Rolf Anderson > France + Belgium
I grew up in Woodbury, Connecticut and began the formal study of French in seventh grade. I studied French for six years through my senior year of high school. I had excellent teachers all through these years. I always credit my most inspiring teachers - Stephen Bignelli at Woodbury High School and Serge Miller at the Gunnery School - with giving me my fundamental understanding of French grammar. I remember Stephen Bignelli for his high energy, excellent teaching skills and especially for his verb conjugation drills.
S.L. Miller was simply one of the most enthusiastic teachers I have ever met. His love for the French language and French culture was a major influence on my desire to make French a lasting part of my life. In all I studied French from level one through level six.
French was always my favorite subject, helped in large part by the fact that my parents were so supportive of my learning French. French was one of nine languages which my father spoke. My mother's knowledge of French was excellent. After living in Europe I realized that neither of my parents spoke French with classic French intonation. I believe that one must live where French is spoken to acquire that “native” sound. I am so pleased that my students in Fairfield, Jay and Colchester in particular are acquiring very natural French pronunciation. When they are older, some people may very well presume that French was their mother's maternal language.
A Summer in France
I had the very good fortune of being able to spend the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school in Europe. I spent 5 weeks in France with my family and had my first experience speaking French with native speakers of the language. Each day I walked through a small village square in Cap d'Antibes where men played a game of bocce wearing black trousers and long-sleeved white shirts.
That summer in Europe showed me how important it is to experience different cultures. Young people benefit enormously when they live the language that they are studying during their high school years. I still remember my first phrases in French spoken without any parents nearby.
A Year in Belgium
After high school I spent a year living in Belgium with a Flemish family on their dairy farm. "La Ferme de la Bruyere" is located in the "Rigaudrie", a short distance from the village of Ellezelles. Ellezelles is near the larger town of Ronse in an area known as "Le Pays des Collines" in French and "Vlaamse Ardenen" in Flemish. It is about an hour west of Bruxelles (Brussels) and sits on the border between the French speaking province of Hainaut to the south and the Flemish speaking province of West Vlanderen to the north.
Before going to Belgium I had decided that I wanted to completely immerse myself in Belgian culture and hoped to live on a farm there. When I first landed in Belgium I stayed at the "Hotel Savoie" (Savoy Hotel) in Ronse ("Renaix" in French). I placed an ad ("une petite annonce") in the local weekly newspaper which read as follows:
Jeune militaire americain, très serieux, non-buveur, cherche logement sur une ferme aux environs de Renaix. Bien disposé a aider avec le travail de ferme en dehors des heures de travail officiel. Contact M. Anderson à l'Hotel Savoie, Renaix.
Living on a Farm
A family in Ellezelles invited me to stay with them on their farm. I visited them and had dinner with M. Remi Craeye, his wife Mme. Christiane Craeye, and their two sons Vincent Craeye and Christophe Craeye. At the time Vincent was six and Christophe was two. I decided to stay with these very good people.
Within the first two weeks I began to meet some of the neighbors. When people asked me where I was from I told them: "Je suis Americain. Je viens de la Nouvelle Angleterre." I didn't think they would be familiar with the name of the state of Connecticut, although eventually I mentioned that fact.
Americans Don't Speak French
I will always remember one woman in the neighborhood who when she heard me say in French that I was American, called me a liar. "Vous êtes menteur !" she said. "Pourquoi pensez-vous ça ?" I asked. (Why do you think that ?) "Parce que les Americains ne parlent pas des langues étrangères, especialement le français." (Because Americans don't speak foreign languages, especially French.) After that I asked the woman "Alors si je ne suis pas Americain, d'ou est-ce que vous pensez que je vien ?" ("Well if I am not American, where do you think I'm from ?") "Vous êtes un cousin Flemand de la famille Craeye qui est venu des Flandres pour perfectionner sons français !" ("You are a Flemish cousin of the Craeye family who has come from Flanders to perfect his French.")
["Funny, I thought. I didn't think that my French needed improvement". ..."wait a minute," I thought, "this isn't an insult...this is a compliment. She's telling you that you speak French well enough that not only don't you sound American, you have actually passed as a Belgian."]
At that moment I gave thanks to Stephen Bignelli and Serge Miller for all that they had taught me. I had always known that they were good teachers and that they spoke French beautifully. But now I was quite certain and was so grateful to them.
No Longer Completely American
After almost a year with them, I knew that I had one of the most special experiences a young American could have. The neighbors told me when I left Ellezelles that I was no longer completely American. They said that I was now half Belgian. The Craeye family called me their American cousin. I was a different person after that.
After two more years in Europe I returned to the United States to live in Vermont. I decided to settle in Montgomery close to the border with Québéc. After living in Europe for three years very close to the borders between differing cultures and languages, I had become fascinated with this cultural tension and the ways that each culture influenced the other. Admittedly I lived in these areas during a period of prolonged peace. In my town I get to speak French quite often and can easily cross into Québéc where French is the official language.
I have continued to use French every opportunity I get and thoroughly enjoy teaching the language to people of all ages. I think of my teachers Stephen Bignelli and Serge Miller when I teach French and believe that I am quite possibly having the same effect on my students that these two men had on me.
- Rolf Anderson
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