French speakers meet every week for conversation at John F. Germany Library
TAMPA - Every Tuesday evening, rain or shine, a group gathers on the second floor of the John F. Germany library for stimulating conversation. Over coffee and snacks, they talk about everything from politics to current events to the last show they saw on Netflix. Sometimes their laughter or discussions get loud and a librarian closes the meeting room door. Members speak about whatever is on their minds during the 90-minute meetings, said group leader Andre Kupfermunz. But they have to speak in French."Coffee and French Conversation with Andre" is a library language program that has taken place for the past eight years. Kupfermunz, 70, and his wife, Michelle Passoff, started the group shortly after they moved to South Tampa from New York in 2005. Since the group began meeting, its email list has grown to almost 200 people, all of whom have attended at least once. "It kind of echoes the atmosphere of a French cafe," said Passoff, 60. Usually 10 or 12 people come to chat each week, which is the ideal size group, Kupfermunz said. Everyone gets a chance to speak. The couple was at a neighborhood fair a few years ago when they met a woman who arranged programming for Hillsborough County's library system. She suggested they establish a group at the library. They did, and then people just kept coming, Passoff said. "I think people come for the French as much as they come for the conversation," she said. For some, French is their first language, while some others who come don't speak French at all, Kupfermunz said. People have come to practice their French before they take a trip to Paris, and others just want to pick up where they left off in their college classes. "The knowledge you had is still there," Kupfermunz said. "The things that stop you from using it is the fear of looking stupid." But there is no judgement in this group, he said. Almost all of the participants, even the French speakers, bring a notebook or a dictionary. Passoff said she isn't fluent in French. She looks up different words on her iPad during the sessions. "I struggle along with everyone else," she said. In addition to French, Kupfermunz speaks Dutch, German, English, Italian, Hebrew and some Spanish, he said. He spent years working in international trade before he came to the United States in 1990 to become an artist. He was born in France and raised in Belgium. His Jewish parents fled the Nazis with their children and fought in the Resistance, Kupfermunz said. When he was a baby, he lived with a Catholic family in France who had him baptized a Catholic in order to protect him as German soldiers moved into the country. After the war his family settled in Brussels, he said. "We were lucky to be alive," he said. Kupfermunz said his father wrote a book about his experiences, which they discussed in the group. "We talk about everything here," he said. "From the mundane to the sublime." This week's discussion began with the royal baby. JoAnna Hall, who has participated in the conversations for the past three years, always brings her big French-English dictionary, which gets passed around the table. She started coming so she could learn French, which she said is much easier to do when a person is talking with native French speakers. "You're forced to come up with something," Hall said. Blake Wolford, 12, usually comes to the group during the summer. He's home-schooled and he already knew some French, but he began coming after a woman at his church told him about the program. "I don't get a chance to speak it much at home," he said. Stacey Jurewics, senior librarian for the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative, said the ability to learn a language by having a conversation rather than memorizing verbs on a blackboard is what makes the program popular. "It's more of an enjoyable evening," she said. "I think Andre tries to make it more of a cultural experience." Jurewics said the library now has similar groups that speak in Spanish and administrators are working on setting up a program in Mandarin. "I think people get more out of it than just the language-learning," she said. Kupfermunz agreed. He said people just like to come and have an intelligent conversation over a cup of coffee. "Everybody can talk about anything with everybody," he said. "It's just fun. It's pretty cool." Ebehrman@Tampatrib.com (813)259-7691 Twitter: @LizBehrmanTBO
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