When most Americans think of France, some images that probably come to mind are romantic views of the Eiffel Tower, fabulous cuisine and stereotypes about chic but slightly snobby people. Except for jazz musicians, France may not be a destination that immediately comes to mind for choirs, orchestras, bands and handbell ensembles. Well, quelle surprise!—for 2012 la belle France has overtaken Italy as the number one destination for our performing groups!
Jane Larson, Witte Travel & Tours Manager of our Performance Tour Division (Retired) is also our staff Francophile. Jane (retired) is a French Government Tourist Office “France Certified Agent.” As a longtime student of French language and culture, she continues her French studies at the Alliance Française de Grand Rapids (where she also serves as a member of the Board of Directors). In her 18 years at Witte, Jane (retired) has developed an extensive network of contacts throughout France. She is the first to admit that our true VIP and the man responsible for the success of concerts in France is the incredible Mr. Gilles Daziano, fondly known as Mr. D.
Between September 2010 and November 2011, Jane (retired) made three trips to France—two were behind the scenes planning trips for our groups. From March 31 to April 7, 2011 she traveled with the Battle Creek Choirs while they were on tour.
Here are a few words from Jane (retired) with some tips on traveling to and performing in France:
One of the questions that I am frequently asked by clients, colleagues and friends is, “why do you love traveling to France so much?” I can honestly say that it all started with my first French class in 7th grade. The language seemed magical and I couldn’t wait to have the chance to use what I learned! Because I got “hooked” on traveling to Europe when I was still in high school, I am passionate about creating quality travel and performance opportunities and experiences for students.
From my first trips to France as a student, to the most recent trip in November, I have learned how much most French people LOVE to hear an American speaking French. I know that the French language (and yes, even the French people) can be intimidating to Americans. However, it is a grossly outdated and inaccurate stereotype to think that French people refuse to speak anything but French and make fun of people who don’t speak French perfectly.
On the other hand, I ALWAYS tell people who are planning a trip to France that if they can at least learn a few key words of French they will “open doors”—and often the hearts of the French people they meet. The absolute minimum every traveler to France should learn are these words: bonjour (good day), bonsoir (good evening), s’il vous plait (please), merci (thank you) and au revoir (good-bye).
This past spring, after working for over two years in planning their tour, I was fortunate to travel with the Battle Creek Choirs. On the first full day of the tour, for our independent lunch in the small town of Port en Bessin in Normandy, our large group of almost 80 broke into smaller groups. I was with about 10 from the boychoir. As we lined up in a small shop to individually order our freshly made baguette sandwiches, each boy asked me how to correctly pronounce the name of their sandwich and in turn, said, “Je voudrais (I would like . . .) ___ sandwich s’il vous plait— then politely said, merci and au revoir.” When I saw the smile and impressed look on the shop owner’s face, I could not have been more proud of these young people!
That evening, the Battle Creek Choirs gave their first concert in a Gothic style 12th-century church in a small town in Normandy. This concert was sponsored by a local choir, the mayor of the town and also the organization France États-Unis, (founded after WWII to promote friendship between the French and American people).
By the time the concert was about to begin, it didn’t seem as if they could squeeze another person into this church that held about 300 people. At the last minute, Mr. D. turned and said to me, “Of course you will also need to stand with the sponsors and say a few words in French.” Gulp… suddenly all my years of French hadn’t prepared me for this! My words, first in French and then in English, were short but heartfelt—“It is a great pleasure to be here this evening with the Battle Creek Choirs from my own state (Michigan) from the United States. Thank you for welcoming us here in Normandy, France.”
The beautiful singing of the Battle Creek Choirs enchanted the French audiences, who hosted us to a lovely reception after the concert. This was the first of five concerts and each performance was equally well received. One of the tour participants and singers in Ars Voce (the adult ensemble) was Brooks Grantier, former director of the Battle Creek Boychoir. In a post tour letter to me, Brooks wrote:
“I’m writing on my personal letterhead, as a tour participant, to let you know that I found my experience with Witte Travel & Tours one of the finest performance tours I have ever made (and I’ve made a lot of them)… Venues were superb, and nicely mixed from the prestige places, to the memorable parish churches. Arrangements by Mr. D. were perfect… I was exceptionally proud to be associated with Witte Travel & Tours on this trip. I have received so many compliments about the service and professional style of the operation.”
What other advice can I offer those of you who will be taking your group on a performance tour to France in 2012 or in the future? First—don’t just think Paris! The regions of France are tremendously diverse and the smaller towns offer more unique “people to people” experiences. Besides teaching your group the basic French greetings, teach them to be patient, tolerant and flexible. The French can be a bit more formal than Americans and they are very appreciative of polite behavior. Please be sure to bring some small gifts to give to the local concert organizers.
Post concert reviews also generally comment on the concert dress—so make sure your group looks professional and polished, even for informal daytime concerts. In preparing your repertoire, plan a primarily sacred program because the best venues are usually churches. When performing in cathedrals, a more “traditional” sacred repertoire is required. For the full concerts—the French audiences LOVE to hear American songs—especially spirituals and more upbeat songs.
If France isn’t in your plans for 2012, I hope you will consider this very special country for a future concert tour. To give you fair warning, be careful if you don’t want to get hooked! A visit to France is like the first spoonful of a delicious chocolate mousse—you’ll be back for more!
Manager, Performance Tour Division – Retired