date published: July 4, 2005

  Ask most people what they know about Boston’s ethnic cultures and they’re likely to answer with something about green beer and shamrocks, or a laundry list of the best places in the North End to get cannoli and really good spaghetti Bolognese. But there are other ethnicities that have a significant presence in Boston—if you only know where to look. As Francophiles the world over prepare to celebrate major French festivities such as Bastille Day and the Tour de France, Panorama decided to explore French culture in Boston and find out how, if only for a little while, visitors can pretend the Charles is the Seine.  

Anyone seeking French culture in Boston would be advised to start the search at the French Library and Cultural Center (53 Marlborough St., 617-912-0400). If someone within the city limits is baking a baguette or paying musical tribute to Edith Piaf, it’s the French Library’s raison d’etre to know about it and share the info with the community.

The library itself is a tremendous resource for lovers of all things French. Incorporated in 1945, and lovingly nurtured by expatriate General Georges Doriot and his American wife Edna throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the library houses 25,000 books—the largest private collection of French literature in the U.S. It also offers French language classes for adults and children, cooking seminars, lectures by visiting French dignitaries, and, for some, a haven to connect or reconnect with French heritage.

For one day a year, the library throws one heck of a fete in celebration of Bastille Day, with the streets surrounding the building closed off for an old-fashioned block party with food and entertainment. This month’s celebration on July 15 is the first in two years for the French Library at its home base, which executive director Elaine Uzan Leary hopes is a sign that the anti-French sentiment that proliferated after France failed to back the U.S. military action in Iraq has dissipated. “It had an impact,” she confesses. “The people who come here regularly kept coming, but we didn’t have [the street party] because we could not get the corporate support.”


Some of Boston’s most famous names and landmarks are intimately connected with France. Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere originally had the family name Revoire, like his Huguenot descendants. And Faneuil Hall—one of Boston’s most significant historical buildings—is named for French descendant Peter Faneuil, who built it and donated it to the city in 1742.

At King’s Chapel, a column near the entrance was erected in 1917 as a memorial to Cavalier Saint-Sauveur, a French lieutenant who died while supporting the U.S. in the American Revolution. And Louis-Philippe d’Orleans, while in exile during the French Revolution in 1796, lived for several months above the Union Oyster House before claiming the French throne in 1830.

Celebrate French independence with food, music and more around town by Marketa Hulpachova

It was July 14, 1789, when an outraged mob stormed the “impenetrable” walls of the Bastille, an infamous Parisian prison, sparking the French Revolution. Nowadays, the French celebrate Bastille Day much as we do Independence Day, with a profusion of parades, parties and fireworks On July 15, you can partake in the revelry at the French Library and Cultural Center’s Bastille Day Street Party. Held outdoors on the rues of the Back Bay, between Berkley and Clarendon streets, this summer festival evokes the rebellious spirit of the 18th century Parisian citizenry (without the angry mob, that is). You’ll have a chance to savor a la carte eats from local bistros, drink wine, sing the “Marseillaise” and rumba to the Creole beats of Emeline Michel (pictured left), Papa Wemba (pictured below) and Daby Toure. Too revolutionary? You can also raise a glass to liberté, egalité, fraternité in the quieter ambience of Sandrine’s (8 Holyoke St., Cambridge, 617-497-5300) on July 16 & 17, (Saturday from 4–10 p.m.; Sunday from 2–10 p.m), where you can enjoy an outdoor menu and listen to a live French band.

Though thousands of miles away from Montmartre, Boston-area galleries and museums abound in works by prominent French artists. Explore the treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts, where you can view pieces by Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir, to name a few. Or drop by the Fogg Art Museum to visit the Art in France exhibit, which showcases works by Matisse, Cezanne, and Leger, as well as the not-to-be missed portrait of Madame de Pompadour painted by Bouchard during the 18th century. Galerie d’Orsay (33 Newbury St., 617-266-8001) may be considerably smaller than its Paris inspiration, but it features masterworks by Pissarro and Chagall. If your idea of art has an engine and four wheels, ogle French relics at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum’s L’Automobile exhibit. Refer to listings in Museums.

The Back Bay, Boston’s shopping mecca, looks nothing like the illustrious Champs-Elysees, but don’t be surprised to find many of the same trendy French boutiques. Garb yourself in luxury at Agnes B (172 Newbury St.), Chanel (5 Newbury St.), Hermes (338 Boylston St.) or Dior (100 Huntington Ave.). Then, accessorize at Louis Vuitton (100 Huntington Ave. and Copley Place), Cartier (40 Newbury St.) and Longchamp (139 Newbury St.). Or indulge your olfactory senses with the collection of perfumes and scented candles at Diptyque (123 Newbury St.).

The French take pride in their films for a good reason—after Hollywood and India’s “Bollywood,” no country’s movies reach as wide an audience and garner as much international attention from critics. In Boston, independent movie houses like Kendall Square Cinema (One Kendall Square, Cambridge), Harvard Film Archive, the Brattle Theatre and the Coolidge Corner Theatre frequently show new and classic French flicks. And from July 7–24 the Museum of Fine Arts hosts its 10th annual French Film Festival, which includes a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the film Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise).

Boston is known as a great sports town, and while a bike race across the pond isn’t likely to rival the Red Sox for the region’s affections, French restaurant Brasserie Jo (refer to listing, page 65) is taking advantage of interest in all things Lance Armstrong by showing the Tour de France on television. From July 2–24, the restaurant also offers daily special spotlighting dishes from the provinces through which the race passes. Just a few miles south, the Jeanie Johnston Pub (144 South St., Jamaica Plain, 617-983-9432) also offers the race on the tube daily.

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