Northern Calif. can give visitors a fine French fix

Find cuisine, shopping and more in Monterey Peninsula
2012-07-26T00:00:00Z Northern Calif. can give visitors a fine French fixOpinion by Barbara Russek Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

I didn't make it to France this year for a taste of la vie parisienne, so I headed to the Monterey Peninsula in Northern California.

It might sound a bit crazy, going to Northern California for a French fix. Things didn't exactly start out that way. The refreshing 62- to 68-degree average temps were the big draw, but once I got to the Peninsula, I found so many opportunities to enjoy French language and culture that it was the next best thing to total immersion.

For starters, I was pleased to find out that la belle langue ("the beautiful language") is taught at the high school level in Monterey (pop. 33,000) and neighboring Pacific Grove and Carmel (pops. 14,000 and 4,000, respectively).

Students can study French at the post-secondary level at Monterey Community College and California State University, Monterey Bay.

During my visit I violated the 11th California Commandment, which states "Thou Shalt Have Wheels." One of the benefits of not having my car was that I saw so much more by walking and taking the trolley, bus and taxi. Along the way I noticed two schools of higher education with a French connection.

On the trolley I passed the Monterey Institute of International Studies, affiliated with Middlebury College in Vermont. Students enrolled in the various master's programs are required to study a foreign language on the advanced level, based on the program they are pursuing. Quite a few are enrolled in the summer foreign language session.

I observed a beginning French class and was impressed by the students' proficiency after just a few weeks of intense learning.

After class I was invited to the "Gouter," a reception for French students enrolled in the summer session. There, several students explained to me why they had chosen French.

One 21-year-old woman wants to go to Paris and become a fashion designer.

Another, a 37-year-old man who had studied French in high school, is continuing the language as he works toward a master's degree.

Other students plan to be interpreters or are majoring in international studies.

While enjoying the luxury of a taxi ride one day, I passed the Defense Language Institute, where a variety of foreign languages - from French to Farsi - are taught to men and women in the military who will be deployed to foreign countries and to civilians who work in government service.

How gratifying that so many schools on the Peninsula are preparing students to go into others' worlds.

In fact, the Monterey Peninsula is involved in 25 percent of our country's post-secondary learning in a language other than English and thus has been dubbed "The Language Capitol of the World."

I was also eager to discover the cultural aspects of French life on the Peninsula. First on the agenda, of course: la cuisine française. In Pacific Grove I admired the delectable French pastries at Patisserie Bechler. Monsieur Bechler's roots in the Alsace region of France are reflected in the patisserie's charming décor. I also enjoyed a very tasty lunch there with members of the Alliance Française de la Peninsule de Monterey.

After lunch, while strolling around the neighborhood, I bumped into Fifi's Bistro Cafe, where the ambiance is strictly French - I could even hear Edith Piaf singing in the background. Fifi's coq au vin (chicken in a wine sauce) and braised lapin (rabbit) in cream mushroom sauce especially got my attention.

Other French restaurants in Pacific Grove include le Normandie, where the Alliance celebrated le l4 juillet, French Independence Day.

In addition to gastronomic delights, there's a French flair to the arts scene on the Peninsula. While I was there, an outdoor production of "Cyrano de Bergerac" was playing in Carmel. I also attended a reception for the opening of "Light and Shadow," the Rodin exhibit at the Monterey Museum of Art. And who should show up there? None other than "Le Penseur" ("The Thinker"), who perpetually ponders the state of the world.

Finally, what is French culture without a little shopping? In Carmel I discovered Souvenir, a shop dedicated to things French. I couldn't resist a vintage-look locket, engraved with the word - what else? - Paris.

Here in Tucson, French is frequently treated like yesterday's baguette - easy to discard from many a curriculum. Perhaps if school officials visit the Monterey Peninsula and look around, they might have a change of heart.

Email Barbara Russek at

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