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Meet the Family Lefko-Olson and read why they love the Alliance!

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This Spring, we had the pleasure of learning more about Robert, Annika and Martiene, former students of the Alliance and Chez Kids Academy! Read more about their fascinating journey with French!


What was it about the Alliance Française that first interested you?
Both Annika and I studied French in school when we were young…more years ago than we want to admit!We met soon after college, and a few years later I surprised Annika with a trip to Paris for her birthday – with expectations that we would return to France in the future and a desire to communicate with the French in their native language, we began to take classes at Alliance Française de Chicago – we also loved the fact that studying French and conversing with the teachers and other students was a wonderful weekly break from my career working in a sports agency and Annika’s career as a management consultant.

Robert, Annika, and Martiene

Why do you think it’s important to learn a new language?
We asked our daughter this question, and here is her answer – “you can learn about new cultures and meet new friends and your life can be more interesting” – Annika and I agree – we have always told Martiene that the more languages you know, the more people you can meet and the more friends you can have around the world.


What is the most challenging thing about studying a new language?
Figuring out that there are many languages within each language; of course, in French, there’s the niveaux soutenu, courant/standard, et familier…then add verlan…suddenly, it all makes learning the subjunctive look easier. 🙂

What is the most rewarding thing about studying a new language?
Meeting so many new and interesting people and learning about their culture.

What is your favorite thing you’ve done with French?
Our favorite thing is actually the totality of lots of smaller things, which is to say all of the unique moments we enjoy while living our everyday life in Paris…shopping for groceries at the many different stores on our local market street, talking about wines with the propriétaire of our local wine shop, taking tennis lessons with a French instructor, going to the cinema, chatting with other parents after picking up our daughter at school, dining out with French friends, and even just having a simple conversation with a waiter at an outdoor café.

What has been your favorite Alliance Française class?

Robert, Annika, Martiene and their dog

We truly loved all of our classes at the Alliance Française de Chicago, and the reason is simple – each of the many teachers with whom we’ve studied have had a wonderful passion for teaching and a strong desire to help us learn, while keeping the topics of discussion very interesting. We have such fond memories of our conversations with Adam about world politics, with Jamal about so many different subjects, and with Philippe about raising children.

What do you want to do with French in the future?
Both the U.S.A. and France will be part of our family’s future, and perhaps another country as well – for now, we will continue studying French while living in Paris and continue to try to gain a greater understanding of the French culture. Of course, one important example is having the ability to properly order popcorn in a French cinema…un mélange de popcorn salé et sucré – c’est délicieux! 🙂

Why do you think teaching your kids a new language is important?
Annika and I want our daughter to think globally – learning another language is one simple step toward understanding both the differences and similarities among us. When a person gets to know other people who speak different languages, come from different cultures, and hold different beliefs about the world around us, friendships and the desire to help one another grow stronger while the racism and bigotry that too often exist in this world begin to disappear.

What is your best “souvenir” at the Alliance Française de Chicago?
For Annika and I, it’s absolutely the friendships we formed with teachers, administrators, other students, and parents who had children in the kid’s program – but we’ll let Martiene have the last word – she said “it’s a happy place where you feel at home and you can meet new friends”.

French woman, science, wit and “bonheur”

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On June 8, the Alliance Française de Chicago will re-create a “Salon parisien” inspired by a significant woman of her time Émilie, Marquise du Châtelet. Zoé Moore tells us more about it;


American women love French women, so much that they try to become them and understand their attitudes and lifestyles through books and movies. Ladies like Josephine Baker and Jean Seberg serve as a golden standard of Americans turned French. I can attest: it’s hard to live in France and not get caught up in the expat life, making a haphazard attempt at fitting in, becoming French. But with influential female figures like Simone de Beauvoir, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, Jeanne D’Arc, Catherine Deneuve, Simone Veil, and even Anne Hidalgo, it is easy to want to become une femme française. Their strength, knowledge, elegance, and wit make them remarkable role models that stand the test of time and have managed to travel all the way across the ocean to the United States. They all have remarkable stories and wisdom that has been passed down to my own modern American life.  So when I learned that we would be creating a Parisian Salon, a common social and intellectual gathering to inform and entertain in the 17th and 18th centuries, celebrating Emilie, la Marquise du Châtelet, I was definitely curious.



Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749), or as I shall refer to her, Emilie, was an amazing woman who I knew absolutely nothing about one week ago. As a girl, Emilie attended her father’s salons with elite men and women, rapidly learning through discussions on science, philosophy, and literature in lavish Parisian hôtels particuliers. This introduction to le salon and academic life put her on a path to becoming one of the greatest minds of her time. Emilie’s short biography refers to her as a major contributor to physics and mathematics, having promoted and participated in the debate on vis viva, known today as kinetic energy, and as the translator of Isaac Newton’s Principia (her French translation is still standard today). She also published the scientific book Institutions de Physique / Foundations of Physics in 1740, which reaffirmed her grasp of the domain, sparked conversation, and gained popularity during her life. Many of her ideas were published posthumously in Denis Diderot’s well known Encyclopédie.

She is widely known as Voltaire’s lover. Emilie invited him to live and work with her in her home, the Château de Cirey, where they stayed and influenced one another intellectually throughout the 1730s. Despite this mutually productive relationship, Emilie is often left in Voltaire’s shadow. She died at the age of 42 due to childbirth complications, her pregnancy the result of an ardent affair with the captain and poet Saint-Lambert. The large strokes of Emilie’s life are enticing enough, but there is surely more to the story. To do this well-bred woman of le siècle des lumières justice, it was up to me to uncover her true nature and spirit. What was she like? How did this woman manage to make a name for herself as a reputable scientist in the 18th century?


Words and wit

Luckily, Emilie loved to write letters. Even more luckily, many of Emilie’s letters and works were published and are now in the public domain. I dove into reading her letters to M. de Maupertuis, a great man of science and one of Emilie’s tutors (and possibly lovers),

Château de Cirey

that date from the mid to late 1730s, during Emilie’s academic prime living in the Château de Cirey with Voltaire. They detail her life, her thoughts, her passions, and get down to who she is as a woman and scientist. She has a voice that is serious and funny, surprisingly modern and accessible.  I have come to know a very witty, loving, and smart woman who teases and challenges her mentor amidst inviting him over to chat or keep her company.


Et le bonheur dans tout ça ?

Another one of Emilie’s publications is Discours sur le bonheur, or Discourse on Happiness. These kinds of ruminations were common for men of her era to publish, but not women. Emilie takes on what happiness means through female eyes (finally!). The takeaway is clear and much of it is still relevant today: be free of prejudices, be healthy, have tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions. It’s okay to have illusions? This last one jumped out at me, I didn’t quite understand where she was coming from, but I had to give some faith to my dear French sister.

Institutions de Physique, one of Emilie’s publications.

To understand this theory that one must be “susceptible d’illusions” to be happy, we must turn to Emilie the lover. Women are known so often as the lover, the extra, the emotional, but Emilie brings fresh air and meaning to love and being passionate. She stipulates that love is one of the greatest illusions and yet it provides some of the grandest happiness; it is important to trust and believe in love or you have no chance of experiencing this ultimate happiness, even if you know that it is an illusion that will eventually dissipate. Emilie remarks that even if you connect with someone on every level, the time comes to let them go and move on. She explains that this is an extremely painful experience, but you must not lose faith that you can and will love again. If I were to translate some of her sentiments to modern day language, she advises us that if someone doesn’t want you, you are better off without them! Emilie’s letters to her last lover, Saint-Lambert, illustrate her willingness to give herself to this illusion and be happy, even after her intimate relationship Voltaire, and even if it means enduring sadness or misery.

