To listen to Renee Peck interview Director of the Alliance Francaise Aurelie Champvert, click here.
People think of New Orleans as the most French city in America. And it probably is.
But we might not be quite as French as people think we are. The French Quarter looks more Spanish than it does French, and in the 18th century the city belonged to Spain for as many years as it did France. That’s something that Aurelie Champvert, director of the local Alliance Francaise, is going to tackle this week in anticipation of the French national holiday.
“Bastille Day is the national day in France and it is the 14 of July,” she explains. “In New Orleans, we decided to celebrate on Saturday the 12th on the Spanish Plaza. … It’s just a great location, near the Riverwalk, and we have the river. And we decided OK, let’s just turn the Spanish Plaza French for a day. So that’s what we are going to do. … You won’t tell that it’s Spanish any more.”
If one must borrow the Spanish Plaza for the French Bastille Day Fete, it makes you wonder: Just how French is New Orleans really? We asked Aurelie for some pointers. First, she says, New Orleanians and Parisians are quite different in temperament.
“I love New Orleans,” she says. “People are much nicer here than in Paris. Like I wasn’t used to saying bonjour and hi or being called baby or honey. I love it. That’s definitely a culture shock and I don’t know if I will be able to adjust to Paris any more.”
One thing that has not needed adjustment is a shared love of good food.
“French people can talk a lot about what they’ve been eating, what they are going to eat or what they like to eat. It’s a conversation you can definitely have with New Orleans people. … That’s something I would call French.”
Aurelie misses French cheese. Beignets, however, are better in New Orleans than in Paris, she says. So are crawfish.
So what else do we have that’s French? Street names, of course, though some are not pronounced the same (think “Chartres”). But the language itself? Not so much. People often wander into the Alliance Francaise headquarters on Jackson Avenue to ask where they can go in the city to speak and hear French.
Even our trademark French saying – laissez les bons temps rouler – is not originally, well, French. “ It is not something I’ve ever heard before,” says Aurelie. “It is definitely a New Orleans sentence.”
One thing that does translate well from France to Louisiana is the love of a good party. Bastille Day should play well on the Mississippi.
“We like to party,” Aurelie says of the French. On Bastille Day, “we go out in firehouses, which is why we’re going to have a fireboat at the Spanish Plaza for little kids to play. You go out to the firehouse and you have a dance and you have a drink … The best Bastille Day in the United States is probably going to happen in New Orleans, because of this party.
Of course, Bastille Day here will have a few things that Paris won’t – like a dog costume contest.
“We don’t dress dogs in France. A dog contest like that will never happen in France. When I first arrived two years ago they told me they were doing a dog contest. And I said, What? What’s a dog contest? People are really creative. They will of course come dressed up themselves. “
Which is another thing that Aurelie has trouble describing back home.
“Mardi Gras is something that I have a hard time explaining to my friends,” Aurelie says. “We are going to go out dressed up. If you do that in Paris, people will look at you and stare at you and you can’t do a party like that.
“I love the way people dress here. It’s just that I am too Parisian to wear a yellow and green dress. Maybe in a year I’ll be able to do that.”
The Bastille Day Fete in New Orleans has another big difference from the home country: It will go on for a week rather than just a day. And what could be more New Orleans than that?
Here are some highlights:
Prytania Promenade d’Ete: A stroll down Prytania Street with special offers and a French accent, Sunday, July 6, 4-6 p.m.
French cooking classes: Four classes taught by Brigitte Gomane, with menus from various regions of France, Monday, July 7 to Thursday, July 10, 5.30 to 8.00 pm at Alliance Francaise, 1519 Jackson Ave.
Outdoor movie night: An open-air screening of The Artist, 8 p.m. Friday, July 11 at the Latter Library on St. Charles Avenue
Bastille Day Fete: French music, food, a dog costume contest and kids activities, 3-8 p.m. at Spanish Plaza (renamed French Plaza for the day)
Faubourg St. John Block Party: Music, food and fun from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, July 12 in the 3100 block Ponce de Leon, between North Lopez and Esplanade.
Picnic at Washington Square Park: A parade of French vintage cars, food and music from noon to 4 p.m. on Sunday, July 13, in Washington Square Park in the Faubourg Marigny.
Bartenders and Waiters Race: Bartenders and waiters compete in a speedwalking race down Decatur Street from Washington Artillery Park across from Jackson Square to the French Market at Ursulines, 4 p.m. Sunday, July 13.