French fan: Group's founder <I>tres occupée</I>
When former Frenchwoman Andrée King followed her husband to the United States 25 years ago, she was reluctant to leave behind her first love, one that was less romantic and more patriotic. Upon arrival, she immediately sought out French-speaking friends, but it still felt like she was losing her grip on her cultural roots and native tongue.
"My French heritage has always been extremely important to me," says King, now in her fifties. "I wanted to find a way to hold onto it."
She found it in L'Alliance Française, headquartered in Washington, D.C. King called the organization in 1992 about the possibility of setting up a Charlottesville chapter. The alliance was interested in the idea right away and encouraged King to participate in the creation of the chapter– as its founding president.
"It was a brand-new experience for me," King says. "I wasn't even affiliated with the program before I took the job."
Not only did King accept the unpaid position, but she's been throwing her energy– not to mention money– into the task for the past 13 years. "I'm very lucky to have found this niche," she says.
Luck doesn't seem to have much to do with the creation of the chapter that King built from scratch. The program now offers French and English lessons, cooking classes, tutoring, and bi-monthly cultural activities. Though its membership started out being just a handful of King's friends, the alliance has grown to roughly 200 members.
"I've been an active member for about two years, and I'd say my French-speaking skills are at the intermediate level," says Charlottesville citizen Martin Bass. "I certainly appreciate the cultural events offered here. It's nice being able to go to a wine tasting or a lecture on France."
Or to France itself, for that matter. Members of L'Alliance Française have been working for years to officially declare a sister-city arrangement between the cities of Charlottesville and Besançon, France, to encourage and facilitate cross-country exchanges between citizens of both towns. Last July, members of the alliance and City Council member Blake Caravati finally flew to France to formalize the "Proclamation of Friendship."
"The primary purpose of this arrangement is to encourage Americans to visit France and vice versa," says King. "I really believe in cross-cultural learning, and the best way to do that is to be in the country."
But that's not the only way. The alliance's instructors teach French at 12 public and private Charlottesville area schools, including Crozet, Venable, and Meriwether Lewis. King also began Tout en Français, a Channel 13 television show for children with vocabulary lists, story times, and special guests.
"I love France's culture," she says. "What could be better than sharing it with Charlottesville?"
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO