The people in France must be smart, the old joke goes; even the children speak French. If people who've learned to speak French are thought of as being erudite, they're also stereotyped as being pompous and short on horse sense--as in the bit on Frasier where Frasier and his brother, Niles, decide to speak French to discuss their tactics for giving the dog medicine so that the dog won't understand.
But you'll get a different impression at a meeting of the French Conversation Group. "Write down that we meet every week," a regular told me emphatically, though Borders Books & Music/Mesa officially hosts the group only first and third Mondays. She explained that participants get free coffee only on sanctioned weeks because the manager put the kibosh on off-week freebies. Impressed by the commitment of a weekly meeting, I asked how long the group has been at this. After some deliberation, a consensus was reached: "About five years."
Some religions would kill for that kind of commitment--and have. Maybe the group should be renamed Church of the Bon Mot. On this night the congregation numbered about 20 and included faithfuls and neophytes alike. Now, your typical student of French comes from the quiet "good student" population, and when you add to that the struggle to find the mot juste for even mundane questions, you end up with a goodly number of smiling, attentive mutes. But fortunately for the group, there are just as many gregarious expatriates who've been speaking the language since they were bebes and who are eager enough for the sound of home to suffer the smallest of small talk.
Don't expect discussions on the films of Louis Malle or even Juliette Binoche. There was talk of Jean-Claude Van Damme, I thought, but that turned out to be about a similarly named absent regular whom they affectionately dubbed an "Italian octopus."
This isn't the only congregation, either. A second group meets at a patisserie/restaurant on Camelback at 2 p.m. Saturdays. A third meets in Cave Creek at 1:30 p.m. Mondays. Another group meets monthly at Borders Books & Music/Phoenix. And there are monthly happy hours in Tempe. An association keeps Valley Francophiles in touch through even more activities.
If this group is any indication, the stereotypically brusque French don't emigrate. Only those who badly need parlez.
Just think: People are complaining about feelings of isolation in the transient society of the Valley, some going so far as to commit suicide out of desperate loneliness. No doubt some of these same people once took that lifesaving class known as French 101, and may even still have the textbook.
Christine Parker and Angela Morley immigrated to the Valley--from L.A. Parker says she and her husband knew virtually no one, but they made "instant friends" through Alliance Française. Morley says she'd been a member in L.A. and joined the Phoenix chapter even before she arrived. AF isn't just a scheme to get free coffee. Its Web site, www.afusa.org, boasts 144 chapters in 45 states with approximately 35,200 members in the U.S. Arizona has a second chapter in Tucson with about 70 members. Morley says there are about 300 members in the Valley.
The Phoenix chapter has a monthly newsletter and activity line that list events such as meals at various Valley restaurants (just guess what type of cuisine), parties and film viewings (with subtitles for the French-impaired) in addition to the conversation groups.
The Borders conversation groups are actually independent of AF, and from the sound of it, the AF Cave Creek conversation group has a bit more structure. Members are informed ahead of time about topics so that they can prepare. French-speaking visitors are welcome.
The little restaurant where the Saturday group meets, French Ambiance, is BYOB. So, if you need something stronger than coffee to put you in le mood to chat, keep this in mind. The Phoenix chapter also organizes events for children (no doubt worthy of their superior intellect). Not little Crane brothers in the making, some of the children are stateside because many French engineers take jobs in the Valley, Morley explains. The parents want their kids to keep up their French.
People pay dues to join AF and receive the newsletter, though, talk being cheap, the conversation groups are free. And so is the coffee--sometimes.
The next French Conversation Group is held at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 8, at Borders Books & Music at Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Suite 200; groups are also held at Borders/Mesa. For more French-related activities, call Alliance Francaise of Greater Phoenix's activity line at 480-948-0728; or the Tucson chapter at 1-520-327-3279.