One of the most moving lines she writes while quite pregnant in 1749:

      « Quand je suis avec vous, je supporte mon état avec patience, je ne m’en aperçois souvent pas. Mais quand je vous ai perdu, je ne vois plus rien qu’en noir »

                “When I am with you, I endure my state with patience, I often do not notice it. But when I have lost you, I see only the dark side of things.”


I would like to personally thank la Marquise for her contributions to science, philosophy, and the female legacy and let her know that she remains a role model for people around the world in the 21st century. I am thrilled to have met another amazing French woman and can’t wait to bring her words and thoughts to life in our Salon on June 8. It is going to be a truly amazing evening where we discuss her philosophy with Irina Ruvinsky, hear excerpts of her letters by Melisha Mitchell, and enjoy an incredible cello performance by Titilayo Ayangade, an all-female cast to create a salon that I think Emilie herself would have appreciated.

I hope to see you all then!

A bientôt !

Zoé Moore



Student Spotlight: Lauren Jones

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I had two short but amazing experiences in Paris that started me on my French language-learning journey. I loved the city, food and culture and wanted to go back for a longer stay to see what else France had to offer if I could explore it more on my own. But before I could explore more I had to learn French.

I learned about the Alliance Française from internet searches and other students in my community college French class. The Alliance Française was offering evening classes twice a week and was recommended for language tests by the Teaching Assistants Program in France. Finding out about TAPIF recommendation was what pushed me to start finally taking French classes.

Taking classes twice a week at the Alliance Française
was the best option for me to get into the language. I took classes continually-or as consistently as I could- for a year and a half. Unfortunately, sometimes there weren’t enough people signed up for the next class and it would be canceled. However, in these times I could take the private lessons offered,
which were a great way for me to continue practicing as well as spend time with Anie’s adorable poodle puppy, Gigi.

On a hike in Campan.

Learning French at the Alliance Française gave me a foundation I needed when I arrived in France to do TAPIF,as well as providing me with generous help and recommendation letters from my wonderful Alliance Française teachers. Volunteering with the four year olds on Saturday mornings also strengthened my base and gave me an idea of the difficulties of having a small class of children, and it also helped me learn a little more French through songs and simple commands. Even with a great foundation, I found that speaking French in France could be very different than learning in a classroom. Being immersed in a language caused my skills to surge rapidly, largely because I had no other choice.

The worst communication problem I have had in France was when I was moving from one apartment in town to another and I had to cancel my electricity bill. Despite explaining to multiple people the date when I was moving out (not for another week) they still canceled my contract that day. I tried to explain again that I still needed electricity for the rest of the week but all that I could understand from the man helping me was him saying “this is no more” in French. So I asked if, when I went back to my apartment, the lights would work. He told me “don’t worry.” I was worried anyway. Luckily my electricity continued until I moved out, but that was a tense and terrifying week where I thought the lights and internet and
heat would cut out at any minute. I have not had too many moments that were this serious, but these misunderstandings have happened many other times.

Sometimes when I worry about my language abilities I remember that people who speak the same language also have miscommunications and misunderstandings or say the wrong thing, which makes me feel better about making mistakes in French. Luckily I haven’t had any serious encounters or mishaps with the language. Instead I have been able to use my French knowledge to pick up on things I may otherwise not have been able to know.


Prior to learning French, I took Spanish for 7 years in school, so learning the similarities and differences between Spanish, French and English was fun in class, but became crucial in France. I noticed a difference when traveling to other parts of Europe. Spanish in Spain is different, but close enough to the Mexican Spanish I learned in school, while Catalan is like a stranger masquerading as a friendly acquaintance. Dutch and German were once so foreign and confusing they might as well have been using the Cyrillic alphabet. After learning French, I found that all of these languages were sprinkled with tiny clues that I could finally see to get one step closer to a translation and make sense of a sign or even something small like the name of a restaurant. Having another key in the Latin-based language puzzle and, sometimes, Germanic languages has felt rewarding, but so has the fact that I now feel like the travel possibilities for me have opened up in a new way.

