Oct. 11, 2002 – While chatting at a Frenchtown Bastille Day celebration in July, Odile de Lyrot expressed disappointment that she wasn't hearing more French being spoken at the event, or elsewhere in the Virgin Islands.
De Lyrot, the territory's honorary French consul, is a woman with energy that belies her petite stature. Since Bastille Day, she has founded Friends of the French Culture, an organization in which one can parler francais to one's heart's content, or not.
That's what most of the people were doing Thursday evening at La Petite Fenetre in Frenchtown, where the group met Christophe Bouchard, the French consul general for the Miami region. De Lyrot has chosen La Petite Fenetre — "The Little Window," named after the side window at the late Bar Normandie, long a popular place to collect a beverage and chat for a bit — for the group's weekly meetings. The size is right, for the time being, but the group is rapidly growing.
De Lyrot said about 50 people are involved right now. Bouchard looked over the group, along with the Fenetre regulars, with a big smile, although he was bewildered by the Frenchtown patois, which differs considerably from formal French.
Bouchard traveled to St. Thomas to tour the French naval frigate Ventose, which had been scheduled to arrive Friday at the Crown Bay dock. However, on Wednesday, the French Navy canceled the visit, much to the distress of de Lyrot. "I cannot tell you how disappointed I am, we all are," she said.
She said she received a call from the navy's American-based headquarters in Washington, D.C., saying that a major operational change meant the V.I. visit had to be called off.
"The spirit aboard the Ventose is quite down," de Lyrot said, "but there will be another occasion."
Spirits at the gathering Thursday evening were anything but down, as people conversed in French, English and patois. Attorney Susan Wolterbeek, although not French, said, "This is such a wonderful opportunity to keep up my French — it's about the only opportunity I have."
Also on hand, enjoying some of proprietor Henry Richardson's, conch chowder, was University of the Virgin Islands professor emeritus Gilbert Sprauve. Although he's retired, Sprauve still teaches some French courses at UVI. "I'm developing a new French course embracing all the French-speaking islands, Francophonie en Marche," he said.
Sprauve said he looks forward to bringing some of his students to the Friends of French Culture gatherings, which are usually on Wednesday evenings. "It would be a good experience for them," he said, "but it conflicts with class hours right now."
De Lyrot is eager to create more things with a French accent and to make the islands' French heritage better known. She is actively supporting and soliciting funds for the Frenchtown Museum, now under construction across the street from the Fenetre. Richardson is president of the Frenchtown Civic Organization, which is building the museum.
De Lyrot stressed that one need not be French or able to speak French in order to join the Friends group. For more information, call her at 776-1140, ext, 1009, or 771-5452.
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