Photo Gallery | French speakers gather at The Mount for conversation
LENOX — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edith Wharton loved France. Next to her Lenox home The Mount, there was no place she'd rather be.
Today, as people across France gather to celebrate Bastille Day and their liberation from an oppressive ruling class — inspired by their Colonial cousins across the pond — Francophones from across the Berkshires gather at The Mount's new Le Café Français to celebrate, not just a national holiday, but their shared love of the French language.
Each Thursday morning, all summer long, kindred spirits gather at Le Café Français to drink coffee, eat croissants and "bavarder," engage in lively conversation in French. It is open to all who want to hone their language skills or perhaps just listen to the murmur of a foreign tongue with a backdrop of birdsong at one of the most splendid sites in the Berkshires.
Over a coffee at the café, longtime House Manager Laurie Foote explained how it all began in the winter of 2005 when a handful of Mount employees led by then director Stephanie Copeland gathered in the office kitchen to practice their French.
After a few years the group met outdoors during the summer and expanded to include family members and, through word of mouth, the general public, all sitting around one long, often noisy table on the terrace. When attendance at "Le Petit Déjeuner" (the breakfast) as it was called topped 30, it was clear it had outgrown the capacity of the few dedicated volunteers who organized it.
Fortunately, The Mount administration willingly took over the reins, and this summer the newly renamed "Le Café Français" has adopted a more casual configuration of numerous small tables to create a convivial atmosphere evoking a Parisian sidewalk café. People who register in advance can enjoy good French coffee and a croissant from nearby Haven bakery, offered with a dab of "confiture" (jam).
Foote, who had no formal French instruction in high school, was in her 40s when she started exploring the language, eventually working in a French town where no one spoke English. Now, in addition to her summer conversations, she studies French at a local college during the winter.
Unlike Europeans, most Americans don't hear other languages, Foote noted. "It's difficult for us to imagine having to speak another language; the more you hear it, you will speak better, you'll be understood, and you'll have a good time."
Café patrons are very forgiving of any errors, she assures; if someone is speaking slowly, people stop and listen. While some people are native speakers, "you learn from them," she said.
A loyal group of café regulars include Boston native Laura Vidale and her Swiss husband Henry Dam, who moved to the Berkshires two years ago from Switzerland where Vidale had spent the last 24 years.
When she spotted the event on The Mount website, "It sounded perfect," she said. "We didn't know many people in the area, and I thought Henry would enjoy speaking French with other French speakers. We came quite a few times last summer."
They don't only come for the coffee and croissants, quipped Dam. "I've met Americans who learned French in college or high school and want to practice it again," he said. "Nobody's being judged here."
"It's really fun to speak French with people from all over," added Vidale. "Some are Americans, some are transplants, French people and Germans who speak very good French, we find we have something in common with them all. Many of us are people who have lived abroad, be it foreigners or expats who came back to the U.S. We've met some really interesting people."
Conversation topics might include history, theater and Tanglewood, "or just where do you come from?" said Dam. With so many accents at the café, while foreign native French speakers like Canadians and the Swiss may be mocked in Paris, "everyone is very accommodating here," he noted.
The couple doesn't limit their Mount visits to the café. "Any opportunity to come to The Mount, we jump at it," said Vidale, who also volunteers. "We come for Wharton on Wednesdays, for the jazz evenings, we love this place."
"If you don't feel comfortable speaking French," Dam suggested, "come for the coffee and the croissant, and watch and enjoy the atmosphere."
"It's a treat to be at The Mount before it's officially open," added Vidale. "It's very quiet, and we have the terrace to ourselves on a beautiful morning like this."
As the café drew to a close, the group dispersed with some double-cheek kisses and calls of "à la semaine prochaine" (till next week). They left behind the industrious buzz of lawn mowers readying Wharton's beloved gardens for the busy week ahead.
If you go ...
What: Le Café Français: coffee, croissants and French conversation
Where: The Terrace at The Mount, 2 Plunkett St., Lenox
When: 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. each Thursday through Sept. 1
Cost: $10, registration due by end of Wednesday
Registration & information: edithwharton.org, (413) 551-5100