While traveling to these different parts of Europe, I was often with a friend I made in this program who is from Spain. It was a new but exciting challenge to travel to different parts of Spain and then Amsterdam with him because our common language is French. So in Spain he would translate for me, and in Amsterdam I had to figure out how to translate for him. I also realized that with three languages between us, the travel possibilities were far reaching. Recently some friends and I went to Andorra.We were in a place that speaks Catalan and between us we had a pretty strong, but not fluent knowledge of Spanish and my own knowledge of French. At one café we went to, a woman spoke to us in French and I was able to order for us all.While asking about hiking at the tourist office, the woman working there kept adding French words and expressions into her speech. In these rare and random moments, I felt like I was in on a secret.


It was thrilling to be able to have another way to communicate with someone, and that is truly my favorite part of having learned a new language. Even when I’m travelling alone, I still feel that I have more opportunities than I had before.

I hope to continue using French in the future,though I don’t yet know what form it will end up taking in my life. It was hard work learning the nuances in pronunciation (French R’s are still difficult), figuring out how to phrase questions, remembering conjugations, and having to rely only on my memory of how a certain phrase sounds so that I could know the proper grammar of a sentence. The easier part was that many words could sound similar, so speaking gives me more leeway, but writing is still a challenge. Text messages take about five minutes for me to craft even a simple response. After this experience in France I hope to continue finding ways to speak French with others so that I don’t lose this ability. I am glad the Alliance Française has many different classes, events, and opportunities to practice and I plan to take advantage of those options in the future.

Fashion of the Belle Époque

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The Belle Époque period lasted from 1871 to 1914, the end of the Franco-Prussian war to the beginning of WWI. It is also known as the Edwardian era and the Gilded age. This period was known for luxury and excess for some people, and this was especially evident in the fashions of the time.

An example of mutton leg sleeves. 1896.

Some of the more extravagant components of previous dress were starting to be dropped in the interest of more functional clothing for women. After 1890 the bustle was no longer commonly worn and the silhouettes of dresses changed with giant “leg of mutton” sleeves and tiny waists coming into fashion. There were some different types of sleeves also during this period as designers experimented with different places to have tight or loose sleeve components.

Corsets were also evolving. While the hourglass figure had been all the rage in the Victorian era, changing times meant changing figures. S-bend corsets were worn so that the

October 1900 illustration from Ladies Home Journal showing The New Figure (aka the S-bend).

hips would be pushed back and the chest would be pushed forward, creating an S effect. The corset was worn along with a boned bodice.

Over this bodice there would be fabrics lighter than those worn during the Victorian era. Dresses frequently came in two pieces now : a blouse and a skirt. Over the Belle Époque period there were some variations in the skirts that were most popular. These ranged from hip-hugging skirts that flared at the hem, higher waistlines, lower waistlines, fuller skirts, and hobble skirts.

Meanwhile, the blouses paired with these skirts tended to be high necked during the day with a bit more variation in the evening with sweet heart, round and square necklines making an appearance.

Accessories were just as important as any other component of the outfit. Lace-up boots were the standard shoe of the time and could be made of a variety of materials depending on expense. Hats tended to be wide-brimmed and bedecked in feathers (and sometimes actual whole stuffed birds) – at least until women learned that the birds providing the feathers were becoming endangered as a result of hat demand.

Meanwhile, men’s fashion didn’t change very much at all during this period. There were some slight variations but nothing too extreme. In general, there were a lot of frock coats and three piece suits. Clothing was relatively standard and most of what men had to make sure of at this point was that they were wearing the right neutral jacket at the right time of day.

Eventually around the beginning of th

Designs by Paul Poiret, including a lampshade tunic.

e 1910s, the corset started to be

abandoned altogether in favor of utilizing “draping” to achieve the desired silhouette. This transition was spearheaded especially by French designer, Paul Poiret who also used Oriental influences to design the lampshade tunic, harem pants and hobble skirts. He also used a lot of beading and other embellishments that would take over the eventual post-war fashions.

