Immersing themselves in village life, three generations of American women study more than language
By Becca Hensley
SANCERRE, France — We arrive in Sancerre, a renowned wine village two hours south of Paris, with wolves in our bellies. While hunger can be a good thing in a town known for its food and wine, on this Sunday afternoon in early June, there is not a baguette in sight.
All the shops and cafes are closed, and all the villagers are home with their families. It’s so quiet we can hear our stomachs grumble.
But we’re not discouraged. This is why we’ve come — my daughter and I from Austin and my mother from Boulder, Colo. We’ve come for immersion, even when it’s a bit inconvenient. We’ve come to inhale the essence of this tiny medieval town that sits atop a hill in the heart of France.
Though we hope to learn French, we’re happy just to behold the colors of the buildings that surround the Nouvelle Place. Like earthy Fauvist brushstrokes, they line the town square in tones of apricot, blue-gray, ivory and taupe. In particular, the turreted roofs in grays and copper (much like burnished pennies) divert me.
And just steps away, at Sancerre’s highest point, we gaze upon at least 10 fabulous miles of the Loire River valley in all its verdant hues. I have read that Caesar stood here to track his enemies, and I can see why — the vista seems to roll on forever.
At last, my daughter leads me down a winding street to her discovery, a fromagerie that has reopened for the afternoon. Thrilled, we buy crottin de chavignol, the creamy goat cheese native to the region; sweet, nutty homemade crackers; and a bottle of Sancerre white wine. It’s the feast of our dreams, and we hurry down narrow streets, past half-timbered houses, to our new home.
We’ve rented a two-bedroom apartment above the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, an immersion school where we will take our French lessons each morning. Located in a restored 16th-century Renaissance mansion known as La Thaumassière, the school holds classes all year. Students come from all over the world and range in age from pre-schoolers to octogenarians.
Our trio — three generations, three experience levels, all eager to pursue French in its own environment — will be accommodated in a family program where we will study together, led by our instructor, Valérie. Walking to class will be as simple as descending a stone spiral staircase.
For now, we’ve pulled chairs up to the apartment’s picture windows overlooking Sancerre’s famous tower (Tour des Fifes) to eat our snack and watch a thunderstorm rumble over the village. The Sancerre white wine, made from sauvignon blanc grapes, is crisp and dry, a lovely complement to the buttery crottin smeared on our crackers.
Sated, we look around, noting the polished oak floors, period furniture, marble bathroom, hand-painted and embossed walls, laundry room and completely equipped kitchen. We have plenty of space in our elegant suite on the mansion’s top floor; we could stay here for months. Too bad we’ll only be here for a couple of weeks.
Our lofty view puts us eye-to-eye with La Thaumassière’s whimsical gargoyles. There’s a winemaker, holding a cask and a basket of grapes; a drinker clutching a pitcher of wine; a musician playing Renaissance-era bagpipes (the Scots once settled in Sancerre to fight against the English); and a cherub displaying a parchment that depicts La Thaumassière’s coat of arms.
From one window, I spy vineyards — green and purple splotches, a patchwork that cascades downward, outside the town’s ramparts. Nearly 400 vineyards surround Sancerre, many with intriguing names like Blanche De Castille, the White Queen. The wines, made mostly by families, vary in taste due to many factors, including which of the area’s three grape-loving soils (clay, pebbly limestone or siliceous clay) begat them.
Most aficionados know Sancerre for its white wine, though the red and a rosé are also highly regarded. Looking ahead to my first lessons tomorrow, I wonder whether we will be taught tasting words and phrases. I imagine myself sipping and using erudite French wine words.
On our first day of classes, my 12-year-old, enamored with all things French, can’t wait to leap into the language. She expects to be fluent in short order. My 75-year-old mother, a former Spanish teacher, worries that her “language ear” won’t help her replicate sounds like it once did. And me, well, I’m just willing to make a fool of myself, as I do again and again in that first hour by speaking Italian and Spanish back to Valérie without even realizing it.
