The voices of small children drifted over a high wooden fence held together by bougainvillea, the music of an 18th century French school song, " La Claire Fontaine." A middle-aged man in a leather coat heard them as he walked toward the beach. He stopped, turned and knocked tentatively on the door of Ecole Claire Fontaine, a preschool in Venice on Westminster.
He rang the bell that hangs on the scrap of yarn, and Joelle Dumas, the headmistress and founder of the school, welcomed him in. He'd just arrived from Paris--perhaps he was already feeling a little homesick--and was drawn in by the familiar song from his childhood.
Dumas offered him a cup of barley water, flavored with honey. He stood in the garden and listened to the children sing, then moved on.
That scene took place several years ago, France meeting itself on unexpected ground. And each year brings some new reason why the French have no cause for homesickness in West L.A.
Venice, particularly around Abbott Kinney Boulevard, but also the canals and back streets, has become increasingly filled with the French. They bring their culture and, bit by bit, their food and music, re-creating, amid the surfers and jugglers and the vintage clothing stores, the south of France. Those who remain homesick make a habit of going home for Bastille Day, but for the rest, Venice has become a comfortable enough village to allow them to celebrate quietly, or not at all.
"We were lost in the city," Dumas says, describing the period 16 years ago when she first arrived in Los Angeles, "so we re-created what we couldn't find--schools, bakeries, restaurants and Web sites. Now, if you wanted to, you could see only French doctors, eat only French food, and see only French music and films. And of course, the education of our children. The French language, you see, encourages a deeper kind of breathing than English--very important from an early age."
In Venice, we understand the importance of breathing. There's a yoga studio every half-mile, and the air, as everyone knows, is the best L.A. has to offer. Living in Venice, one trades practicalities like parking and credibility for hedonism, sunshine, art and air. And French, the official language of the bon vivant , is rapidly becoming the second language of the 21st Arrondissement, namely, Venice Beach.
Perhaps Venice, like its namesake in the quattrocento, has become what French historian Ferdinand Braudel calls a "ville monde." "It's not just Parisians that come here," says Laurent Gache, an antiques restorer in Culver City. "French people, particularly from the south of France, gravitate to Venice. It's as close to the Mediterranean as they can get in L.A. Hollywood is more like Paris. Venice is like the south."
Dumas, who opened Ecole Claire Fontaine 12 years ago, was one of the Venice pioneers, teaching French and French culture to the children of a growing expatriate community of artists, writers and those working in some aspect of film (there's a notable French contingent in animation, particularly at Disney). The school has 24 students and a waiting list a mile long. Many of the 3-year-olds speak three languages. The meals are elaborate, often several courses followed by a cheese course--and parents often drop by to visit around lunchtime.
Next came businesses and meeting places. Just three years ago Lilly's French Cafe and Bar took its place next to the very American Hal's restaurant and Joe's. Slave, a clothing store on Abbott Kinney was opened by a French woman six years ago. Le Pain du Jour, where the Venice French buy their bread, opened on Pico and Lincoln boulevards. The French Market, a grocery store that sells everything from cornichons to Le Monde opened on Abbott Kinney in 1993. Two years ago, it was purchased by Agnes Jaudau and Lionel Arnount, from Nice. The French Cafe is a kind of hub. Three clocks on the wall show the hour in Venice, France and New York. A cafe serves quiche and coq au vin and beef bourguignon and tripes. You can buy rice from the Camargue, and honey from Provence. Jaudau looks like a very young Gertrude Stein. "Why did we move here?" she says, shrugging her shoulders. "I don't know, maybe the weather?"
The Normandy Cafe, on Washington Boulevard, serves cafe latte and fresh croissants and Edith Piaf to a Rollerblade crowd. Originally it was owned by a woman who seemed to swoop in every few months from France and herd her employees into bonne service . (Going in for an early coffee when she was on a cleaning rampage, bringing tears to the eyes of young waitresses, aroused a certain sense of injustice.) The baker there once pulled me aside and told me that he had some cherries soaked in eau de vie that would make my guests weep with happiness. When I presented them like beaten gold at the table they were resoundingly rejected. Perhaps some things need to be eaten dans la place .
Bastille Day (which falls this year on Saturday), like the cherries, resists transplanting. In France, there is the Bal Populaire. Each fire station holds an outdoor party with food and wines and different kinds of music depending on the age and class of the citizens. But here in the 21st Arrondissement, it is celebrated largely in private. One can "fait le Grand Tour de Duke," as one friend puts it, meaning go from party to party, but there is no dancing in the streets.
