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By the Pacific, French Village Life

Bit by bit, expatriates in L.A. are duplicating comforts of home in Venice.

July 13, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong King--King Louis XVI was the monarch when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. A story in Southern California Living on Friday incorrectly stated that it was Louis XIV.

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 .

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