Ensconced in a private classroom, we torture Valérie with our accents. For more than two hours, we grunt, bawl and whinny, a cacophonous attempt to emulate the sounds that come so elegantly from our teacher’s mouth.
We take a break, standing around the coffee machine with teachers and students from other classrooms. Because it’s immersion we’re all after, no English is allowed. So introductions are bravely uttered in various levels of French.
We try to discuss the weather with some college students from Kansas. We discover that Valérie’s husband is a farmer. We meet Gérard and Marianne Chartrand, the school’s owners, who ask about our apartment. Before returning, we take a quick walk around the building to sip fresh air. We try not to speak English, but we give in, guiltily.
“This is a lot of work,” says my mother, and I can tell she’s considering walking straight to the Place Nouvelle for a glass of mineral water at the Cafe des Arte. I grab her arm and lead her back to school.
Doggedly, for three more arduous but surprisingly entertaining hours, we repeat after Valérie, conjugate verbs, act out dialogues and study new words.
When we break for the day, it’s lunchtime, and our heads are as full as our stomachs are empty. The only thing to do is to set forth into Sancerre and find food. Quickly, we learn that everything we do here requires French because, happily, nobody speaks English. This forces us to do our homework. It surprises us all when we succeed in ordering lunch. When we tell our waitperson that we are students, he smiles. Later, as we talk, he gently corrects our pronunciation, sometimes making us repeat words several times. His kindness liberates us, and our language inhibitions are cast away.
And so it goes. Each morning, we meet Valérie for class, and each afternoon we wander about Sancerre practicing our French on the folks we encounter.
One day, my mother, unhappy with the state of her hair, makes an appointment at a local beauty shop. Dictionary in hand, she tells the stylist she does not want a cut or color, just a hairdo. “A coupe? A coupe?” they say, and she frowns, shaking her head. “A coiffure,” she corrects, nervously.
My daughter and I leave her to her experiment and take a hike around Sancerre’s walled ramparts. We don’t know what to expect when we return, but we find Mother, beautifully coiffeured, surrounded by village ladies who all seem to be talking to her at once.
“I love your hair,” one says. “You look like a Parisienne.”
Feeling pretty triumphant, we celebrate with a glass of wine — Evian for my daughter — and watch Sancerre’s children play in the square on their way home from school.
Another day, we visit a winery a few miles away. Escorted by Gerard, we taste old wines, new wines, red ones and white. Later we drive through the green countryside to visit chateaus, the magnificent mansions for which the Loire Valley is known.
Perhaps most moving is a stop in Marianne’s childhood village. Here, Gerard tells of the Nazi occupation. He points out a wall where resistance fighters were executed and shows us the place where nervous German soldiers killed a little boy chasing a ball.
Most afternoons, we simply fool around and make friends. I become especially close to one little old lady, less than 5 feet tall. She likes my lace socks, and I love her red shoes. She warns me when rain is imminent and tries to teach me about cheese.
My daughter has become fond of the bakery lady. She loves to stand in the boulangerie in the morning before class, even after buying her croissants, to greet each villager as they come for their morning baguette. Her “bonjour, madame” has become flawless.
When our language course ends, we receive a certificate, congratulatory kisses and — what else? — bottles of Sancerre wine. We’ve done more than just learn French here, we’ve become one with the village, if only for a short time. We’re still hungry when we leave, but not for food. This time, it is more immersion in Sancerre that we crave.
If you go:
Getting there: We flew into Paris and took a rental car to Sancerre. Gerard Chartrand, founder of the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, suggests spending a few days in Paris before making the two-hour drive. “This way,” he says, “students can get the urban out of their system before experiencing the charm and inconveniences of our French countryside.”
Lodging: A luxury, two-bedroom apartment atop the school cost about $900 for a one-week rental. Coeur de France also offers lodging in hotels and in various houses and apartments in the Sancerre area.
What to bring: Good walking shoes, an umbrella, an ATM card and an extra suitcase for your souvenirs.