Residents dive in overseas to learn ‘le français’

Residents dive in overseas to learn ‘le français’
The Great Elephant was a highlight for many of the language immersion program participants.

Imagine sightseeing onboard a three-story high mechanical elephant, as it lumbers along, trumpeting loudly and spewing water from its flailing trunk at passersby, 

Residents from Jacksonville experienced the heartbeat of French lifestyle in just such a Jules Verne-type of fanciful way, thanks to an opportunity to attend a language immersion program developed with Jacksonville’s sister city, Nantes, France. 

Nantes (pronounced “Nawnt”), a French city nestled in the Loire Valley 20 miles from the Atlantic coast, is rated one of France’s best places to live, and that meant there was lots to see and do. Twinning with Jacksonville in 1984, Nantes has developed from a provincial town to a buzzing city with many similarities to Jacksonville’s river-based activities, such as the Landing and Metro Park.

From taking French language classes at the University of Nantes, to visiting Nantes landmarks and enjoying the regional cuisine while completely absorbed in the cultural experience by staying with host families, this was no ordinary group trip to France for the 31 program participants during the first week of July. 

Nantes is known for creating and exhibiting fantastic mechanical animals, the Machines of the Isle of Nantes, including the current one, the Great Elephant, which provides a most interesting way to take in the views of Nantes. 

It certainly was one of the trip highlights for Marsha Phelts and her granddaughter, Kayaunna Dean, who were continually in awe of the machine as it walked past restaurants, galleries and historic sites.

“It was quite a unique one-hour tour aboard the elephant and no matter what people were doing, everyone stopped to notice him, or ran away to avoid getting sprayed,” said Phelts, of Fernandina Beach.

Phelts and Dean were also especially fond of the riverboat cruises along the Erdre River, where they were awed by the massiveness of the mansions, castles and exquisite gardens along the waterway. Like all the participants, Phelts was impressed by the people’s kindness and the incredible local cuisine – usually seafood – presented to them in such huge portions and variety, “as if we were royalty,” said Phelts.

Richard Shieldhouse, Jacksonville Sister Cities Association vice president, echoed Phelts’ foodie comments, pointing to the incredible three-foot round paellas filled with sausage, rice and shrimp during the special U.S. Independence Day party at the Château des ducs de Bretagne given for the program’s participants and their host families.

“I’m not usually sentimental, but I was moved after consecutively singing the Star-Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise, along with the rest of a large room full of Americans and French people,” said Shieldhouse, of Avondale.

The language immersion program started with the desire to foster a stronger friendship between the two sister cities of Nantes and Jacksonville, planning was coordinated by the Alliance Française de Jacksonville (AFJax)  and the Jacksonville Sister Cities Association, Inc. (JSCA), and sponsored by Jacksonville’s France sister city, La Maison des États-Unis.

The trip was open to members of both nonprofits and attracted a diverse group of people from age 10 to 78, with a wide range of backgrounds.

“One of the wonderful things about this, was it gave people who wouldn’t otherwise gone on such a trip, the opportunity to travel abroad,” said Shieldhouse.

An architect, Jennifer Suharmadji was especially mindful of the ease of accessibility throughout Nantes by using the TAN, their tramway and bus service. “Their tracks and many tram cars are barrier-free, which made this medieval city very accessible and modern – a big plus being a visitor,” said Suharmadji.

Nantes’ “twin” city chairperson Mariette Cassouret (for La Maison des États-Unis) saw the idea as a wonderful opportunity to build a stronger relationship with Jacksonville. 

Ultimately, it was the people who made the trip and immersion program so meaningful. 

Episcopal High School student Mariama Pouye, whose family lives in Riverside, said when her host family took her to their family reunion, she made a meaningful friend with the host family’s young cousin and plans on having her visit Jacksonville next spring. “Because we were truly relying on speaking French in daily situations, rather than just practicing out of a textbook like we do here, my communication levels have soared,” said Pouye.

Suharmadji said her most valuable experience from the trip was living with her French host family and observing their relaxed and balanced way-of-life. 

Just as the JSCA’s theme is “peace through people,” the trip to Jacksonville’s sister city Nantes was another opportunity to foster goodwill.

Want to know more?

Jacksonville Sister Cities

Jacksonville Sister Cities Association, Inc. (JSCA) is the local chapter of Sister Cities International, based in Washington, D.C., and an active sister city program since 1967.

Jacksonville Sister Cities is currently twinned with eight Sister Cities throughout the world including Bahia Blanca, Argentina; Curitiba, Brazil; Changwon City, South Korea; Murmansk, Russia; Nantes, France; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, South Africa and Yingkou, China; and three Friendship Cities in China: Ningbo, Shaoxing and Suzhou.

Sister Cities International’s mission is to “promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation – one individual, one community at a time.”

JSCA holds meetings the fourth Wednesday of every month on the third floor of City Hall downtown. Committees may also meet in other locations as they work on planned projects and fund-raising events. Visit for details.

Alliance Françiase

Alliance Françiase de Jacksonville (AFJax) is the local nonprofit of the American Alliances Françaises, located in Washington, D.C., and has been in Jacksonville since 1962. Its mission is to encourage and develop knowledge of the French language and French and Francophone cultures, and to foster cultural, intellectual and artistic exchanges between the United States and France and French-speaking countries. 

AFJax’s regular group meetings take place on the third Wednesday of each month at 1628 San Marco Blvd., Suite 9, with many other activities planned each month. Its 150 members enjoy sharing their love of French culture and language with dinners at French restaurants, movie nights, artist and chef presentations, and more, in order to expand their knowledge and interest in everything French. The San Marco office includes a gallery space with monthly revolving exhibitions of local artists who have a link to France. For more information, visit

AFJax Open House

Sheila Kloc, AFJax president for the past three years, welcomes the public to the open house for membership and class registration on Saturday, Sept. 10, from 9 a.m. until noon, to learn all about the organization and what it offers. There will be refreshments, (French pastries of course) and all ages are welcome! The public may ask questions about AFJax via email to  or call the AFJax office at (904) 469-4964.

Peace Concert

The community is invited to attend this year’s annual Peace Concert at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11 at St. John’s Cathedral, 256 East Church St., where the JSCA and OneJax will join other worldwide activities commemorating the events of 9/11. The free musical event will feature ensembles from St. John’s Cathedral, the University of North Florida Chamber Singers, DASOTA Chorale and the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus, followed by a reception hosted by JSCA.

Because seating is limited, advance reservations are recommended. To register online for tickets, go to JSCA membership information will also be available at the concert.

By Christina Swanson
Resident Community News

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