In a Rosslyn office building that looks like any other, Gloria Becker is learning French.
Five days a week, six hours a day, the Chevy Chase resident and her classmates try to master the mysteries of the subjunctive tense. Like students of the language everywhere, 53-year-old Becker is worried about spelling and grammer and the inevitable malapropisms that leave the native listener giggling at the bumbling beginner's embarrassing mistake.
Becker will soon have ample opportunity to speak French. In January, she will move to Upper Volta, a former French colony in West Africa, as a U.S. Foreign Service officer.
The move will mark the first time she will live by herself, and she's excited about this new stage in her life.
"This is the next step, and I'm looking forwrd to it," she said, during a break from French class. "It's a whole new beginning."
Living abroad does not phase her, nor does being part of the Foreign Service. From 1947 to 1964 her husband, from whom she is now divorced, was a Foreign Service officer, and the family lived throughout the world.
"There I was with six months left of college and a husband who had just passed the Foreign Service exam," she laughed, remembering their first post. "Next thing I knew, I was living in Madras (India)."
During the next 20 years, they lived in Sri Lanka, Sweden, Afghanistan, and India. They also spent time in Washington and Philadelphia, where her husband took additional language training at the University of Pennsylvania.
She was in Madras when Mahatma Gandhi was killed, in Afghanistan when women were permitted to shed their veils, in Bombay when musician Ravi Shankar held evening sitar sessions in the apartment building next door.
"You get a whole different perspective going to these places with children," she observed. "I saw the children's books, schools, games that made up each of the cultures we lived in.
"I think the experience overseas was the frosting on the cake for them," she continued. "They accept people's differences easily. I remember when we heard that Montgomery County was desegregating its schools, they were surprised that the schools could even be segregated to begin with.
Her second son, now 27, was born in a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the third in Goteborg, Sweden.
While living abroad as a Foreign Service wife, she was responsible for initiating much of the social contact that is a part of an embassy official's life.
This time around, she says ruefully she "doesn't have a wife to make friends for her.
"I don't worry about adjusting some-place new at all," she added. "the only thing I worry about now are practical things, like will I get my suitcases packed in time."
In 1964 the family moved back to Washington and bought the house in the Somerset section of Chevy Chase where she lives now with her youngest son, who's 25.
Becker returned to school and graduated with a BA and MA from George Washington University, where she did an interdisciplinary thesis on attitude change.
"I was interested in how attitudes change in families and within communities, and how the two influence one another," she explained. "Part of that was seeing how the 1960s were affecting my own family."
Becker separated in 1967 from her husband and was suddenly responsible for her three sons.They all grew extremely long hair, she says laughing, and she didn't know what to do about it.
"I've also been exposed to all different attitudes overseas," she added. "I can understand other people's criticisms of the United States, for example."
Becker began working at George Washington University in the late 1960s. Her most recent job there was working with the Afghanistan Legal Training Program, designed to bring Afghan layers and professors to Washington. When the program finished, Becker looking around for a new job, thought of applying to the State Department.
She will join a staff of 3,581 other Foreign Service officers, 451 of whom are women. Her experience allowed her to enter as a mid-level professional.
Her sons, she says, are solidly behind the move. The oldest is a photographer and computer specialist in Los Angeles the middle son is a medieval vocalist in New York and the youngest is a music major interested in going back to school in space technology.
"I guess they went in a different direction than the Foreign Service," she said. "But, for that matter, who would have thought I'd be off to Upper Volta?"