By Leah Jones, Features Editor
Students and faculty sat in the Nosh and practiced speaking French with each other at the bi-weekly meeting of La Table Française in the Millennium Student Center at the University of Missouri-St. Louis on Thursday. Besides sharing the language, the group members passed around a crinkling package of chocolate-covered wafer cookies called “Le Petit Normandy.” The cookies, which come in a variety of other flavors, can be purchased at several local St. Louis stores though they are made in France. In the past, the group has also shared raclette, a pungent, yet flavorful melting cheese that is often used in fondue. They have also held chocolate tastings and spent one semester on a quest for the best croissant in St. Louis.
The group formed in 2003. “We were looking for ways to bring francophiles from all over campus together when a former colleague suggested starting a weekly conversation group,” said Sandra Trapani, a French teaching professor at UMSL. “For the last 13 years, we’ve been gathering every week in the Nosh to bring together students, faculty, staff, and occasionally community members who all have varying proficiency levels in French. While attendance waxes and wanes from year to year, we consistently have a group of faithfuls who come back week to week to talk about everything and nothing with their budding French skills.”
This year, the group decided to meet on the first and third Thursdays of the month. “It seems like Thursdays are more relaxed because we don’t have class on Fridays,” said Associate Teaching Professor of French, Anne-Sophie Blank. Blank and Trapani, as well as Assistant Teaching Professor, Violaine White, and Professor Jeanne Zarucchi all attend La Table Français.
Besides discussing food, travel, music, and movies, the group also discusses colloquialisms in both languages. The French will say “May you have a lot of sh*t in your theatre” to wish an actor good luck. Blank said that the phrase referred to the mud that a large audience would bring into a theatre. “It goes back to the 19th century when people, to wish good luck to actors would say, ‘oh may you have a lot of mud in your theatre,’ meaning you would have a good audience. It was a sign of success,” she said.
The group benefits not only English speakers, but native French speakers as well. Justine Pieau, freshman, business, is an international student from École Supérieure des Sciences Commerciales d’Angers (ESSCA) in France who attends the conversations. She learned about the English phrase “break a leg.” “I am from Lyon,” she said. “I am just here for one semester, from August to December.”
“Students have loved getting to know [Pieau] and hearing about her experience as an exchange student,” Trapani said. “It has also given her the opportunity to connect with our students and to feel more a part of the campus.”
UMSL offers students a BA degree in Modern Languages with a concentration in a specific language. Students choose between Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Arabic, Latin, Greek, and Japanese. Blank said that there are five faculty members who teach French at UMSL. “With the budget, we had to reduce…We have three full-time [faculty] now…Plus we have a full-time professor who is doing half-time in artistry and half-time in French. And we have someone who is on a part-time basis who used be full-time with us,” she said.
Despite these cuts, the ability to speak a second language is an invaluable skill, which according to UMSL’s Language and Cultural Studies Home page, helps students to “join a community of global citizens in an international setting.” Trapani agreed and referred to language learning as an “invaluable skill.”
Blank can attest to this ability to join an international and global community. Born in France, she is fluent in French, English, and German, having obtained her Master’s Degree in German Linguistic Grammar from the University of Sorbonne-Paris IV, France, in 1984. Shortly after completing her degree, Blank came to the United States and took a job as a nanny in University City. “On my day off, I would practice my German at a German conversation table at Washington University,” Blank said. “And then, in March, they had International Foreign Language Week and I ended up in the French Department, and I spoke with a professor who told me that with my degree in German, I qualified to be a teaching assistant.”
As a teaching assistant, Blank received tuition reimbursement and a small stipend, and she obtained a second Master’s degree in French literature from Washington University in St. Louis, in 1987. “So, I never paid a dime for my Master’s degree,” she said.
“Then I met my husband…in 1987, and we got married three months later, and we’ve been married since then. My mother was really not happy with me though. She knew I was not going to come back,” Blank laughed. Shortly thereafter, Blank joined UMSL’s foreign language department in 1997. “C’est la vie. No regrets,” she said.
La Table Française gives students the opportunity to learn languages from these knowledgeable and intelligent professors. Trapani said, “We hope to keep the Table Française going for many years to come. It is so important to give students the opportunity to use and develop their skills outside of class. Language learning is an invaluable skill in the world today and we are happy to do our part to bring French to life on campus.”
La Table Française also shows French films. The next film will be shown on November 10 at 7 p.m. in Room 527 of Clark Hall.
To learn more about French at UMSL, visit umsl.edu/lang/Languages/french.html.