Not a place that’s exactly been on my list of must-sees, and yet, I recently got the opportunity to spend a week there, at one of Concordia College’s Language Villages. And now I can’t wait to go back! And bring my husband and kids!
So, camp wasn’t exactly located in Bemidji. It was located, rather, in the middle of nowhere, but one must fly to Bemidji in order to get to this part of nowhere, and then drive about a half hour out into the beautiful countryside of northern Minnesota. There are numerous language camps and they are set up as “villages”, but the adult camp for French took place, naturally, in the Russian village. I’m not sure why, exactly, except that I know French is a popular language and that the camps for kids are more the bread and butter of this place, so I suspect the adults get to stay where there is availability, so the Russian village in May it is. Trust me, this is no hardship; it’s situated on the edge of a serene lake surrounded by birch trees, and my goodness, the cabins are comfortable! Not luxurious, mind you- I still spent the week sleeping on a foam mattress on a bottom bunk, but I wasn’t sharing that bunk with anybody on the top, or even in the same room, for that matter. In fact, my roommate and I somehow had a cabin entirely to ourselves, though I’m not quite sure how and probably should be keeping that to myself… In any case, on my twin-sized foam mattress on a bottom bunk, I fell asleep every night with my window open to let in the fresh, cool air, listening to the sounds of wind in the trees and the loons calling, and every night I slept like a baby on that little bed.
However, truly, I wasn’t that concerned with the accommodations of the camp’s location; rather, I was there to polish and improve my French, and that is indeed exactly what happened. The camp is set up so that everything is a learning opportunity. All meals are served family style in a dining hall, and everything is in French, all the time. Some things border on the silly, such as having to sing certain songs before being able to be served, or having to answer a question, in French and relating to some aspect of the francophone world, before being able to get your table’s food. But silly or not, they are effective, and frankly, they are also loads of fun.
And while I’m on the subject of food, let me just say that I was pleasantly surprised by the food we were served. This was not, by any means, camp food! Each day, there was a different theme pertaining to some French-speaking country- we ate traditional foods from New Caledonia, from Cameroon and Burkina Faso, from Canada, Switzerland, and of course, from France. And everything was good! I have to say that I think my favorite meal of the week may have been the one from Burkina Faso- beef stew slow- cooked in a peanut sauce, served with rice. Absolutely delicious!
And yes, we also had classes. I was a bit nervous about that part- it’s been a long time since I actually sat in a classroom, but even this was like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Our professor, Boniface, hailed from Cameroon, and his French was beautiful- a bit difficult to understand at first with its strong accent that I simply wasn’t used to- but I overcame even that and am astonished at how much my comprehension expanded during the week (and I’ve come to greatly appreciate the African rolled “r”). And my grammar usage improved tremendously as well- this man really knew his grammar! And knew how to push us into expanding our knowledge of it as well! But don’t think for a minute that he did it with dry, boring grammar exercises. No, he had us listening to African comedians for comprehension, followed by us finding synonyms for words that the speaker had used or parsing out verb tenses. Or creating stories of our own by changing tense- stories that were somewhat ridiculous, but even that added to the learning; it turns out that, at least for me, learning happens better when you are laughing rather than stressed or tense! I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in a long, long time as I did during Boniface’s classes.
The other teachers were equally impressive. Though I didn’t get to experience their classes first hand, I sat with each of them in turn at meals and was able to converse with them, ask questions of them, be corrected by them (always kindly- though Boniface did enjoy laughing heartily at our mistakes!) and just generally hang out and spend time with them. My fellow students were also impressive- one of my classmates was a retired veterinarian, whose grasp of French grammar inspires me to greater things. Another woman had a vocabulary that was extraordinary, as well as an inspiring backstory- apparently, she lost her husband several years ago, and has been learning French and traveling as a way of finding herself again after such a loss, something I can certainly identify with. And yet another was 83 years old, and right there, keeping up with all the rest of us. And those are only a few of the interesting characters I met during my time there!
There was a variety of ages, a variety of backgrounds, but all shared the characteristic of being curious about the world and about other cultures, but most importantly, they were all lifelong learners.
And a lifelong learner is who I aspire to be. My mother would have expected nothing less.