They call themselves “Les Voyageurs” (The Travelers), this group of high school language students who have been working for more than a year to raise money to pay for an extended tour of France this summer.There’s little doubt that their French teacher Michael Wrenn’s affection for and fascination with the country has been an influence. Wrenn knows how to spin a tale of the people and places he’s come across during his many visits and stays in one of Europe’s most intriguing countries.
The 42-year-old Wrenn, an avid traveler, has already led 12 tours through France. He is undertaking this 25-day adventure on his own initiative with the enthusiastic support of a team of parents — Judith Rowlings, Cherie Melka, Alicia Butler, Gina Papale White, Pam Blaum Simpson and Molly Morales, led by Holly Hunter Preston — helping plan fundraisers with an eye to raising enough to pay a portion of the travel costs for every student who plans to go.It was parent effort that led to the creation of an instant wine cellar worth close to $10,000, and three separate and generous dinner packages that will be raffled at the Saturday, Feb. 26, “Grand Soiree” event. The evening starts at 6 p.m. with wine and food at Caldwell Snyder Gallery and finishes at Cameo Cinema with the announcement of raffle winners and a screening of the French film, “MicMacs.”
With the support of the St. Helena Family Center, donations and raffle purchases are tax-deductible.“This is a group of kids from all walks, all ethnicities, all economic situations,” said Rowlings, one of many helping behind the scenes. “The group is working hard to fundraise for the students, not just for individuals, to ensure that all can experience this incredible journey.”Students have “baked, gift-wrapped, dressed up as elves, learned sales skills, handed out fliers, manned tables in the pouring rain, written letters and done that really hard thing called ‘cold calling,’” Rowlings added. And local stores and businesses have helped in the fundraising by turning over a percentage of sales — even corkage fees — to the trip coffers.Wrenn has led several overseas student trips in the past, starting in 2000 when he was teaching at Tracy High School. It’s a pricey undertaking, he agrees, about $4,600 per student, “but they’ll get a lot as well.”Even with parents organizing and overseeing the fundraising efforts, trip-planning for Wrenn is an 18-month process. He has customized the itinerary to include home stays for students in Toulouse as their first introduction to the country and its people.
Then the group will make its way through France, stopping at the walled city of Carsassonne in the Languedoc, then on to Provence and Avignon, to the Riviera and north through the Alps, the Loire Valley and west to Normandy, where students will represent St. Helena in a wreath-laying ceremony honoring those who died in World War II. The St. Helena American Legion Post 199 is donating the wreath.It will be an emotional day, Wrenn expects, and one that will include a visit to the American Cemetery at St. Laurent Cemetery and the artificial harbor at Arromanches, France.Also on the itinerary is a private tour of Domaine Rouge-Bleu winery in the Vaucluse region. Eventually the group will wind up in Paris for tours of galleries, museums, points of interest and very likely, the occasional cafe, as well as dinner at the Eiffel Tower.
Wrenn, a dyed-in-the-wool Francophile, first realized he had an aptitude for languages when he was 12 and returned from a year in Sweden fluent in the language. By the time he graduated from Castro Valley High School in the East Bay, he had added French and Spanish to the list and earned a Bank of America achievement award in foreign languages. “One of my proudest achievements,” he said.And there it rested. Although he spent a semester studying in Paris at the Alliance Française and earned a degree in French from Cal State Hayward, he spent six years working in a bank. The light dawned the day the bank was absorbed by a larger financial institution. He returned to college and went on to earn a teaching credential from St. Mary’s College.Seven years later, Wrenn took a sabbatical from teaching to work toward a master’s degree in French language and culture through New York University. He was living on his own in Paris in the 16th arrondissement (district) and gaining insight into the French.
What is it about France that captivates him?Wrenn laughed before he answered.“It’s like being asked what it’s like being in love with someone,” he said. “My relationship with the French over the years is like a long-term love affair — there are days when I walk away completely disgusted and ... there are days when nothing can give me more pleasure than to be in the language.“More than once I’ve left France saying I will never set foot in this country again. I’m not going to lie, French people can be difficult. What I’ve learned over time, though, is that learning the rules of the culture is what makes the French people not difficult. ... Learning and figuring out those rules has been a great pleasure. And of course, for me, the best compliment I ever got was, ‘You mean you’re not French?’ when talking to a French person.”
In addition to teaching the language, part of his role now, Wrenn said, is to arm his students with the knowledge of what’s acceptable and what is not.“The French are very formal in their social interactions and they expect that formality in return,” he said. “When you give it to them you find them to be very helpful and cordial. When you don’t follow that they become very stiff, rigid and unbending.”But the key, he added, is learning the language itself.
“We study other languages so we can better understand people who are not of our culture. ... In this global society we live in, we have to have interaction with other countries. ... I’m not a fool. Many of my students are going to speak English in France and the people who are French are going to speak English back, better English than my students speak French, with few exceptions. But their language background can help them advance their understanding of the people they are interacting with.”