Ohh La la, ooh La Paz!
04 Nov, 2012 | Rose Acton and Laetitia Grevers
From Joie de Vivre to Suma Qamaña
Sopocachi, with its charming cafes and bohemian feel, is commonly thought of as the pseudo-French district of La Paz. The French influence is instantly recognisable with restaurants such as ‘La Comedie’ and ‘La Guingette’ and the modern Alliance Francaise. The old-style French houses reflect a longstanding Gallic influence; even the Paraguayan Embassy is located in a building designed by Gustave Eiffel, the creator of the famous French landmark. In the past, during Eiffel’s time, Sopocachi was very much an elite and predominantly white area. Today, however, its bustling diversity tells a different story, with Sopocachi Market and traditional Andean street stalls alongside upmarket restaurants.
Photo: Michael Dunn
Today many French people still fall for the charm of Sopocachi, the owner of La Comedie Bernard Arduca set up his restaurant in 2003 and has never looked back since. La Comedie is one of the finest restaurants in La Paz with its sophisticated French inspired interior design contained within an unusual ship-shaped building, and of course with gourmet food. Bernard described his food as having the ‘french touch,’ a popular dish being llama and béarnaise sauce; a fusion of Bolivian and French culinary traditions. On the 4th July, Bastille Day the French independence day, he holds a grande fete in his restaurant thus maintaining the French feel.
Bernard tells me of the existence of a large French community, many of whom work as teachers, ambassadors, or are employed within the tourist industry and the research and development centre. Interestingly, he states that there is little solidarity amongst the French in Bolivia and that, for the most part, it is French people who own businesses who work together for mutual gains. Bernard feels integrated within the Bolivian community, telling me that around half of his friends are Bolivian. Likewise, Jules, a young Frenchman who has lived in Sopocachi for 2 years describes how he avoids to practicing French culture because he wants to integrate - estimating that 15% of his friends here are French. It is clear that the French community in La Paz is not one solid entity.
Both Jules and Bernard plan to stay in Bolivia long-term; this is not an extended holiday. Bernard does not want to return to France: his life, business and friends are here in La Paz. He also states that it is easier to live well in La Paz compared to France, it is easier to build up a new business whereas in France there are many businesses already established, and with the current economic crisis it is only becoming harder.
Jules has decided to stay put for now because he is enjoying the Bolivia and the ‘South American lifestyle’. He tells me it is a life full of adventure which avoids get- ting into a routine. The Bolivian mentality is to live the moment intensively, unlike the western mentality where the present is often reduced to a means for the future. A routine which will lead us to a new routine. Jules believes that there is little solidarity between the people in Western societies, in Bolivia people share and help without asking for a favor in return.
Many young French people come here for a while to leave their normal routine to travel, Jules was one of them. At first he only wanted to work temporarily in the French tourist office Terra Andina which organizes tours for French people. Interestingly, during the last 10 years one can observe a large increase in the number of French travellers who come to Bolivia and South America in general. There are two types of travellers: the old wealthy people who participate in luxurious adventure holidays and the young backpackers - who mostly work while they travel either as a teacher, in the IRD or as a volunteer. Some of them decide to stay for longer or forever like Jules this spontaneity forms a sharp contrast to people who migrate to places after long and careful planning.
Jules does not like to return to France for longer than 3 weeks, otherwise he finds himself frustrated. France means back to a routine life - it is the people who change him again, back to his old mindset. He does not want to be like that anymore. This is why he wants to stay in South America forever.
Jules’ and Bernard’s behavior reflects the state of mind of the majority of the French immigrants in La Paz and Bolivia. They act very differently to the typical French immigrants abroad who tend to stick together. The Parisians in London have their own community - South Kensington is known as little Paris with French bookshops, patisseries and cafes alongside the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle and the French Embassy.The same can be said for French people in German cities such as Munich. The French mothers in Munich rotate form a mircrocosm limited to Sendling - the district where the French school is located. They do not make little attempt to integrate or to learn German. They want to preserve their frenchness at all cost. French people in South America should thus be taken as an example for all French people in foreign countries to start integrating and adapting to a society and a culture. The spontaneity behind their decision may well affect the way in which they integrate, they see it as more necessary to embrace the culture that has lured them to stay. Sopocachi, indeed Bolivia, certainly has an enticing charm.