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Parlez vous francais?

Parlez vous francais?

16 February 2003
By Julie Sterling

Claudia McMullin, an American who lives in Geneva, is notoriously quick with a clever retort, and she has one ready for the teacher who tells us on our first day of school that one of the instructors 'will perceive our "niveau"'.

"My niveau is English," Claudia responds without hesitation, proving that she knows more French than she's letting on. Most aspiring French speakers can manage bonjour or au revoir or even Parlez vous francais? But how many know that niveau means level or grade?

It takes Catherine, one of the professeurs at the Ecole des Trois Ponts (School of the Three Bridges) in Roanne, France, about 20 seconds to determine that I am a niveau un -- level one -- when it comes to Je parle francais.

So begins a week of immersion in the French language with a compatible student body of 14 -- four Europeans and 10 Americans. We will sleep, eat and study together in the 18th-century Chateau de Matel, charmingly set on a rise above a canal. Like a family, we will relish Chef Stephane Larochette's cuisine, complemented by red or white wines, and we will speak French, if not all the time, at least most of the time. Some of us believe this is too good to be true, and we will not be disappointed. After all, where else in the world will the chef knock on your door to tell you you're late for dinner?

Arrival

I arrive in Roanne from Portland, via a flight to Paris and a train to Roanne, in the middle of the afternoon. Wandering about the almost deserted train station in Roanne, looking for a cab, I begin to wonder whether the Ecole des Trois Ponts exists. No cabs in sight and no action on the special call-a-taxi phone line.

Suddenly, a blonde in denim materializes out of the gray landscape. She speaks to me and, quel chance, she is headed to the school. I accept her offer to share a cab. This is my first encounter with Dena Schwarte, a Californian who lives on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Lucky me, she's an alumna of the school and is returning for more.

The high-ceilinged, carpeted chambre has pale yellow walls with white trim, a wicker chair at a desk/table, pastel chintz curtains, a firm twin bed and a bath with shower.

I am about to fill my bathroom with the contents of my toiletry bag when I realize I don't have it. While in a jet-lag daze, I must have left it on a table in the coffee shop at Charles de Gaulle Airport. This means toothbrush, makeup, aspirin, everything related to personal welfare are gone. Margaret kindly brings me a basket of leftovers from previous guests -- shampoo, baby powder, toothpaste -- and a new toothbrush. I will replace most of the items on a shopping trip to town.

For the rest of the day, Margaret herds us about like the schoolchildren we are, briefing us on schedules, keys, the washer and dryer, meals and mealtimes and the feared oral exam that will determine our level of ability. She sits us down in the pleasant day room to tell each other about ourselves -- in, for me, awkward French. Then we tour the common areas of the chateau, receive maps and bus stop information and meet the refrigerator, where we can help ourselves to water, beer, soft drinks (6 francs each; sign the sheet nearby). The same honor system applies to stamps, postcards and the computer, which we may use for pennies per minute.

Up to now we have been the responsibility of Margaret. Tomorrow, our various professeurs take charge of us. Maybe the allure of a place like this is that someone else feeds us, shelters us and sets the rules. Tomorrow we will find the rules for learning French to be endless and tres precises.

L'ecole

Valerie Perez, my professeur, wears a gently scalloped black sweater that captures her personality like a good picture frame. She is precise yet flamboyant, and her French echoes in my ears like notes of music -- even when Valerie is explaining the tres precises uses of de and du.

While introducing ourselves -- in French, of course -- Rebecca Lewis of Anchorage, Jenni Dillon of Irvine, Calif., Dena Schwarte of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., and I learn some random words and phrases: Je suis fille unique (I am an only child). Je suis en retraite (I am retired). Annuaire du téléphone (phone book). Projet (plan). Then our professeur complicates things by telling us the three verbs for time spent: Mettre (to put), durer (to last) and prendre (to take) are not interchangeable in matters of time. For example, my breakfast doesn't "last" half an hour, but I "put" half an hour into eating it.

And with that, we are ready to put some time into eating lunch

La cuisine

All meals are served buffet or family-style, so we can take as much or as little as we like. Lunch is generally served from a buffet cart loaded with salads. Today, we have marinated sliced mushrooms, a mushroom quiche, white asparagus and a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. Breakfast is almost always the same: a buffet of dry cereals, including an excellent granola, yogurt, fruit, juice and, on the table, a basket of French bread that we can toast, if we wish, at the toaster on a nearby sideboard. Butter and jam are on the table. Excellent coffee, as well as tea, are available at a do-it-yourself coffee bar.

Dinners are more elaborate, with each course described by Chef Stephane, then passed around the long table. Last night, our chef introduced us to his country's cuisine with a delicious repas of grilled tomatoes, stewed chicken, pureed potatoes, a cheese course and, for dessert, minted strawberries. Tonight we'll dine on a salad topped with delectable morsels of beef tenderloin, meat stew and a chocolate-and-vanilla-striped mousse. Another night, we'll have a fish mousse, courtesy of an impromptu cooking class that Stephane will teach.