"I myself have not a fibre patriotique ," says Helen Demeestere vice president of the Societe de Dames de Charite des Dames de L.A, an organization that was founded in 1903. "When I was growing up in France, the Bal was just a way for girls to find husbands." Demeestere thinks there is a lack of patriotism, just as in the U.S., among intellectuals and young people. "The French are rebels by nature, they are always, as we say, frondeur against something. The word itself comes from the noun, la fronde , which means slingshot. Les Frondeurs were a group of early 17th century rebels who rose up against Louis XIII, and failed."
"The French in L.A. scatter like cats," adds Laurent Deveze, attache culturel at the French Consulate on Wilshire. "There is no solidarity," Demeestere agrees. "They are simply too different to get together."
And yet, there are more than 100 organizations in Los Angeles County alone, including the Club de Petanque de Los Angeles (boule players who meet in Rancho Park twice a week); Federations des Anciens Combattants; the Friends of Tahiti; the Club Lavenir (for businessmen and women); the Club Culinaire and the Beverly Hills/Cannes Sister City Committee. These organizations meet and eat and keep an eye on each other. Their members come out on Armistice Day (Nov. 11th), and many will gather on Bastille Day.
Indeed, resistant though the local frondeurs may be, Bastille Day will not go unnoticed, as it was by King Louis XIV on that fateful night, July 14, 1789. After two days of rioting, the people of Paris, following a year of bad harvest and not enough bread, after being told to "eat cake," stormed the prison on the Place de la Bastille. Swiss guards fired and killed 98 people. That night, Louis XIV wrote one word in his diary: "rien," which means "nothing."
The French consulate in Los Angeles, in an effort to make a version of the holiday that best reflects the spirit of Los Angeles as well as France, has organized, for the first time, Bastille Days, a series of events taking place all over Los Angeles for the entire month of July, including Grand Performance concerts featuring world music, Hollywood Bowl concerts and photo exhibits at Louis Stern Fine Arts Gallery and Muriel K. Boris Gallery on Melrose.
There will be an outdoor screening of "Danton" at Bergamot Station on Sunday, and a week of silent movies at Cinematheque Francaise du LACMA. LACMA will also host a Jaques Tati retrospective. There will also be a version of the Bal Populaire, a dance party on the Queen Mary organized by the French Chamber of Commerce in Los Angeles.
The Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills will have special events for children. Various restaurants, like the Moustache Cafe and La Cachette and Lunaria will offer special menus.
"We wanted, for the first time, to emphasize the spirit of Bastille Day, which is creative freedom, more than patriotism," says Deveze, the cultural attache. "We wanted to make it a national holiday that is not necessarily nationalist. It is the spirit of Bastille Day that is important. After all, I learned," he says, opening his hands and tilting his head back in that supremely French gesture, "how to dance on Bastille Day."
Though the French community in Venice is relatively new, the French have a long history in L.A., claim the authors of the "Guide Francais de Los Angeles et du Sud de la Californie." The guide, published in 1932 by F. Loyer and C. Beaudreau and excerpted by the French consulate on its Web site, chronicles the region's history through a distinctly Franco-centric lens: The founding of the Pueblo in 1781 that became Los Angeles was an idea conceived by a Frenchman, Theodore de Croix, ruler of the northwestern provinces of Mexico for King Charles III of Spain. Playa del Rey was owned in the mid-1800s by an Alsatian, Andre Briswalter. Eugene Aune built the first house in Santa Monica, in 1875, and the first film studio was created in 1911 in the barn of a Frenchman in Hollywood, Rene Blondeau.
The first vineyards in California, but of course, were planted in 1832 by Jean Louis Vignes, bordering Macy and Aliso streets. By 1860, 600 of L.A.'s 5,000 inhabitants were French, and French was the most widely spoken language after Spanish.
Lena Caen, now 91, came to Los Angeles in 1915, the height of patriotic feeling for the French at home and abroad. She remembers taking the Red Car from the train station, when they arrived, to the corner of Sunset and Alexandria, holding a photo of her uncle's house. Just weeks after her arrival, Caen, then 6, was asked to take part in a Bastille Day ceremony at the Shrine Auditorium. Three girls would create a drapeau vivant, or living flag. "I was red," Caen remembers. "The blue girl was Belgian and the white girl was American. I was the only one who spoke French. Eighty-six years later, in the heart of Venice, Lena might have attended Ecole Claire Fontaine and then gone on to the Lycee Francais on Overland. "Children have such a love for life," Dumas always says. "With two languages, they have two ways to fully express that love."