Francophile New Haveners Have Their Day

Allan Appel PhotoThe cheese oozing out from that classic French pastry, those savory gougeres, was warm and plentiful. Tricolor flags flew from an 18-inch replica of the Eiffel Tower that towered over a fish bowl where people dropped their business cards. And “La Marseillaise” was on the people’s lips, along with traces of the fromage.

That was the tasty and networking way that two dozen New Haven Francophiles marked July 14, Bastille Day, at New Haven’s only and still best French brasserie, Union League Cafe.

The celebration was organized by New Haven Sister Cities, Inc., its president, Shaundolyn Slaughter, and in particular, its Avignon committee headed by Kathleen Bidney-Singewald.

The citizen diplomacy at the heart of NHSC is expressed in partnership between the Elm City and seven other cities and began with cultural exchanges. The first was in 1976 with the Italian city of Amalfi, the home town of many in the first wave of Italian immigrants to New Haven. Last winter NHSC helped spearhead a fundraising campaign to purchase ambulance vans for sister city Freetown, in Sierra Leone, when the Ebola epidemic was ravaging that country.

Tuesday night’s event was relaxed and celebrating a reinvigoration of the the one-on-one contacts at the center of NHSC’s work. Many of the cultural and especially student exchanges were suspended after September 11, said Slaughter. But Mayor Toni Harp recently wrote letters to her counterparts in the sister cities. On June 25 Mayor Cecile Helle of Avignon wrote the mayor back, and this September Bidney-Singewald said she is Avignon-bound to meet with the contact persons Helle suggested to see what the next steps might be. They may include a visit by performing groups who appear at Avignon’s annual Avignon Off festival at next year’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

This is the fifth year that NHSC has convened a Bastille Day gathering to get the word out about the all-volunteer efforts that Slaughter said she would over time like to see expand beyond student and cultural exchanges. Perhaps capitalizing on the successful Freetown ambulance campaign, Slaughter said that she has “a vision that people are recognizing us as a serious player,” making economic and other contributions.

Among the Francophiles the event attracted were Tracey Peters and Clay Howe (pictured) who participate in the Alliance Francaise de New Haven, a peripatetic group of folks who love to get together to parlez vous.

Peters spent her junior year in college as a student living with a French family in Avignon. She fell in love with the language and culture, but life interrupted her pursuit of all that.

Now, with her kids leaving for their own college experiences and after a career in insurance and in information technology, Peters said she is reviving her French and hopes to return to France as soon as time and budget permit.

Which cities will she be visiting? Peters wasn’t sure about the full itinerary, but she said Avignon will definitely be on the list.

The evening ended with Union League’s fine chef Jean Pierre Vuillermet leading the crowd in a rousing “La Marseillais.”

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