CHARLOTTE PHILLIPS / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
Auberge Schweizer, a little bit of Switzerland in the Quebec countryside, offers its guests healthy cuisine, with fresh vegetables from the huge garden that thrives just outside the kitchen, served in this cozy dining room.
Quebec’s countryside ideal site for French class
An Elderhostel program set at a quaint Canadian inn is an absolute delight
If you've longed to open the dusty files of college French languishing in the back of your mind, the French-immersion program at the Auberge Schweizer in the quaint town of Sutton in Canada's Quebec province is perfect.
Even if you don't speak a lick of French and don't want to learn, there are many reasons to go to the auberge (inn).
Such as the delicious, healthy food: organic vegetables from the large garden, which flourishes just outside the kitchen; soothing country soups; freshly baked bread; and homey desserts, such as blueberry cobbler.
Or the pastoral setting: a scenic backdrop of 130 acres of maple trees, ponds, hiking trails, rolling hills, blue skies, golden sunsets and clean air.
Or the feeling of being engulfed in nature: Flowers bloom. Horses graze, gallop and roll in the lush grass. Birds sing. Butterflies float. Squirrels scamper.
Or the personable family members, including the gypsy dog, Lucky. Calls would come from far away, saying Lucky was on the roam, and someone would hop into the truck to go get him.
In the winter, cross-country skiers use the auberge as a base, and the old-fashioned iron stove in the rustic dining room, plus the hot coffee, porridge, muffins and pancakes with fresh maple syrup send them on their treks feeling warm and fuzzy.
The auberge was started decades ago by Schweizer family members from Switzerland. A journal written by the grandmother of sisters Pauline and Heidi and brother Peter documents the struggle to survive in the early days and makes guests feel they are part of the family. Peter does most of the cooking, while Pauline makes desserts and bakes bread and Heidi takes care of business.
When I told Pauline that I felt so much at home that I felt guilty for not clearing the table and helping with the dishes, I got a warm hug because that is indeed the goal of this remarkable family.
CHARLOTTE PHILLIPS / SPECIAL TO THE STAR-BULLETIN
The inn, outside the town of Sutton, is situated amid rolling hills, maple trees, ponds and green fields. The horses were delightful and mischievous. While petting them, one grabbed my small purse, looking for treats.
AFTER YEARS OF studying and using French but 35 years of having it lie dormant in my brain, I saw this program in an Elderhostel catalog. I was recovering from a broken foot and couldn't do anything physically demanding, so I figured I'd exercise my mind and see whether I could unlock the French vault. And unlock it, I did. Of course, complicated subjunctive and conditional tenses and serious vocabulary rebuilding would take longer than a week.
Although most everyone in Quebec speaks English, when you speak to them in French, they respond in French, so we put our English on hold and plunged into a French world. Our phenomenal teacher, Claudette, made learning painless. She told us jokes, taught us games and songs, and had us create skits.
Each day, after breakfast, we would have class in a large, comfortable classroom until noon. At midmorning, Pauline or Heidi's daughter, Rachel, would bring a bowl of sweet peaches, plums, nectarines and oranges to sustain us until lunch. After lunch we would have more French with Claudette or Cathy, Pauline's daughter, who teaches school in Sutton.
Moving around at mealtime in the small dining room allowed us to get acquainted with all 26 participants, a jovial, diverse and ageless group. Some brought their bikes, some planned to return for the watercolor or writing workshop and some had been there before for cross-country skiing and other winter activities, such as sleigh rides, snow boarding and snow shoeing.
Two groups of four friends traveling together were put up in two large chalets. The rest of us were in simple but comfortable bunkhouse-type accommodations: private rooms with sinks and shared bathrooms.
The town of Sutton is three miles away. There is no public transportation, but most of the participants had driven from points as close as Vermont and as far as California, so one day we piled into cars and went to see the Belgian chocolate maker and sample his creations, stopping to pick up a few bottles of good wine to share at dinner. One afternoon, some of us drove to a neighboring town: a quiet place, similar to Sutton, with streams, antique stores and cafes.
One evening after dinner, a young French woman played soulful and rowdy tunes on a fiddle, stamping her feet and urging us to join in by clicking together the spoons we had been given, filling the air with the sound of makeshift tambourines.
