How one Edina family embraces the joy and delight of French culture in their daily lives.
Jonathan and Cynthia Vessey have a deep love for French culture—particularly the language, the food and the wine. And it’s a love they’ve also passed onto their children, Julian and Sebastian. (Well, at least the language and food part—the wine will have to wait, since they’re only in elementary school.)
For Jonathan, the love affair with French culture all started when he was in eighth grade and took his first French class at Southview Middle School in Edina, a language he continued to study throughout high school and college.
Around the same time Jonathan started learning French, his family hosted an exchange student from France. The following year, he and his brother spent a month with their exchange student’s family in the South of France. “It was the first time I’d ever been abroad and to live with a French family—it was great,” Jonathan says.
That was also when he had his first experience with the delights of French cuisine. “I remember [our host family] wanted to cook escargot, so they went and picked snails off their garage door, where it was just covered in snails and said, ‘This is dinner,’” he says. He recalls another part of that trip, when they visited an island off the Atlantic Coast of France for a few days. “They were picking oysters off the rocks, and we were just eating them right there! So that was fun, and that was kind of the first introduction [to French culture and cuisine].” This was Jonathan’s first of many trips to France; his current visit count is over 10.
After becoming a lawyer and practicing law for four years, Jonathan joined the Peace Corps. All of his French language study landed him in Chad, Africa. “I lived there for two years; I taught English, speaking only French,” he says. He then spent two years with the Clinton Foundation in Benin and Morocco, running its pediatric anti-AIDS program in 15 West and Central African countries.
After a little over four years in French-speaking Africa, Jonathan moved to New York, which is where he met his wife, Cynthia. It didn’t take long for Jonathan’s love of French culture to rub off on her, and the two of them visited France several times, even bringing their oldest child, Julian, there when he was a baby. By the time their second child was on the way, they moved back to Edina to be closer to family. Having heard about the French community at the Alliance Française Mpls/St. Paul (AFMSP), they knew they immediately wanted to get plugged in. So, Jonathan applied to be a board member and says, “We’ve been involved [in] the French community since.”
Exploring all the Alliance Française Has to Offer
The mission of AFMSP is to “serve our community by promoting the use and appreciation of French language and cultures” from around the world. “The way that we do that is through French classes for children and adults, through cultural and social events, and then resources like our library, our film collection, even our gift shop,” says Christina Selander Bouzouina, AFMSP’s executive director.
It was that mission and the resulting cultural offerings that drew the Vesseys to get involved with the organization. Jonathan served on the AFMSP board from 2016 to June of 2022. He now serves as legal council to AFMSP, and his firm, Fredrikson & Byron, provides pro bono legal services.
The Vesseys are still deeply involved at AFMSP, attending classes and events, as well as simply enjoying the cafe and library. Cynthia has set out to learn French through classes at AFMSP. “I’m a non-French-speaker, completely cold to the language. And so the opportunity to work with an instructor [has been] helpful,” she says.
And it’s also been helpful for their boys. “They’ve [taken] classes there from about 18 months of age,” Cynthia says. “They had a great time interacting with the teachers who are enthusiastic and happy to teach French [and] share their love of the language.”
The organization’s French classes range from beginner to advanced and meet a variety of needs—from parent/child classes for toddlers to “survival French” when preparing for a trip to France, and even advanced literature courses for native or fluent French speakers.
AFMSP also hosts over 100 cultural events each year, including its Bastille Day party each July and the Francophone country or region event series it does each March, in honor of Francophone Heritage Month. (Francophone is just another way to say “French-speaking.”) Each year, AFMSP also hosts one or two guided trips to France or another French-speaking country.
“What I love about Alliance Française is that we show not just the stereotypical France, but we really celebrate the diversity of French speakers and French-speaking cultures,” Bouzouina says. “We all love Édith Piaf [a French singer] and baguettes, but there’s so much more to discover.”
