend Tom. He’s very rich now, but he’s so deeply unhappy because there’s a whole part of him that shut down by meeting that Pope. I always think about that. So when I compare myself to him, I know that he’s much richer, but something of him is dead. …That’s my story of meeting the Pope. [Laughs]

And with that, any final remarks?

Bwog has not been very kind to me in the past. They posted my Facebook page and made fun of my pictures. And then I received so many friend requests that I had to systematically ignore. But now? That thing has a chastity belt on it. No one is getting in there unless I allow it.