Each month, about 70 French speakers gather in Aiken to celebrate the language, culture and cuisine of France.
They are members of Alliance Française, which meets the last Tuesday of each month at All Saints Anglican Church in Aiken. Last week, the club danced and listened to French-inspired music by the Fresh Music All-Star Band, dined on wine, cheese and French dishes and held conversations with other members in French.
All meetings are conducted in French, and other monthly gatherings have featured lectures on French history or members’ personal experiences.
Half of the club’s members are from France, while some are from Belgium, Canada and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Others are Americans who speak French well, said Dr. Edouard J. Servy, president of Alliance Française and a local OBGYN.
“There are a lot of people that want to keep up with the old country,” Servy said.
The MOX program at Savannah River Site, organized mainly by French engineers and technicians, has brought in new members, Servy said.
“They’ve really brought new life to the club because they’re all relatively young. They are young couples with young children,” he said.
Charles Combier, honorary president and originally from Lyon, France, said his wife, Madeleine Combier, started the organization in 1967, along with two American women, Josette Nieseman and Sister Marcella Zwingman.
He and his wife moved to the area when he took a job as chief executive for engineering and research at J.B. Martin in Leesville, S.C. The Lyon, France-based textile company, still operating in Leesville, manufactures velvet, he said.
“We’re very proud that we’re still in existence,” Combier said of Alliance Française. “We’re doing extremely well. The inflow of Frenchmen with the Savannah River Site was a big addition. They bring something to the community. They are happy to be among French-speaking people.”
Servy has lived in the Augusta area since 1973.
“When I came here, there were very few French people,” he said.
When he learned about Alliance Française in Aiken, he joined the chapter in 1975. The club is part of an international organization that has chapters in large American cities and across the world to promote French language and culture.
Several local restaurants offer a taste of French cuisine, such as 5 O’Clock Bistro, Frog Hollow Tavern, La Maison on Telfair, Manuel’s Bread Cafe, Calvert’s and Bistro 491, but there’s not much French culture in the area and foreign films haven’t yet caught on in local theaters. Servy would love it if downtown Augusta were modeled after a French downtown, he said.
Gaston Kapuku, originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and now living in Augusta, has been a member of Alliance Française for two years. The national language of the Congo is French.
“This is the greatest day of the month. Every last Tuesday of the month, I rush to come here,” Kapuku said. “When you come back to this kind of gathering, you just feel like you’re back home.”
Kapuku also loves the group because of the friends he has made. The members keep in touch, look after each other and offer support, he said.
“There’s a sense of belonging that is created with this group,” Kapuku said. “When I’m with these people, I don’t have to make any effort. I’m in my natural element.”