Vive La France! French Culture in Princeton
Photo Courtesy of Terra Momo Restaurant Group
by Linda Arntzenius
From a simple croque monsieur at Terra Libri cafe in the Princeton Public Library to sophisticated French theater performances by L’Avant Scene, Princeton’s French Theater Workshop, French culture has put down deep roots in Princeton. Besides periodic visitors from its sister city of Colmar in Alsace, the town has a significant number of French transplants, many from Paris.
On November 13, 2015, that community was rocked by terrorist shootings in Paris.
Parisian native André Benhaïm, who joined the Princeton University faculty in 2001, was traveling when the news broke: “In a somber coincidence of sorts, like on September 11, 2001, I was on the road, driving with my sons down to Virginia. All kinds of text messages started to come in, and I pulled over at a rest stop. This is where my children and I saw it on TV. Noah, who’s 9, asked immediately if my mother, who lives in Paris, was okay. Gabriel, who’s 14, was shocked by the number of victims, which, at the time (in the first hours of the events), was not nearly as high as it was going to be.”
Listening to French radio reports, Benhaïm drove south into the night, his teenage son asking: “Why France? Why France, again?” The family had also followed, live, the terrorist attacks in January, 2015, against Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. Benhaïm quickly found himself moving from shock to anger as he discovered that the November attacks had happened in “the heart of the Paris populaire,” in the ‘gently’ gentrified but still ordinary, socially and racially mixed neighborhoods he knows so well. Having grown up in the 19th arrondissement in a blue-collar area just north of the attacks on Le Petit Cambodge and Le Carillon restaurants, Benhaïm felt as if his own childhood had been attacked. The terrorists had hit close to home.
As soon as he could, Benhaïm called relatives and friends. Fortunately no one he knew had been directly involved but, as is the case for many in Princeton’s French community, he felt connected to the victims and survivors. “My cousin, for instance, has a very good friend who narrowly escaped the massacre in Le Bataclan, and I have close friends who live just down the street and go out in the neighborhood on the weekend.”
Also from Paris and familiar with the Bataclan area, Sophie Bailly, who came to Princeton in 2011, heard about the attacks when she picked up her sixteen year-old son, Clement, from Princeton High School. He was listening to the news feeds coming out of France. Bailly’s sister, Laurence, lives in the area near the shootings. Sirens blared in the background as they spoke on the telephone. “My first impression was of total confusion,” says Bailly. “I didn’t panic at first because we had no idea how bad it was going to be. It happened late at night over there and it was very scary—for three days non-stop I was glued to my computer screen and to my radio.”
A former communications manager in France, Bailly has turned her passion for flea markets and French traditional upholstery into her own Princeton area business. In 2013, she co-founded Oh La La!, an informal group of designers and arts/crafts professionals which has moved from sales in a private home studio to annual sales open to the public. Their November sale was a little over a week away when the attacks took place. Would they continue with the sale?
“After seeing how the people of Paris handled the terrible events—maintaining their calm with resilience, dignity and compassion—we decided to go ahead. The Parisians continued to go out, to go to restaurants, to movies, so we wanted to show solidarity. The response from the public was overwhelmingly supportive. The honorary consul led us all a minute of silence and many Americans shared their experiences of 9/11. France is well loved here and we felt that,” says Bailly.
“Almost everyone has a story to tell about a family member, friend or acquaintance connected to the November 13 shootings,” says fellow Oh La La! member Anne-Renée Rice-Soumeillant who came to the Princeton area in 1998 with her husband who works in the pharmaceutical industry. Her brother-in-law manages La Pirouette restaurant in Paris. “His employees were in panic and terror because of the restaurant shootings; many of them didn’t want to leave to travel home and of course, next day, they didn’t want to come to work. Like many businesses, the restaurant remained closed the next day.”
Photo by Jeffrey E. Tryon
American by birth, Rice-Soumeillant is French by choice having caught the French culture bug early on and moved to Paris where she trained as a chef at the L’ecole Superiore de la Cuisine Francaise-Ferrandi. She slips easily between French and English and runs her own boutique catering company offering full service catering in Princeton area homes and businesses. She also tempts gourmands with fait maison savory French fare at Oh La La! events.
Like members of Oh La La!, students at Princeton’s French Theater Workshop, L’Avant-Scène, organized by Florent Masse at Princeton University, were profoundly affected by the terrorist attacks. With performances of classical and modern scenes from Molière, Racine, Marivaux, Feydeau, Beaumarchais, Beckett, and Musset, the workshop serves as a focal point for the Francophone community. Feeling the need to gather, the students organized an evening celebration at the Princeton University Art Museum in early December. “To come together in a celebration of French theater, arts and culture, which we felt, were more than ever needed, meant a lot to us,” says Masse.
At Princeton University, Professor Sophie Meunier of the Woodrow Wilson School organized a roundtable that included member of the departments of Near Eastern studies, history, sociology, as well as Benhaïm and the French journalist Philippe Lançon, who suffered serious wounds in the Charle Hebdo attack. According to Benhaïm, the discussion was sometimes heated as to whether the French state might be partially at fault because of policies regarding the integration of Islam into its secular society.
Benhaïm teaches a seminar on the concept of hospitality in literature, culture, philosophy, and politics from Homer to contemporary France. His students, many of whom but not all are French, discuss issues of colonization, immigration, the refugee crisis, the welcoming of the stranger at large. Their reactions were rather homogeneous, he says: “a refusal to excuse, or even to explain, if explaining means to ‘understand,’ if ‘understand’ supposes any kind of legitimacy for these acts.”
