Tuesday, September 30, 2008

How the Alliance Francaise Changed My Life

I was flattered to be asked to write a 'light' piece for the quarterly publication of the Federation of Alliances Francaises in the US. It appears in this month's Federation Forum, and herebelow. I picked the topic and the not-so-clever title. Honestly, no bribes or other payments were transacted! It was my gift to a wonderful, worthwhile organization.

Not everyone is lucky enough to get the opportunity to live in France. If you are a Francophile -- either budding or die-hard -- what are you waiting for? Sign up at an Alliance Francaise near you. Membership is one of the best investments you can make if you're searching for a certain je ne sais quoi in your life.

(You know, come to think of it, maybe they should have paid me for this -- I kind of sound like an advertisement, n'est-ce pas?)

How the Alliance Française Changed My Life

Sitting at my desk in my apartment in Paris, I mull over what to write. I offered to pen a witty, lighthearted piece about the Alliance, and suggested the above title myself.

My experience at the Alliance Française spanned some thirty years in Boston, as a member, employee, Board member, and member once again. In the late 1970s, with a freshly minted BA in French Literature, I arrived in Boston, looking for work. First stop: the Alliance Française, then located in a stately Beacon Hill mansion. The young woman at the front desk was welcoming and cordial, but clearly was not prepared to cede her beloved job to me; and except for the Director and the teachers, no other paid positions existed. But I eagerly shelled over the annual membership fee, and embarked on a life with the Alliance.

Two years later, at the annual Bal du Printemps, the Director asked me for a spin around the dance floor. "Tiens, Polly," he said slyly. "Our assistant director is leaving. You wouldn't by any chance be interested in the job, would you?" I think I must have stepped on both of his feet as I stopped dead in my tracks and accepted. I didn't ask about compensation, benefits, hours. I just said

As I look back, my entire life has been shaped by my Alliance Française experience. Not just because I was a diehard Francophile who got her dream job, but because of what an Alliance Française is. The Alliance – every Alliance – is to me an important cultural anchor in a community where lives intersect, and French-American understanding flourishes, and lifelong friendships and associations are formed.

I learned some important and some quirky life skills from the Alliance Française. Three years of monthly non-profit bulk mailings resulted in my acquiring the highly coveted and oh-so-marketable skill of memorizing every zip code in the greater Boston area. I learned to play the odds in the annual raffle and won the round-trip for two to Paris. (Hint: buy lots of tickets. Lots.) I met French cultural celebrities. I had breakfast with René de Obaldia and dinner with Jean-Jacques Sempé. Where else but at the Alliance could this take place?

“Where else but at the Alliance?” could be the motto, the battle cry, of every Alliance Française in the US.

Where else but at the Alliance would a desire to advocate for the importance of foreign-language learning result in a correspondence with Senator Paul Simon? Where else but at the Alliance would I have the opportunity to accompany the Deputy Mayor of Paris at Boston’s Great Cities of the World Conference? Where else but at the Alliance would I have made contact with other groups that advocate for Franco-American friendship, such as the Lafayette Society and a number of Sister-City organizations? Where else but at the Alliance Française would I be inviting (badgering!) the Boston press corps to follow a Rochambeau re-enactment regiment or to cover a tropical Mardi Gras party in the midst of a blizzard?

And now, here I sit in my apartment in Paris. I couldn’t have done it – this move to Paris – without the Alliance. Had I not taken the business French courses, for example, I’d be sunk. I use those skills, ahem, every day, like it or not. Opening a bank account, dealing with plumber’s bills, writing to the lawyer, the landlord, the notaire. Ah, the bureaucracy that I correspond with. Merci, Alliance -- couldn’t have done it without ya!

Although I’d love to live in Paris forever, who knows where I’ll end up settling permanently. But this I do know. If I return to the States, I will move to a town that has an Alliance Française. Honestly, I really believe that a town’s having an Alliance should be a criterion for those “Most Livable Cities” surveys published annually. Don’t you?

Where else would you go?
Where else but where there’s an Alliance Française?


Isabelle said...

Bonjour Polly, the question I never asked you is: where does your francophilia come from?

Very nice "piece" by the way. And Jean-Jacques Sempé... I'm jealous, I just love what he does :)

Polly-Vous Francais said...


Merci. I guess my francophilia was formed starting in childhood, by French teachers in high school, and was cemented the summer before college when I spent six weeks in France.

Click on the francoFiles label at the bottom of this post for lots more stories.

Winnie said...

Hi Polly,

I don't have experience with the Alliance Français but your experience sounds like a good one and when I return from France to the US I will have to look into it!

I think having a community to help those of us with a little bit of francophile in us is so helpful. I came to France the first time around as a student through CIEE's Critical Studies Program in Paris (a fantastic program!). Now I'm back working here in France and can say that first "community" at the study abroad program provided me with the support necessary to launch into a new culture. So for those of you in the US the Allience sounds like a good way to get a taste of France and maybe even get yourself over here!! It's worth the long hop over the pond.

Anonymous said...

I worked for the Alliance Française for a while and I have a love/hate relationship with it (long story).

But it is a cool way to indulge in a bit of Francophilia!

M said...


I just wanted to pop in and let you know I am reading your blog and added it to my blogroll thingummy. I'm a recent convert to all things French after making my first trip to Paris a few months back. As soon as I got home to Australia I enrolled in the Alliance Français beginners class and I am somewhat obsessed with the place.

Like you, I want to one day live in Paris and write. Yeah, it's a cliche, but a nice one.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

And if you don't believe that the Alliance can create lifelong friends... that "young woman who greeted me cordially" the first day I stopped in at the Alliance 30 years ago has become & remained a dear friend to this day. I've visited her family's house in Normandy several times


and keep in close contact.

There something so special about groups of Francophiles who get together, and it's not just the wine consumption...

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