Place: Lac du Bois, Bemidji, Minnesota

Place: Lac du Bois, Bemidji, Minnesota

Ruby Sutton
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  • Miniature Eiffel Tower
  • Children of tiger parents
  • Twelve miles from the Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statue

They said “Bonjour” and looked at me with their eyes wide, and already I felt slightly frightened, unsure if my tongue could produce the sounds they were searching for. I’d spent the last two hours gazing out at the pine trees while my mother and I listened to language tapes in preparation, until she finally turned right onto Road Thorsenvein. I felt a tingle of nervous anticipation as we passed a group of children kicking a ball around in the Fußballplatz, then a diamantine sign that read FUTURE WORLD LEADERS AT WORK AND AT PLAY. My mother followed the signs for Lac du Bois and told me to get out at the parking lot.

When my parents first suggested I go to a language-immersion camp, I got excited about learning Chinese, imagining I might come out as a CIA recruit by the end of the summer. But because of my parents’ Francophilia—and a vague family tradition of running around Paris intoxicated—I ended up at French camp instead. Now at the entrance gate, I could see a replica of the Eiffel Tower, only six feet tall, and in the distance a giant chessboard: the pawns were my height and the queen had fallen.

The counselors were asking what I wanted my new name to be. I’d thought on the drive that I might want to be Madeline or Amelie, but when I looked at the list of pseudonyms on their clipboard, those names were already taken. Instead, I proposed Gigi, not yet cognizant that it evoked the whimsical sensuality of a burlesque dancer.

The counselors wrote the name on a wooden plaque, attached it to a piece of string, and hung it around my neck. My mother kissed me on both cheeks and disappeared into our Volkswagen. I was guided into a building called Paris, where rows of other children sat with identical tags hanging around their necks, fellow participants in the “Grand Simulation.”

Concordia Language Villages (CLV) was founded in 1961, the vision of Gerhard Haukebo, a professor at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. Although he was raised in the small town of Roseau, Haukebo had always nursed visions of connecting the globe: as a child, he envisioned building a tunnel to China from the backyard of his parents’ farm, although his dreams didn’t stop there. After college, he spent four years working as a teacher and principal at a German military base, instructing American children, where he was impressed by how much his students absorbed through play outside the classroom. After joining the faculty at Concordia in 1959, Haukebo proposed that the college sponsor an innovative language-immersion program that would teach students how to apply language in everyday life rather than focusing on grammar. In 1961, Concordia rented out the Luther Crest Bible camp in nearby Alexandria, and seventy-two campers, ages nine through twelve, participated in Haukebo’s two-week immersive German-language experiment, called Waldsee, that summer.

Today there are fifteen CLV camps, all built with “authentic architecture,” located on an eight-hundred-acre lakeshore property in Bemidji, Minnesota, that CLV purchased from a woolen-apparel manufacturer. At Salolampi, campers are invited to take Finnish-style saunas daily. Sjölunden is modeled after a Swedish fishing village, complete with a weaving studio. Sup sogŭi Hosu, built on what used to be a resort, was recently endowed with a generous scholarship program that sends Koreans out to Bemidji, so campers can learn from these native speakers.

Styled like a Bavarian village and boasting alumni like Chelsea Clinton, Waldsee is the biggest of the camps. When I visited Waldsee as a kid with the other Lac du Bois campers for a game of flag football, I heard a rumor that the German government had funded the program to improve their postwar reputation. In 2018, the camp was embarrassed to discover that Waldsee was a euphemism for “Auschwitz,” when one curious parent typed “Waldsee” and “Nazi” into his search bar.

At $2,600 for two weeks, the tuition is prohibitive for many Bemidji families, but CLV’s assistant director of alumni relations and giving, Ross Dybvig, tells me that the camps, and the influx of tourism they bring, are well received by the community. For example, Dybvig told me that the people of Bemidji often encounter CLV campers wearing name tags while shopping at Target with their families. “They see our kids buying things,” he said. “It’s always a good experience.”

My first summer at Lac du Bois, I learned of faraway places like Monterey Bayand Westchester. When I visited New York on a family vacation the following year, I got to go to the Harvard Club with my new friend Bruno, who took the train down from the suburbs with his mother. As if testing me, his mother asked if I laughed at the cartoons in The New Yorker. After my first Lac du Bois summer, I returned to middle school in the small Minnesota town where I grew up, slightly unsure of how to talk about my French camp experience with my best friend, Kayla, who’d spent the summer dodging the BB-gun shots of her older brothers.

They say that when you speak another language, you become another person. Perhaps this is why one summer I decided to flush my bottle of fluoxetine down the toilet in the Paris building. This was after breakfast, when the camp awarded “Super Français” beads to the dedicated campers who had gone the past twenty-four hours without speaking English. Being under constant surveillance, it was all I could do to take charge of my situation. Or maybe I decided that Gigi was too cheerful a name for someone who needed their serotonin artificially regulated. I started crying during rest time, when I received letters from my parents. For the rest of camp, Benoît, the counselor stationed at the Village First Aid, monitored my treatment, finding me each day at breakfast with a little blue pill in his hands and watching me swallow it.

After this, Lac du Bois was bliss. I made friends. There were choreographed dances. I had my first kiss—or maybe it was one of the other campers, Amelie or Madeline. The memories are fuzzy now, but for someone, behind the Paris building, it happened. I developed a crush on my favorite counselor, Cheikh, who claimed to be a Senegalese prince. I imagined going to Dakar and mingling with the royal family, but it turned out he was dating another counselor, Caroline, who slept in the bunk bed below mine. It didn’t matter. I learned to love them both equally, as if they were my parents. I went back the next summer, and the one after that, and though I kept asking my parents to send me to learn Chinese, they insisted I finish what I’d started and go back to French camp. Now, I occasionally find myself with half-completed applications for the Middlebury Language Schools when I’m up late at night with insomnia. I still know the lyrics to “Elle me dit” by heart, and sometimes, in the back of my head, I hear it.

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