When you attend our Belle Époque event on Tuesday, May 16 you don’t have to wear a corset or a bird on your head but we are excited to see you!











Indulge in some French comfort food

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Comfort food is an almost universally known concept. You have a hard day, you come home and you eat a gallon of mac and cheese and maybe you just feel a little bit better. Or maybe you had something a little more interesting to sate your hunger. If you identify with this, maybe it’s time you learned a little bit more about French comfort food!

A Croque Madame

The first documented mention of the croque monsieur was in the second volume of Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” 1918. The sandwich itself is a masterful combination of bread, cheese and ham. If you add a fried or poached egg on top, the sandwich becomes a croque madame. Due to the simplicity of the basic sandwich, there are almost endless possibilities when it comes to modifying the sandwich to suit different tastes. Some things people love to add are tomatoes, blue cheese, smoked salmon, sliced potatoes or even pineapple!



The origins of the special sandwich is unknown but there are quite a few popular legends that have circulated for some time. One is that a sandwich was left out in the heat and the cheese melted. Another is that a restaurateur had run out of baguettes and wanted a way to have crunchy bread.

Pain Perdu

Another comforting bread-based French food is pain perdu (also known as French toast). Funny enough, it has existed for so

long that we don’t really know the origins of the dish. It is known to be a decedent of the roman dish aliter dulcia (which translates to “Another Kind of Desert”)which is a cake-type item mostly made up of ground nuts with a custard.

In medieval Europe, the dish took on a form closer to what we consider pain perdue as a way to transform stale bread. This was when it became bread soaked in milk and/or egg existed in a variety of forms.

Today we have a variety of types of pain perdu that are eaten for breakfast, dessert or just as a snack. Since it is so versatile you can make it sweet or savory depending on your tastes. If you want to learn how to make croque monsieur and pain perdu hands-on, join us for our next cooking class! It will be this Saturday, April 29 at 11:15 a.m.




How to plant your thyme seeds!

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If you want instructions on how to grow your thym (thyme) seeds from Earth day, you’re in the right place! Thyme is excellent for container planting inside and outside. If you do plant outside, it is very attractive to bees which is great for the rest of your garden and the environment.

For the seeds we gave you, here is what to keep in mind as you plant them:

Days to emerge: 10-15 days

An example of the thyme plant.

Seed depth: 1/8”

Seed spacing: A group of 5 seeds every 10”

Row spacing: 12”

Thinning: When 1” tall, thin to 1 every 10”

Sow outside: 1 to 2 weeks after average last frost, and when soil temperature is at least 68°F.

Start inside: 6 to 8 weeks before average last frost. Ideal soil temp for germination is 70° – 80°F.

Height: 12”


Once it grows, make your thyme shine in some French recipes:




If you want to learn more about French culture or the French language, visit our website or the Alliance itself (810 N. Dearborn St)!

Verlan your French! How can your French sound more like a native speaker?

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If you have ever learned a second language you probably have had the experience realizing that the language you are working so hard to learn might be very different from the way that language is actually spoken. Think of how in the English language, numerous words become trendy and other words fall out of fashion. Sometimes rather than a few single words changing, an entire separate grammar structure is born within a language. You may be familiar with pig-latin or cockney rhyming slang but did you know that there is a secret language that has become a big part of everyday spoken French? It’s called verlan!

Verlan, basically, involves taking a word, isolating the syllables, and switching those syllables. Sometimes it is necessary to drop or add letters to the verlaned version of a word so that you can still pronounce it. There isn’t really any hard and fast rule with this but the more you verlan, the more you will be able to figure it out. The word “verlan” itself has a couple of possible origins. The main theory is that it is itself a verlan of the word l’envers which means reverse.

If you want to listen to some live verlan, La Haine (1995, Mathieu Kassovitz) is the movie to watch.


