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Feature Wed Jul 13 2011
By Megan Marz
In 1987, a few Alliance Française de Chicago students started meeting for drinks after their business French course. When the course ended, they continued to meet. Now, almost 25 years later, the weekly tradition continues to thrive, transformed from a private gathering into a virtually public entity that has by this time hosted, according to its organizers' rough estimates, several thousand participants from across the globe.
"We've had Haitians, Canadians, Romanians, Russians, Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Vietnamese, people from Cote d'Ivoire, Belgium, Switzerland — people from all over," said Sheri Ard, the only remaining original member of the group, who serves as its unofficial leader. "Though I don't think we've ever had someone from Luxembourg."
One recent Wednesday evening, the first person to arrive hailed from Bosnia. Jasmina Popaja, who came to the United States 10 years ago and now studies law at the University of Iowa, was in town for a summer internship and had searched the Internet to find a fill-in for the group of friends with whom she practices French in Iowa City. She found the Wednesday gathering listed at Meetup.com and, around 7pm, walked up to the second floor of the Portillo's restaurant at Ontario and Dearborn, where participants have been meeting for several years (the group has outlived more than one of the other restaurants that have hosted it over the past two and a half decades). Soon after Popaja sat down at the row of checker-clothed tables the group always occupies, others started to arrive, unleashing a series of bonsoirs and ça vas. Though there weren't any native French speakers among the 20 people who came and went during the next two and a half hours, they broke into English only rarely, usually to utter a single, difficult-to-translate phrase or proper noun: "crowdsourcing," say, or Rogers Park.
The conversations across the seven pushed-together tables ranged from introductory pleasantries to familiar banter and progressed at different levels, as they always do: Along with the occasional native speaker, people with very limited French also sometimes attend, joining a majority who fall somewhere in the middle. Most of these people are American, but as Ard's list suggests, many participants were, like Popaja, born somewhere else. Daniel Liberzon, an attendee who immigrated to the United States from Russia in the early 1990s, explains this tendency by pointing out that foreigners are, almost by definition, more oriented toward foreign languages.
Wherever they come from, Chicagoans who want to speak French socially have a variety of options. Other well-established speaking opportunities exist all over the city, at events and conversation sessions run by organizations like the Alliance Française, the Groupe Professionel Francophone, the French American Chamber of Commerce, and the Union des Français de l'Etranger. These, though, tend to target specific demographics — young professionals, French expats, Alliance Française members — and often require admission fees, membership, or a stipulated level of French. The Wednesday group, by contrast, asks virtually nothing of participants. As Parag Bhayani, a frequent attendee, put it, "You come and sit down, get some fries if you want, and that's the end of it."
It's always been that way. From the beginning, the group eschewed official-ness, initially describing itself as having "no name, no officers, no rules, no dues, no snobbery." And yet, despite this lack of formality, it has in some ways become as established as organizations that see themselves as, well, organizations. John Martin, a recent Loyola University graduate who arrived for the first time a few minutes after Jasmina Popaja, said he had heard about the group when customers at the Rogers Park Starbucks where he works heard him speaking French and suggested he look it up at Meetup.com.
Most people, though, find the group via Internet search, a shift from the days when attendance depended on Chicago Reader listings, flyers and word of mouth. They come for a variety of reasons: improving or maintaining their French skills, meeting people with similar interests, even looking for a date — several couples have married after meeting in the group. Beyond that, "it's quite unclear how it functions essentially," said Jim Spiegler, who has what he describes as "a sort of vague inside function," greeting newcomers and dragging over additional chairs and tables when needed. "That is, how many people come on a given Wednesday, who comes, and why — and why the numbers vary. Mysterious forces, perhaps. In any case, it is unclear. It has this incredible duration. I absolutely don't know why. But somehow or other, we — in a very vague sense — are doing something right."
Longtime members, including Ard and 20-year veteran Tom Walsh, ascribe some of this success to Patrick Cooper-Leconte. Cooper-Leconte (né Cooper) unofficially led the group from the time it started to cohere until he moved to France in 1997 after marrying a French woman he met at one of the Wednesday meetings. "A couple of times it looked like it was going to die, and he kept it alive by brute force of determination," Walsh said of Cooper-Leconte. "It was getting kind of wobbly after he moved to France... but then the Internet came along, and the Internet has made it possible for it to self-perpetuate."
Cooper-Leconte, for his part, explained via e-mail from France that he "never really 'ran' the group, I simply stayed with it and did things that others in the original group had done before they went elsewhere or lost interest — compiling names and numbers, inviting people to parties and other functions, introducing everyone around, remembering what people had in common, that sort of thing. The one unusual thing that I did was almost always to be there, week in and week out. I was there over 500 Wednesdays and missed maybe 10 — vacationing in France."
That kind of consistency, Ard said, allows people to come and go as they please, which in turn keeps them coming back even when, like most participants, they can't come every Wednesday. In other words, it provides the foundation on which, as Spiegler put it, "some of us get together to hear and talk French the way other people might get together to jam."
Megan Marz is a freelance writer in Chicago.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.