“I think the reaction of the French people was complex, and quite different from what was seen in January,” says Benhaïm. “In November, in part, because of the state of emergency, there were no large demonstrations. But people still took to the streets, paid all sorts of tributes to the victims, and made defiant statements towards the attackers and their supporters. The French flag was publicly displayed in many, sometimes very creative, ways like never before some would say.”
Chrystèle Baden was comforted by seeing the colors of the French flag. “I was moved and a little amazed by the outpouring of solidarity and support Paris received,” she says. “Here [in the United States] people display the flag easily as a matter of pride but that is not the case in France.” Baden’s cousin, Zenaide, was at work in a pharmacy when the shootings occurred. “She hid behind the counter and was relieved that there was no one in the pharmacy to attract the attention of the shooters. She was traumatized and like many others took time off from work.”
Catherine Arnoux, president of L’Association Francophone de Princeton (ASFP), who has lived in Princeton since 1998 and served as ASFP President for the last five years, immediately thought of her niece Julie who lives in Paris. “We were touched when our American friends and neighbors called us immediately, asking if we needed any help.”
Photo Courtesy of Oh La La!
Resources for the Francophone Community
According to Anne de Broca-Hoppenot, Honorary Consul of France in Princeton, the French community in the area numbers around 5,000, almost half of the number in New Jersey as a whole.
Many are drawn here by the pharmaceutical industry, a world class university, and by the French American School of Princeton.
L’Association Francophone de Princeton, a community of people in the greater Princeton area with a passion for French language and culture, provides opportunities for both adults and children to learn or improve French through classes and conversation groups, occasional lectures and social and cultural events. The organization is open to all French speakers and its 100 member families represent some 15 nationalities.
It’s not hard to see why Princeton is a prime destination. “Princeton is seen as a great place to live and to raise a family,” says Hoppenot, who came to the United States 25 years ago and to Princeton about 15 years ago. She teaches French in the upper school at Stuart Country Day School. “Princeton looks a little like a small French town and a lot of small businesses have been set up by young French entrepreneurs.”
As Honorary Consul, Hoppenot is the representative of France in New Jersey and serves as a link between the embassy in Washington and the consul in New York, helping French citizens, visitors and businesses with election proxies, visas and such from her home office.
“Princeton provides a good transition into American culture,” agrees Arnoux. “You can walk everywhere and as a university town there is a lot of French culture and it’s situated halfway between New York City and Philadelphia.”
As ASFP president, Arnoux helps French-speaking newcomers settle into and discover the best that Princeton and America has to offer. “The French are known for being highly critical and some spouses who have given up their jobs to come here for their partner’s career may not be happy to have left their home, they may be homesick or, if they come from Paris, they may feel lost in a small town. But in a few months they begin to find their feet. We don’t try to replicate France or to cocoon people in French culture but to help them make a new home here.”
“When you move abroad,” says Bailly, “the immediate focus is on the language difference, but much more is involved in learning to navigate a new culture; finding out what makes people tick, can be an everyday challenge.”
“One of the goals of Oh La La! is to share the French aesthetic appreciation for quality over quantity and to make that accessible in the Princeton area,” says Rice-Soumeillant. Bailly illustrates this difference every time a buyer of the fine French linens she imports and sells at the Princeton Farmers Market exclaims that they are too nice to use everyday. “That is precisely the point,” she says. “Use and enjoy beautiful things everyday in celebration of life, I tell them; I use them every day. Life is short. Please use and enjoy.”
The ASFP was a resource for Chrystèle Baden when she came to Princeton with her late husband and children Laure (now 9) and Lucas (now 6). The children attend the French American School and Baden now thinks of Princeton as her home. She is now ASFP vice president of the organization and will take over from Arnoux in June.
“There is always someone speaking French or some other language on Nassau Street or in the local cafés and many of the restaurants are influenced by Mediterranean style cooking that favors olive oil and fresh vegetables. And then there is the local market for fresh farm produce. Not only that there is the best bread at Terra Momo and good croissants made by the Le Petit Chef on Tulane Street, but you have to get there early for those.”
Photo by Jeffrey E. Tryon
“Le Petit Chef does pastries like you would find in France,” adds Arnoux. “And of course you can get a selection of French cheeses at Bon Appétit, McCaffreys and Wegmans. Who wouldn’t enjoy living in Princeton?”
Now a realtor, Baden joined Callaway Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty as a sales associate last September. At first it was a struggle to find her place in Princeton, she says, after leaving a high level job in Paris with the French railway system, SNCF. With a background in physics and engineering, her job was to advise architects and contractors expanding the Metro system in the cramped city, building more platforms and tracks on top of existing lines: no mean feat, especially as the work has to be done while trains continue to run.
As copies of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (Paris est une fête) fly off book shelves in Paris, members of Princeton’s French community continue to ponder the shootings. Asked if they are worried about their country, Baden and Arnoux respond with true Gallic calm. “No, not especially,” says Baden. “We were in shock, we didn’t see it coming, we were not prepared enough. France is traditionally a very open society accepting of others and we are not scared to go back to Paris to visit our relatives and friends.”
“You can’t change your life because of what happened, it can happen anywhere at any time but you cannot live in fear,” adds Arnoux.
In the spirit of liberté, equalité and fraternité, Arnoux points out that a senseless shooting is deplorable whether it takes place in Paris or in Baghdad.