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Pandemic projects: Greenacres resident compiles French firsts for book

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

Leslie Anne Smith’s fascination with all things French began her freshman year in high school.

“I had a crush on my French teacher,” Smith said. “And then I fell in love with everything about France – the language, the history, the culture.”

Between high school and college, Smith spent a year in France as a foreign exchange student. Since she earned stellar grades, she felt well prepared to immerse herself in the culture, but she quickly discovered the formal French she learned in school bore little resemblance to the ebb and flow rhythms of native speakers.

“I thought what language did I learn?” she recalled.

Smith lived in the Burgundy region not far from Dijon, and her gracious host family helped her adapt to the language and the country.

“Everything was cool; the palaces, the beaches, the baguettes.”

Upon returning to the states, she knew exactly what she wanted to study, and eventually graduated from Eastern Washington University with a master’s in education with an emphasis in French.

She taught French at several area schools, including Gonzaga Prep, Gonzaga University and Whitworth University.

When the pandemic hit, she’d retired from teaching, but was still working part time as a translator and interpreter. During the shutdown, Smith finally had time to pursue a project that she’d been pondering for some time.

“Quite awhile ago, I read about a Frenchman who invented the guillotine (Monsieur Guillotin). Shortly thereafter, I came across a reference to another innovation by another Frenchman, the ‘Lanterne Magique.’ Yes, the ‘Magic Lantern,’ or film projector,” she said. “It dawned on me that there might be more such ‘firsts’ to uncover, collect and organize into a book.”

Then the fun began.

“I’m a nerd,” Smith said. “I love research.”

Using books from her home library and plenty of online research, the Francophile of Greenacres soon had more than 60 entries.

She included well-known folks like Louis Pasteur and Louis Braille, but more delightful for Smith were the surprise finds.

Like discovering the popular American toy, the Etch A Sketch, was invented by André Cassagnes. French brothers Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier developed the hot-air balloon. The Lumière brothers invented the Cinématographe, a precursor to modern cinema. And the list goes on.

Smith titled her work, “French Firsts: Inventions, Innovations, and Interesting Ideas (introduced by the French.)”

Most likely, she’ll self-publish it, but she said she’s still finding new entries.

“I just love the process of researching and discovering, and then organizing the material and putting the info in my own words,” Smith said.

Working on the book helped ease the disappointment of postponing her return to France. Smith has visited the country many times since her initial stay.

“The pen pal I’ve had since high school is one of my favorite people on the planet,” she said. “We’ve been friends for 50 years!”

Though she’s been to Paris many times and even has an Eiffel Tower collection, she much prefers to visit Provence, in the south of France.

“Who doesn’t love Paris?” she said. “But it’s a big city, and the people aren’t as friendly as they are in the smaller towns.”

While she finishes up the book, she’s planning her next trip to France.

“If I could go back tomorrow, I would,” said Smith.

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