Delayed on their flight home, the 43 students from Paris were treated to hospitality from a Twin Cities French-immersion academy. All were rewarded.
How much does Jules Pencréac'h miss his parents?
"Beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup, beaucoup."
It was a feeling echoed by many of his classmates, all Parisian fifth-graders who found themselves stranded in Minneapolis after their flight was canceled because of ash spewing from an Icelandic volcano that has delayed countless international travelers.
Returning from a 12-day trip to a school in Portland, Ore., the students have added an unexpected cultural exchange to their itinerary: A day or two -- hopefully no more -- under the wing of a small French immersion academy in St. Louis Park.
Véronique Liebmann, director of the French Academy of Minnesota, got the call on Thursday: The Portland principal, whom she knows through the network of French schools in the United States, told her that the 43 students he had just hosted were now stuck at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Could she organize a rescue?
Liebmann and her staff stepped up, finding a hotel in downtown Minneapolis where the group could stay, then putting them on a bus Friday morning to spend the day playing and visiting with students in St. Louis Park. "They're amazing," said Pierre-Marie Bras, a fifth-grade teacher at Les Francs-Bourgeois in Paris who is chaperoning the group. "You can write that in any language, in any size."
The French students listened to stories, ate lunch and played soccer, tag and board games at the school on Friday. One activity that was a big hit: reading aloud with the preschoolers.
In Dorothée Henry's first-grade class, news of the unexpected visitors also came with a quick lesson about the erupting volcano. The first-graders "were very stressed and upset at first," Henry said. But her students were happy to meet the travelers, she said, adding that they were particularly interested in the French students' names.
After class, Henry and her husband stayed to organize games on the playground. A parent who learned that the group's luggage was stuck in customs showed up with Target bags full of new socks and underwear. And the Hilton Hotel offered to serve dinner to the kids and arrange for them to watch a movie, Bras said.
All told, the kids who ran around playing soccer outside the school on Friday evening were a much happier bunch than they had been on Thursday. When they got the bad news at the airport, "three-quarters of them were crying," Bras said.
"I'm still a bit sad, because I want to see my parents, but I feel better now," said student Raphaël Salle.
Bras spent part of Friday on the phone with the French consulate in Chicago, trying to find a way for the students to get home. A group as large as his won't be on the first available flight to Paris, he suspects, but he hopes to get them all in the air on Sunday.
For now, the group plans to stop at yet another unexpected destination: The Minnesota Zoo, which is giving them free admission on Saturday.
Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016