Our dinner conversation accelerates as we consume more wine, liberally provided at the rate of one bottle per three diners. My conversation explodes in bits and pieces of incomplete sentences.

My dinner partners tonight are Adam Mozel from London, Sally and Bob Richards from Boise, Angela Leuner from Germany and Valerie, my teacher. I actually understand some of the conversation and leave the table with bits of trivia about everyone. Maybe Margaret is right when she dismisses my comment that our group must be unusually compatible. Our French conversations, she says, never get deep enough to discern political and cultural differences. This eliminates the opportunity for conflict that might arise with, for example, a discussion of politics or religion. Indeed, my superficial contribution to the dinner conversation was to promote Oregon pinot noir. Nevertheless, I leave the table feeling confident -- and very mellow.

La pharmacie

Nothing seems familiar to an American in a French pharmacy. The French apparently prefer chewables and powders to pills, or maybe I just don't know how to ask for pills. Attempting to replace some of the toiletries I lost in the airport, I buy Vitamin E in tablets the size of Junior Mints and some chewable Vitamin C. Now, I'm looking for a cosmetics store and an optics shop that will fix my crooked lunettes. Many stores are closed because it is Monday -- customary in France -- but I find one optics shop open. I'm so grateful that I buy a pair of clip-on sunglasses that I don't really need.

Most of the women of Roanne appear to be in the cosmetics store I find next. The display counters are filled with pastel-tinted, citrus-scented powders, creams, eye shadows, lipsticks and many potions that look and smell more edible than wearable. In need of assistance that I can't seem to corral, I give up and make some random choices based on scent and color. A green moisturizing cream is my biggest success. Some day, I will return to France with the empty jar looking for more.

Because it's Monday, we have a 5 p.m. class -- the first of two late-day sessions this week -- so I must hurry. When, after an ill-fated adventure on the bus, I finally return to the chateau 20 minutes late, my classmates are looking at and trying to describe 18 whimsical tableaux (pictures) of a woman's day at home and at the office. The cat helps jump-start her day by sitting at the breakfast table while madame drinks her coffee, illustrating that pets enjoy almost-human status in France.

Later, in my room, I am still trying to catch up when the chef, to my embarrassment, knocks on my door to summon me to dinner. I hurry to the table, where my schoolmates, like the little schoolgirls in Ludwig Bemelmans' children's story "Madeline," sit "in two straight lines". A place set with the salad course is saved for me. This is not the first time here that I have felt like Madeline.

La langue

Today in class, we tackle the gender of countries, states and cities. Feminine countries -- France, for example -- usually end in e (pronounce that eu). The deeper into the language we go, the less I know -- make that je sais (I know) not je connais (another word for "know," but the wrong one in this context). I am concentrating beyond belief. It's like a ski vacation except that the challenge is mental, not physical.

Classes for the rest of the week will teeter satisfyingly between amusing exercises and serious grammar lessons. One day, we learn the vocabulary of the visage (face) and the corps (body) by matching the numbers on the drawings that Valerie gives us with the numbers on a list of names, for example, les taches de rouseur with freckles. We dissect the scraggly young man who illustrates the corps from tete to gros orteil (big toe). Then, before we know it, we're confronted with the six verbs that use both etre (to be) and avoir (to have) in forming the past tense. Not an easy lesson. (It's avoir if you're passing the vegetables but etre if you pass by the post office.)

Sometimes we play games. We each pick a card and, in turn, tell about un bon souvenir d'enfance (a good childhood memory) or le dernier livre que avez lu (the last book you read).

After class and lunch, the challenge turns physical, when classmate Rebecca Lewis and I take off for a ride on the house bikes. As I wobble along, I realize we are midway through our week.

Voyage de champ

The next morning, we set out on a field trip, a tour of three villages typique of the region.

Valerie has briefed our class on the attractions we'll find in the towns of Le Crozet, Ambierle and St. Haon le Chatel, including le sable, a souped up Lorna Doone that is the specialty of Ambierle. I break ranks to buy some to share with my schoolmates. We've been told that Ambierle's church has exceptional acoustics, so we persuade two of our group to sing. They choose a Latin chant, and the spontaneity of the moment moves us all.

Au revoir

Those of us who are leaving Saturday wish we had another week, as most of our fellow students will, including Jenni's mother, Victoria Dillon, who begins a week of French Country Cooking at the school on Monday while Jenni stays in the language program for another week. Students also can choose a week of combined language and cooking classes.

Friday, our last class day, Rebecca and I receive our rapports de stage (report cards) from Valerie. On a scale of five niveaux, I rank fourth. I'm thrilled, especially when Valerie writes that my vocabulary and pronunciation are bon and that I have strengthened my grammar and my conjugations.

Next time I'm going for level five in hopes of becoming formidable.

Julie Sterling, who travels as often as she can and writes occasionally for the Travel section, lives in Portland.