2016-07-07 / Around Town

A Quick Trip to France and Back

By Betsy Sherman Walker


The Alliance Française Tuesday Morning Conversation Group, never at a loss for things to talk about. On Bastille Day, July 14, members of AFN gather every year in King Park to place a wreath at the base of the statue of General Rochambeau. This year they will follow with an evening at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. The Alliance Française Tuesday Morning Conversation Group, never at a loss for things to talk about. On Bastille Day, July 14, members of AFN gather every year in King Park to place a wreath at the base of the statue of General Rochambeau. This year they will follow with an evening at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum. Note to self: The next time you are about to insert yourself into a crowd of people – bright and chatty and worldly people – united by their enthusiasm for all things French, and who gather on a regular basis for the pure joy of sharing their experiences – in French – toss your expectations out the window.

And to the reporter who goes, sensibly armed with a list of conventional questions, about why they do it and what they get from it, be prepared: The conversations will not move in a linear direction. Instead, they will meander in serpentine fashion around the table, one topic intertwining with the next before inspiring another, each one as compelling as the one before.

The scene is the weekly gathering, on Tuesday mornings, at the French Confection café in Middletown for members of the Newport chapter of the Fédération des Alliances Françaises. The organization’s raison d’être, both locally and internationally, is to celebrate the culture and way of life. And for the people who gather here, to speak French.

“Fluency is not required,” says chapter president Mary-Gail Smith who, by her own admission, is not entirely fluent.

On the morning of this “journaliste’s” French foray, the gears of conversation start to engage. Anything is fair game: from the gypsy moth infestation and the “toujours formidable” (always wonderful) Bristol Fourth of July parade, to the salt-fed lambs of Mont-Saint- Michel in Normandy. One scenario leads to another; the heavenly air of Grasse (the historic perfume capital of the world, a stone’s throw from Cannes) evokes the sights and smells of an open-air market in nearby Antibes, and prompts a recipe for steak tartare (with ingredients and instructions) and an inevitable recommendation for the best wine with which to savor it.

Everybody has stories. “Les histoires de la vie,” is what one participant, named Smidgie, calls them. After an hour of immersion, it is not hard to grasp the immense appeal of these get-togethers. They are like a series of quick trips – prompted by memories and fueled by what AFN president Smith calls “joie de vivre” – to France and back.

Sitting around three smaller tables pulled together to make one long tavern table is a diverse group. Michel is a French-born chef from Antibes who, prior to a long stretch on the faculty of Johnson & Wales, made a career as a private chef on yachts. Wendy is a dancer who grew up in Australia and danced professionally as a young woman in London. Joan and Barry, whose French is Quebec-based, travel “all the way in” from Bristol. Betsi from Wickford lived in Paris with her family for 15 years (her husband’s job took them there) and still needs her weekly French fix. Equally as talkative but out of earshot are Maria, Judy, and Sasha. Smidgie, who lived on a boat with her husband in the Caribbean for many years before they settled in Newport, says she joined the group “pour la conversation.”

Not everyone makes every meeting, but as a group which started out as strangers, they are now a tight-knit group of friends.

French predominates, but there is some English – and some Franglais, even for Mme. President. “All are welcome,” says Smith, who took over last fall, “and the native speakers help people like me.”

It is an informal group. A natural curiosity about others seems to be the only requirement to become part of the talkative fold. Everyone is an alpha dog, storyteller-wise; it doesn’t take long before they all begin talking at once until the chatter becomes so loud that Smidgie declares that this cacophony is “la probleme seulement de la groupe” – the only problem with the group. She claps her hands three times, and, as if they all know what that means, the din subsides.

But conversation doesn’t. “Me, I never talk,” Michel jokes, in his native tongue.

Gypsy moths are overshadowed by Newport restaurants and the “tres chere” prices on some of the menus. A $36 price tag on a lamb dinner segues into a discussion about the salt-meadow lambs of Normandy, who graze on the marsh grasses surrounding Mont Saint-Michel. “You never have to put salt on l’Aigneau Saint-Michel,” Michel explains, with a faraway look in his eyes.

The concept of happy hour comes up, which takes the group down another boulevard. In France, it is known more poetically as l’heure bleue, “the bluish hour.” Wendy adds that it is also the name of one of her favorite perfumes (a Guerlain standby, created in 1912), which then prompts the discussion about the French town of Grasse, on the French Riviera – the world’s capital of perfume. Wendy and Michel share a moment and nod, knowingly, on how beautiful it all smells. Michel adds that Grasse is along what the French call La Route Napoleon, now an official highway, which follows the little general’s northward march from the French Riviera along the foothills of the Alps. The journey, he adds, began in Antibes.

And then another short but memorable detour, and we all come along. “I arrive in Antibes,” he says of going home. “The next day I go to the market at six in the morning, close my eyes and just smile. I smell the fish, the legumes, and hear people talking. The first thing I do when I go to France,” he adds, “is make steak tartare.” And enjoys it, he adds, with “a bottle of French Rosé of Provence. Or two.”

Not sure how to say it in French, but you can go home again.

(Next on the AFN calendar is a presentation in October, open to the public, about the Dordonne region with a focus on the cave art of the area. For more information, visit AFN on Facebook. There is a second, equally as popular, weekly meeting on Thursday evenings at the Hampton Inn on West Main Road.)

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