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French visitors enjoy trip to Demopolis

Their questions were many and varied:

Why do all Americans drive such big cars?

Why don’t more blacks go to churches with whites?

Why do Americans get so many divorces instead of simply living together?

And so two cultures met to try to understand and explain each other.

It’s all part of the Rotary International Group Study Exchange. District 6880, of which the Demopolis Rotary Club is a part, played host this week to a group of five visitors from France sent by District 1780.

The French district stretches from Valence on the Rhone River, where sisters Isabelle and Cecile Fourel live, to the Swiss and Italian Alps on the east, where Stephane Mermet lives in Thonon-Les-Bains on Lake Geneva.

Leading the team is Bernard Dumont of Bourgoin Jallieu, and Christine Donval of Allinges rounds out the five-member group. The magnificent setting of their district brings in many tourists for skiing in the winter and mountain climbing in the summer. The area also is well known for its wines.

Donval prepared a CD-Rom on their district for anyone who would like to get to know the area better.

As the European visitors tour this area, the Alabama district has a group visiting their home in France. One of the American members is Annie Rankin of Faunsdale.

Before the visitors arrived in Demopolis Monday afternoon, they spent several days in Montgomery touring factories and businesses, meeting with Gov. Don Siegleman and hearing a lecture at the Alabama Supreme Court on the differences in judicial law between the United States and France. Between the Montgomery visit and arriving in Demopolis, the visitors spent time in Selma.

Demopolis and Marengo County history figured prominently in the tours for the group. Local history buffs Gwyn Turner, Kirk Brooker and Matt Hartzell took them through Bluff Hall and Gaineswood.

Hartzell was a member of the Rotary Group Study Exchange last year to Brazil. They also toured the Old Marengo County Courthouse in Linden.

Local businesses and industries also played host. The visitors went through Linden Lumber Company, New Era Cap Company, CEMEX cement plant and a catfish farm.

It wasn’t all business.

Local Rotarians made sure they had a good time, treating the group to a ride on the river aboard James Suttles’ houseboat, a party at the home of Bill and Lori Mackey and trips to the University of Alabama for a baseball game and the first night of the women’s gymnastics tournament. The group spoke to both the Linden and Demopolis Rotary clubs while here.

Local families provided a place to stay.

Josephine Hall of Linden opened her home to the women of the group. Dumont stayed with Jay and Rosemary Shows in Gallion, and Mermet bunked with the Keith Hamilton family, when he wasn’t playing a heated game of ping pong.

On Friday the group left for a weekend of relaxation at Gulf Shores they began their last two weeks in south Alabama.

All the tour members had been in the United States before except Cecile Fourel, but none of them had ever been to Alabama. Isabelle Fourel remarked immediately on the "very nice people" she had met in Alabama.

Mermet had another take on what he had experienced. "Americans have very tight schedules."

The group first met in January to get to know each other and prepare for the trip to America. Most of their meetings were spent over meals, a favorite time for the French to socialize, said Dumont.

France is known around the world for its fine cuisine, but south Alabama has a lot going for it, said the group. They especially enjoyed having beef, which is not so plentiful or tasty in France. At the dinner in their honor Tuesday at Bill Mackey’s, they cleaned their plates of barbecue, cole slaw, beans and caramel cake.

In spite of their hectic schedules, several members of the group kept their hosts up late as Americans and Frenchmen asked and answered questions on many different subjects. It helped that each member of the group speaks English, in addition to speaking or at least understanding several other languages.

They have been showered with T-shirts, mugs, hats and lots of literature. Isabelle Fourel complained that she hasn’t had time to go shopping for gifts. (Shopping is her favorite pastime, teased other members of the group.) She planned on giving friends and family some of the things she has received.