You may ask, “why would anyone want to do that?” In general, you verlan a word to emphasize or downplay it. The first time someone decided to verlan seems to be unknown. This isn’t surprising since, while there are many verlan words in mainstream French now, the practice’s start was as a way for young people to speak in code in front of police or other authority figures.


Here are some examples of verlan:

  • laisse tomber becomes laisse béton (never mind)
  • bizarre becomes zarbi (weird)
  • honte becomes tehon (shame)
  • dingue becomes geudin (crazy)
  • fête becomes teuf (party)

There are some verlaned words that have been part of the common vocabulary for so long that they have been re-verlanged. For example the verlaned version of femme was meuf and then that was re-verlaned to feumeu.

Verlan is fun and is easiest when you have a good baseline of French. So to build up you French, register for a class at the Alliance Française de Chicago!

Verlan Sources:


La francophonie behind the scenes

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During the entire month of March, we at the Alliance Française de Chicago have hosted a variety of events as part of our Festival de Francophonie. By the end of the month you’ll have had the opportunity to learn about Russian and French cultures influencing each other, hear about books from around the world, eat amazing food, and see films that explore a variety of Francophonie experiences. While we have a lot of fun presenting you with these events and we hope you have fun attending, we thought it would be good to also give you a little bit of background on why exactly we celebrate Francophone cultures and International Francophone day beyond just the fun of experiencing new cultures.

This past Monday, March 20 was the annual International Francophonie Day. It’s observed in the 80 member states of the Organization of La Francophonie (By the way, that’s 274 million people) and is meant as a day to celebrate the French Language and the cultures of those who speak French.

Logo of Organisation Internationale de la francophonie

Why March 20th though? It turns out that beyond just

being the first day in Spring, this date also commemorates the signing of the Niamey Convention on March 20 1970. This established the Agence de Coopération Culturalle et Technique which later became the International Organization de La Francophonie. On the website of the Organization Internationale de la Francophonie their mission is said to be “to embody the active solidarity between its 80 member states.” To accomplish this the organization “organizes political activities and actions to promote the French language, peace and sustainable development.”

We like to do our little part to expose people to different francophone cultures with our events. Our aim is for people to learn more about cultures that they might not know very much about. We hope that this exposure can kindle previously unexplored interests and deepen understandings of what we can learn from cultures that are different than our own.

Karel, a twelve year old attendee of soirée commune had the following to say about the event:

“I think that the Soirée Commune was a very fun event because it brought a lot of people together to share their country’s culture and get a glimpse of the culture of other countries. This was very important to me because at school they teach kids about the country they live in. Like what happened in the past, what is happening now, or what might occur in the near or distant future. Because of this, kids are often ignorant about what is going on in other smaller countries and what the culture  their is like. This event showed that there is more to Switzerland, France, Haiti and other countries, then the shocking news that is broadcasted worldwide and the general perspective that foreigners have on this countries. Overall, the whole experience was wonderful. I think the way they set it up was really brilliant. I enjoyed walking around to each booth or “country” and getting a taste of their food. I also think the passport idea made it a lot more fun too”



Student Spotlight: Lisa Kinney

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What was it about the Alliance Française that first interested you?
I was interested in the Alliance Française because of its reputation as being one of the best French language schools in the world.

Why french/francophone language/culture?
For me it was essential to learn the basics of French because my plan was to move to Paris the following year to get my Masters in Global Communications.

Why is it important to learn a new language?

It’s important to learn a new language because it helps you build more meaningful relationships with the native people of that country.

What is the most challenging thing about studying a new language?

The most challenging thing about studying a new language is understanding that it takes time to become fluent and you will definitely make mistakes.

What is your favorite thing you’ve done with French?

The favorite thing I’ve done with French was using the language while I was studying abroad in Paris and having the chance to work overseas.

Why do you think teaching your kids a new language is important?
It’s important to teach kids new languages because it gives them a more worldly perspective and an openness to learn and understand other cultures.