On another chilly August evening, we sang French songs around a campfire with the Schweizer clan -- from grandparents to grandchildren -- and listened as proficient singers sang in perfect harmony. I felt as if I had stumbled across the Von Trapp family.
We roasted marshmallows and chunks of bread dough twisted around sticks, sort of an open-fire doughnut. After a vivid sunset, a fireworks display sealed the mood of camaraderie.
Too soon, it was time to leave. We had formed small groups to devise a skit, song or poem (in French, of course) so we could put on a "grand spectacle" for the family on our last night. We drank wine and ate cheese and fruit and laughed ourselves silly at each other's antics.
THE ONLY DOWNSIDE to my trip was getting there. It had taken 20 hours from Hilo to Honolulu to Cincinnati to Montreal by plane. Then I had a five-hour wait for the bus to Sutton and spent two more hours on the bus.
At the spacious but disorganized Montreal airport, I walked and walked and waited to get through customs, and then searched for my bag but no one knew where the bags were, so I was at the airport for two hours. I tried at two kiosks to change traveler's checks, but they wanted no part of them. However, everyone was eager to take my credit card. So I bought a bus ticket with my credit card to get to the main bus terminal. The bus station moneychanger said he was out of Canadian money, so I bought another ticket -- to Sutton -- with my credit card.
I had inquired before leaving home about booking two extra nights at the auberge before the program started, but they had no vacancy; however, they referred me to Maxine, who runs a nearby B&B called La Bergerie. Her charming establishment has a sheep theme. I was worn out and grateful to find her waiting for me when I got off the bus at the service station that doubles as a bus stop. She had assigned me her "black sheep room," where black-sheep posters hung, black-sheep figurines lined the windowsill and a stuffed black sheep sat on the huge bed amid ruffles and shams.
The B&B had a Swiss-chalet feel. It was set amid maple trees, with their artistic leaves, and surrounded by flower beds and potted flowers. Ponds were full of fish. Maxine, a charismatic Swiss Canadian, said the deer come to drink from the ponds, which she welcomes, but she wishes they wouldn't eat her flowers. Although there are occasional sightings of moose, bear and porcupines, no animals showed up while I was there.
Maxine's breakfasts of fresh fruit and quiche were extraordinary. She didn't take traveler's checks or credit cards, but said I could pay her before I left Sutton. I was able to change some checks at a bank a few days later.
Rachel took three of us to the bus stop to catch a bus back to Montreal the morning I left the auberge. I stayed in Montreal three days to practice French. There, I walked many miles on the wide, clean sidewalks all over the city and in the underground malls. I missed the countryside, but the warmth of the land and the people were still with me.
Elderhostel offers educational journeys
Find information on all Elderhostel programs at elderhostel.org. The organization caters to people 55 and older, but some programs are intergenerational and geared to travel with grandchildren.
Elderhostel finds diverse opportunities for travelers all over the country and the world, all with some educational value. You can use Elderhostel's travel agency, but I have found it difficult to get them to book convenient flights because they want to use only airlines with which they have contracts, so you'll probably do better going to the program sites on your own.
Tip: Rather than flying into Montreal and waiting for one of two daily buses to Sutton, which leaves you in Sutton with no car and no public transportation, it's best to fly into a northern U.S. state, such as Vermont, rent a car and drive to Sutton.
Money tip: Take lots of cash and a credit card. Don't bother with traveler's checks. Although the auberge is reasonable -- $600 for a week of lodging, all meals and excellent language instructors -- Quebec in general is quite expensive.
If you aren't interested in signing up for a program and want to spend a few carefree days in Sutton, visiting art galleries or attending music or performing-arts events, contact the auberge or the B&B directly. Although the B&B serves only breakfast, there are a number of remarkable French restaurants, bakeries and espresso cafes in Sutton:
» Auberge Schweizer: 357 Chemin Schweizer, Sutton, Quebec. Call (450) 538-2129 or e-mail email@example.com.
» La Bergerie B&B: Maxine Walther, 373 Chemin Morgan, Sutton, Quebec. Call (450) 538-1379; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
» Sutton Tourism Office: Call (800) 565-8455; visit www.sutton.ca or e-mail email@example.com.
Charlotte Phillips is a retired Star-Bulletin copy editor who now travels the globe.