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Springfield's French connection
By Sandy McCollum

There's life after boring foreign language conjugations.

His early days were spent in a log cabin outside of Petersburg. Although today he's more likely to be found heading up language-intensive excursions in the French countryside, Noah Sabich says growing up in that log cabin allowed him to dream and influenced his view of the world.

Noah is the older son of Pamela and Robert Sabich. The family had a cabin and four acres of ground to work. When Noah and his younger brother, Nathan, began attending school at Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield and getting involved in sports, the commute and chores grew increasingly difficult. Finally, the family had to make a choice. They moved into Springfield. At Sacred Heart-Griffin, Noah's team won the state soccer championship in 1998; Nathan's team followed suit in 2002.

All this time, Noah studied French. His father grew up on the south side of Chicago; his grandfather spoke five languages. At an early age, Noah's parents decided their sons needed to know more languages. They had a French tutor from Lebanon, Dr. Salwa Hamati. He also knows Latin, German and Spanish. Noah says by the age of 11 or 12, he realized speaking French would allow him to see the world. "Not just France, but North Africa and Polynesia," he says. It did.

Noah headed east to college. He went to school in Maine, Vermont, all over Europe, England, and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He earned his bachelor's degree with a double major in French and history from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. He has two master's degrees, one in French language and literature from Middlebury College in Vermont and one in French literature from the University of Connecticut. Today he's working on his Ph.D. in French literature at the University of Connecticut and anticipates completing it in 2010.

He speaks of his degrees with pride, but his voice and manner change dramatically when he talks about the travel opportunities, and opportunities to lead language-immersion excursions that this has provided.

In 2006, he was living in Paris and finishing his second master's degree when a friend told him about Putney Student Travel and National Geographic Student Expeditions, sister programs within the same company. The two friends shared a lot of the same interests, including surfing and biking. Noah applied. There was a last-minute opening; he received a phone call asking if he could fly to Paris in 24 hours. He could.

"They signed me up for the next three years," he says.

The program attracts honor students from around the world. It's designed to offer them an alternate program where they're not going to be graded, but have an experience.  

"It's not just a teen tour; we're trying to give them an in-depth look at France ... we have connections in villages, farms. The Putney program has been around for 57 years," Noah says.

Students are 14-18 years old. One group he heads consists of 18 students and two leaders. Another has 50 students and 10 leaders. The focus could be cuisine, history, French grammar, photography or almost anything else.

 "We organize activities or stay in chateau or go sailing down the Mediterranean. We have pretty much free range of what we want to do," he says.

Students have taken the téléferique over glacial peaks and hiked through snow-covered passes. They take rock-climbing and canyoning trips, hike on glaciers in the summer sun, go to the French market in the university town of Aix-en-Provence, and attend opera and musical performances at the International Festival in Aix and in nearby Avignon. In the Riviera they swim, windsurf, sail and visit Cannes and historical places.

"It's essentially a total immersion classroom with a touch of adventure," Noah says.

Adventures can lead to bigger adventures. On a bicycle trip in Brittany, it had just rained. An 18-year-old student riding downhill ran headlong into a wall at about 20 miles per hour.

"His helmet shattered. We went to a French hospital. While the students know French, I had to translate the medical terms and questions," Noah says. Fortunately it was mostly precautionary, and the student was all right.

Noah says one of his favorite places is off the beaten path, Bassin d'Arcachon. You can't get to it on the high-speed train; you have to take a slow one.

"There I took a boat to an island with crystal-clear water. You can have oysters straight from the bay and drink white wine from the region," he says.

Asked about the popular movie, "Julie and Julia," where Julia Child's French cooking is the third star of the film along with Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, Noah says the French make "amazing, excellent food," but tend to follow traditions. In America, he says, we experiment more. But the French do have some advantages.

"Access to fresh food is easier in France. In any community, there are open-air markets," he says. But he notes places like the farmers market in downtown Springfield are becoming more popular and provide American cooks additional access to fresh local food.

Noah says he has found that the French, "even though they sometimes have a difficulty admitting it," have immense respect for Americans and our values. But he understands the French discomfort with some American visitors.

"In groups, we talk louder than the French. And even though the perception is that France is Catholic, there is a variety of religions and respect for that variety. Their president would never mention the word 'God,' and they feel very ill at ease when Americans speak of religion," Noah says. "But if they get a chance, it's their dream to travel to New York or California or Miami."

Not all of Noah's trips have been to luxury places. A trip to Tunisia in May was like taking a giant step backward in time.

"They're living as they would in Biblical times," he says. "They draw water from a well, used donkey for transportation, have no dental care, eye care or medical care. There are flies everywhere. I think about our privileges, and I'm grateful for being able to cross borders and drink clean water."

At the same time, Noah says, you have to find beauty in situations - that should be the whole point of travel.

"I was in the middle of Sahara desert, and our vehicle broke down," he says. In the middle of nowhere, he found help.

"That's the thing that travel shows you," he says. "No matter how unstable or precarious things can be, in spite of all the chaos, all the things that can go wrong, we're human still. I take comfort in that."


Story published Friday, November 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 6 )

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