Sounds like France, looks like Virginia

You don't have to cross an ocean to get a full taste of the French language

Short Hop

July 21, 2002|By Barbara A. Noe | Barbara A. Noe,Special to the Sun

Outside the picture window, the setting sun sends long shadows over violet, lavender and indigo peaks, and stars in the darkening universe seem to echo the tiny sparkles appearing in the valley far below. Edith Piaf trills in the background, and five newly made friends and I, speaking only French, make our way through a five-course gourmet meal in typical French style -- with lots of talk and even more wine.

All the French touches are there -- President-brand butter and salt for the radishes, an endless supply of baguettes, three kinds of pates and three cheeses, espresso served in demitasse cups. If I didn't know better, I could be somewhere in France, admiring the sunset. And yet, I had driven only two hours from the Washington suburbs and paid a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket.

Voila -- my first experience with a French immersion weekend in Virginia's Blue Ridge.

I studied French in college and even spent my junior year in Bordeaux, where I reached a point of speaking with a somewhat decent accent. But that was more than 15 years ago. This summer, I decided it was time to return to France and resuscitate my fast-failing language skills.

Alas, airfares were too expensive. I thought a class might do the trick instead, and there, on the Alliance Francaise Web site, I discovered a tiny ad for the French-American Exchange: Learn French in France or the Shenandoah Mountains.

The exchange sends most of its participants to France -- Paris, Tours, Montpellier, Aix-en-Provence, Nice -- for programs ranging from a week to a year. All that sounds wonderful, but for those who don't have the time or the money, there's the weekend option in the hills above Luray, Va.

Jim Pondolfino, an energetic, good-humored, 40-something Italian-American who speaks French like a native, is the man behind the program.

"Speaking a foreign language and traveling to foreign countries have always been passions of mine," he says.

Pondolfino studied French in school, then spent five years in Tours and Montpellier, where he learned the language inside and out. He has 10 years of teaching experience and a knack for instructing kindly, a good thing when it comes to helping former-French-speaking adults dredge long-lost vocabulary and grammar concepts from deep inside their aging minds. He founded the Exchange in 1987, with the Blue Ridge retreats -- about a dozen a year -- beginning six years ago.

There are four of us "students" on the weekend, including Diane Dickinson, a mother of three adolescents searching for a productive and exciting way to spend the next chapter of her life -- "perhaps teaching French," she says; Valerie Powell, an international lawyer who speaks German and Russian fluently and wishes to refine her third language; and Jeff Levi, departing on a gastronomic tour of Parisian restaurants at week's end and in need of a quick refresher course.

It seems that all of us are in more or less the same boat; that is, we knew French better at one point in our lives and we want to know it again.

The immersion weekends can accommodate a range of French speakers. "This program is for anyone who can communicate on at least a basic level all the way to advanced," Pondolfino says.

Most people can hold their own with the bit of prompting that is offered, though Pondol-fino loves to tell the story of the French teacher who couldn't string together a sentence -- a challenge, to say the least, but given Pondolfino's adeptness to teach, I'm sure that even that poor teacher got a lot out of his weekend.

No English allowed

Our base is a country chalet on the Luray side of the Blue Ridge, surrounded by trees and fields and cows, overlooking the storied Shenandoah Valley.

"No neighbors at all," Pondolfino says enthusiastically.

It's a charming cabin, typical of the Virginia countryside, with rustic wood trim and a screened-in porch. But with a little imagination, you might think you're somewhere in the hinterlands of France. Certainly my room, with its brass bed and tiny-flowered wallpaper, feels more French than Virginian, non?

The No. 1 rule for the entire weekend is to speak French and only French (thank goodness you get to sleep part of the time). In addition to Pondolfino, another instructor is with us, Kathy Chamberlain, a free-lance translator and interpreter with the State Department. They are both by our sides at all times, prompting us to speak, correcting us when we misspeak, encouraging us to speak and practice some more.

If either of them hears the use of a single English word, they interrupt: "Qu'est-ce que vous avez dit? En francais!" They help us with sticky grammar issues (pendant vs. pour, en vs. dans, passe compose vs. imparfait, for example), and always, always are nice about it.

Each day we have a formal grammar session at the chalet, catered to specific errors that Pondolfino and Chamberlain have overhead.

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