A Oui Bit of France
By Jeff Berg
Looking out across the Chihuahuan Desert or at a close-up view of the Organ Mountains certainly does not inspire you to think of France. And oft times we can forget that many other languages are spoken around here--perhaps not in the way that Spanish is used, but certainly in a way that allows the speakers to reclaim or hold onto an important part of their own culture and heritage.
My neighbors, a couple who hail from Mozambique and Germany respectively, certainly entertain a multilingual household, which includes their knowledge of Portuguese, Spanish, Shona and Ndao (two dialects from Mozambique), English, German, and even a little Dutch and Italian just to keep things interesting.
But Club Francophone takes the French language here one step further.
The group, which has about 30 members, meets monthly in Las Cruces, and on occasion pairs up with a similar group, L'Alliance Française d'El Paso. Parisian-born Jacques Barriac heads that group, which of course is based in El Paso. The El Paso group boasts 60 members, several of whom were at the picnic fête that was held at the Dripping Springs Natural Area, east of Las Cruces, to celebrate Bastille Day, which may be thought of as the day that the French Revolution began.
"She is the best leader we have had," said club member George Caron, pointing to Club Francophone's president, Lia Krebs. Caron, who is also an active member of Las Cruces' Desert Writers group, like many of the other people at the gathering, is originally from Europe.
Caron is originally from France. He came to the States in 1947, eventually ending up in Milwaukee, where he was the superintendent for customer service for Wisconsin Gas.
"We try to get back to Europe every other year," Caron said. Caron's wife, Paulette, a retired photo company director, left her home outside Paris in 1950.
It seems a bit odd that there are this many people in this little corner of the Southwest who have such deep French-language backgrounds. But, as Caron explained, they are all here by choice: "We scouted around, and found that the weather here was perfect for us. There are no earthquakes, tornados, and the proximity to the El Paso airport is also nice."
What does Caron miss about his homeland? "France has less political corruption and bigger airplanes.".
Lia Krebs, who has been the president of the group only since January, was in constant motion during the get-together. She paused long enough to say that she is originally from the Netherlands. "I was a French teacher for 40 years, but quit doing it when I left Connecticut," Krebs said in English, which is accompanied by a delicate accent.
Her native language is Dutch, and she also speaks German and Spanish.
Krebs' life adventures have also allowed her to reside in Venezuela and Mexico. "I was married in Mexico, and we lived there for five years," she said. "When we were looking for a place to live, we considered going back to Mexico, and also liked Santa Fe, but it was too cold. We found that Las Cruces was the right spot.
"I like the US because of its beautiful landscape, and it is a huge country," she went on. "I like the optimism of the American people, too. In Europe, people like to talk about philosophy to improve the world, but nothing is ever done. Europe has become quite pessimistic. However, in Europe, you are insured from the cradle to the grave."
According to some of the other club members, Krebs has really kept the group busy. Besides this meeting and regular monthly assemblies, the Francophones have special celebrations at Christmas, Three Kings Day in January, and February's Chandeleur, an ancient festival that is dated by reference to Christmas.
"When people have the same language, they also want to share the same traditions," Krebs said.
Krebs interrupted the hungry guests to offer handouts with the words to several French songs on them. Soon, the whole group was almost in harmony singing these traditional tunes, while several couples danced to the lively music from a boom box that someone had brought.
Krebs said that some club members join because they lived in France, while others just worked there at some point in their life. "The club originally started in 1979 on the NMSU campus, and the club got too big," so this group is a splinter of that original assemblage.
Yvonne Esker was born and raised in Paris, and came to the US in 1946. "I was a war bride," she said. "I came to the States and lived in Milwaukee, but have been in Las Cruces for 29 years. I got sick of winter and the bad weather in Wisconsin.
"I still 'feel' French more than anything," she added, a bit wistfully. "I love our beautiful vacations over there, and everything is closer. I have a brother and cousin who still live in France."
Others Francophones, like Jim Decker, came from France's former colonies. Decker grew up in Sierra Leone, and also lived in Belgium. His background also includes being the founding president of the Congo Protestant University. Proudly, he noted that it is the "foremost accredited university in the Congo. It has Congolese leadership and its own president and administration staff. Its enrollment is 51 percent women."
Decker also learned some Swahili, but not as a working language. He has been in Las Cruces permanently for five years, since Phoenix was too hot, a second possible location was too cold, but Las Cruces was "just right."
When asked about the supposed friction over Iraq between the United States and the French, who may now be saying "we told you so," Krebs answered briskly, "Bush could have said, 'Let's talk about it,' and gotten a different impression, just to get another option.
"The French love Americans," she added as the music wound down. "Americans do not learn languages or cultures. And they need to. All the people (in France) are hospitable, and they want you to see that."