French-Immersion Learning at Normandale Elementary
While Julian and Sebastian started French language-learning through AFMSP, Jonathan and Cynthia were hopeful that they could continue their language and cultural learning through the French immersion program at Edina’s Normandale Elementary. Enrollment at Normandale is a lottery system, requiring an application process, so the Vesseys are very grateful both of their boys were able to get in.
“Our students learn to understand, speak, read and write in French as they’re learning to do math, science, social studies and language arts. Those content areas are delivered in French,” says Chris Holden, Normandale’s principal. “We want to build some cultural proficiency as well, exposing students to Francophone cultures across the world, not just France.”
This immersive language-learning starts from day one for kindergarteners. “The students get off the bus [on the first day of school], and their teachers … greet them in French and start teaching them the basics of school right away in French,” Holden says. “Obviously, the kids are a little bit confused, but … within several weeks, they’re able to understand most of the instructions and the day-to- day things that a student would need to understand to navigate school.”
Students also benefit from learning about French language and culture first-hand from Normandale’s internship program. Through this program, Edina Schools brings in about 25 French natives each year who assist in classroom instruction. “They bring a cultural spin into the classroom, as well as [being] living language and culture models for our staff and students,” Holden says. And before wrapping up their time at Normandale, fifth-grade students are given the opportunity to go on a two-week-trip to France.
Holden finds great joy seeing the growth from kindergarten students trying to understand those teachers to developing an understanding of the language. “It’s really fun for me to see kindergartners and first graders—when the light bulb switches on, and they don’t even realize that they’re understanding French [or] using French,” Holden says.
He’s passionate about second-language learning, as it offers “another lens through which they can view the world and process information, and so it creates some flexible brains.”
Français à la Maison
Beyond involvement in AFMSP and Normandale, the Vesseys embrace French culture in their own home through cooking and conversation. “We frequently try to make special food like crêpes, or pick up special foods like croissants or macarons for the kids,” Cynthia says. But it’s not just for the kids. They love French wine; through Jonathan’s involvement in a French wine club called Commanderie de Bordeaux, Cynthia says they often meet up with other French wine lovers.
Jonathan often speaks French with the boys at home, and the kids also use it as their “secret language” with friends. “It’s pretty cool when you hear the two [boys] speaking French themselves or with their friends from school,” Jonathan says. “Our kids already speak better French than I do at 6 and 7.”
They continue to build on language skills by reading French books with the boys. “We read French most every night to them,” Jonathan says. “It’s a good chance for me to practice my French skills, too.”
And, though it’s been quite a few years since they were last in France, another trip is hopefully on the horizon. “For us, travel and understanding of other cultures and food and wine and people has always been important,” Jonathan says. “We speak other languages. We’ve traveled together a lot, and France has always played a special role in my life.”
Mastering the Art of French Cooking
After moving from its longtime location in the North Loop to Minneapolis’ Harrison neighborhood in 2019, AFMSP has had the opportunity to expand its offerings. One thing that Bouzouina knew she wanted to start offering was cooking classes. After all, “Cuisine is culture,” she says, and food and wine truly are integral parts of French culture. So, in the spring of 2022, AFMSP opened its teaching kitchen. It brings in local chefs who are originally from a French-speaking country or who have worked in French restaurants to teach members about Francophone food and culture.
Bouzouina says, “French cuisine is a very easy way for anyone to connect with French culture and French-speaking cultures from around the world … We wanted to open our organization to not just French speakers, but people who enjoy French cuisine and world cuisine with a French influence.”
Classes are open to everyone; you just pay the nominal membership fee to sign up for AFMSP classes. “It’s an opportunity to learn about French cooking from experts,” Cynthia says. “We’re excited to learn how to properly make these dishes that sound incredibly complex from people who absolutely know what they’re doing.”
Bouzouina’s vision for this teaching kitchen is to give participants not only a literal taste of French cuisine, but also to slow down, enjoy time with others, savor flavors and share ideas. “It’s a whole experience. It’s not just making the food or watching someone make it,” Bouzouina says. “It’s listening to [the chefs] tell stories about it and then enjoying a glass of wine as you taste the flavors.”