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Chasing Away the Bleus

A Bastille Day celebration in Long Beach cheers homesick French ex-pats


Imagine celebrating the Fourth of July in a foreign country--France, say. You attend a party thrown by the American Chamber of Commerce for expatriates. It's not quite like back home. The hamburgers look lonely in a vast expanse of bun devoid of ketchup and mustard. The beer is of European extraction--no Bud Lite or Rolling Rock in sight. And the music that fills the air during the fireworks display is not "The Star-Spangled Banner" but "La Marseillaise."

Would you stomp away in a huff, deriding the experience as inauthentic and vowing never to return? Likely not. For the homesick ex-pat, any reminder of home is usually a welcome one, as the natives of France who celebrated Bastille Day on Saturday night in front of the Queen Mary in Long Beach tended to agree.

"It's nice to hear French music, hear the French language, see French kids running around," said Philippe Tilikete, who left his native Paris six years ago for a job in Los Angeles' animation industry. "On any holiday, it's hard being away from home."

Jerome Gregeois, another Frenchman, said that while there were differences between the Long Beach celebration and the one at home, the main ingredients--food, music and fireworks--were there. Party-goers elbowed their way through the crowds carrying golden slabs of quiche, banquettes filled with ham, cheese or sausage and pissaladiere (an anchovy tart). The edibles were "not the best French food I've ever had," Gregeois said, but, he added, the street cuisine in France rarely soars to great gastronomic heights.

Bastille Eve and Day in France center around community and champagne. "You go out with friends, have a good meal at lunch, go out into the streets ... and finish in a bar," said Valerie Sornette, who moved to Los Angeles from France three months ago.

The day commemorates the storming of a state prison by an angry crowd on July 14, 1789, and it symbolizes the overthrow of the gilded reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette and the beginning of the French Republic.

The Long Beach celebration, organized by the French American Chamber of Commerce, took place in a parking lot rather than in a picturesque town square, but it achieved the bustle of a proper street fair as the evening wore on. Chanteuses belted out French standards with the intensity of Edith Piaf, while Norm Panto, in a blue beret, weaved through the crowds playing his accordion.

Only California wines were served--not a French one to be sipped--but the crowd managed to get plenty happy anyway. Many had no ties to France but came to party under the Queen Mary's giant orange smokestacks. Two Frenchmen in the crowd weren't fazed by the incongruous event, where even the fireworks boomed to the "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" before edging into a contemporary French reggae beat. Said Bruno Clement, the owner of a garment business who came to the U.S. from France eight years ago, "We have to accept that in L.A. we're a mix of both cultures."

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