In Georgetown, one Frenchman quietly celebrates Bastille Day


A French flag hangs in the window at Jean Pierre Antiques on Bastille Day in Georgetown. Clinton Yates/The Washington Post

While people were running around Pennsylvania Avenue NW in baguette relay races, Jean-Pierre Sarfati was sitting at his table, paying bills. In his antiques store in Georgetown, catty-corner from Rose Park, the air-conditioning and sounds of WETA-FM’s classical music were all you could hear on France’s national day. The only thing truly French about his display is a small metal Eiffel Tower on a stray roundtable and the French flag hanging in the window.

Although he hasn’t lived in France since the 1960s, he’s still conflicted about what he thinks of place he once called home. Born in Casablanca, Morocco in 1945, his family moved to Algeria soon after, where his father was a farmer. The independence movement then forced the family north, to France.

“Algeria was a bloody independence. So we just ran away, with our clothes on and just slept at the harbor for a couple days,” he said of those days at Mers El Kébir in the Oran province. “We just waited for the ship. Because we were Jewish, we were helped out by the Jewish community. We went to Paris. And from Paris we came to America.”

He was 16 when he landed in this country. First Denver, then New York. That’s where he learned what would eventually become his trade: hair care. “I always wanted to be a hair dresser. I used to go with my mother to the hair salon, so it was fun,” Sarfati, 69 said.

Eventually, that brought him to the District. And his plan to actually put men and women in the same location for hair cuts was not one that many people did, so his salon in Georgetown did well. Nowadays, he sells antiques, hangs out with his 10-year-old son and that’s about it.

But, France’s identity politics are something that he acknowledges has soured him on the country, even though his adult son lived there for decades.

“I have a son who’s 29 years old, and his best friend yesterday [was] at the Bastille, [and] they had a big riot in Paris. He got beaten up, his face disfigured, by Arabs,” Sarfati said matter of factly, referring to the spats of violence that have broken out various parts of the world due to the conflict currently happening in Gaza. “In Paris, the French government is not doing much. They always look on the other side, you know? So my son is emmigrating to Israel. It’s pretty sad. [He] was born in Washington, D.C. He’s lived in France since he was 4 or 5 with his mother. But decided, even with what’s going on with the bombing and all that, they feel more safe in Israel than in France. I asked him to come to America, he’s an American citizen, he said: ‘Nope. I’d rather be in Israel. Israel is my country.’ He’s going to have a tough time.”

“I’m French, because that’s my nationality, but in my heart, I’m Jewish. The French are not doing much. They never did. And that’s a problem,” he added. “So, I fly the French flag to celebrate Bastille Day, but you know, that was the liberation, but where is the liberation?”

***

You wouldn’t necessarily notice his concern at first sight. An affable man who dresses with the casual comfort of a sensible person and still has a esprit de corps of someone well regarded in the community, people like him. They come by his shop and see how he’s doing, and sometimes just to hang out and talk.

On Monday, a man came in asking for Pierre. He was desperate. His aging grandmother was in the hospital, and had some items that she thought she could sell. She only wanted Pierre to see them. Normally, Sarfati gets his goods from Europe and sells them in his shop. On this day, he decided to cut a consignment deal and even offered to visit the house to see the items, as to make planning easier for the lady.

“Sometimes, when people are nice, you try to help them out,” he says.

Later that day, a nearby business friend drops by. A Libyan, they discuss the recent events about  Israel and the Palestinians. “In Casablanca, the rabbi of the local Jewish community got beaten up in public. He was left on the street and nobody helped. They don’t show that stuff here,” Sarfati says. “I’m not blaming anybody anymore. They’re both the same. You hit one guy, the guy’s gonna hit you back. That’s what happens. That’s it.”

His friend agreed.

The conversation eventually shifts to what they think about D.C. these days.

“D.C.’s a great town. I love D.C. We finally have some good ethnic restaurants. Forget the French, I like Lebanese food, Iranian food, good pizza,” Sarfati says, looking over his tortoise shell Warby Parkers. “Everything you want. D.C. has come up quite a bit. I can tell when I go to people home’s to deliver furniture.”

“Thirty years ago, you couldn’t find a fresh baguette. Good bread,” his friend interjected.

“You couldn’t find cheese,” Sarfati adds.

But they both acknowledged that the Georgetown they once knew is a thing of the past. Sarfati’s friend once owned a boutique food store at the end of the block. They know that there is no place for that anymore. The transition to nothing but big companies started at least ten years ago, they say.

“In 1969, we paid $400 a month. Cost us maybe a couple thousand dollars to put some chairs, that was it. Now, you open a restaurant, it’s going to cost you a couple million. The restrictions, the laws and everything, it’s just crazy. A different world now,” Sarfati said.

He was shocked to find out that Cafe La Ruche, a lovely French bistro on 31st Street NW had closed for business just two weeks prior. “I used to go at 3′oclock in the morning and get my pastries there, after the club,” he recalled with a laugh.

***

Monday was a slow day with few customers. Sarfati figured he’d go ride his bike after closing to chase away the afternoon. He thought he might go to Dupont to hear the people celebrate France, but he might not. Without his wife and 10-year-old in town, he said he feels like an orphan.

He still likes living in Georgetown, even with all the change. He’s lived the fast life and the slower life. He once chose to sell his house on Q Street, which had a bathroom featured in Playboy Magazine, because his friends would stop coming over to crash his pool late at night. He sold it to Bob Woodward.

Now, he most enjoys time with his family. After seeing Martin Luther King Jr. march here, the riots decimate blocks and corporate money take over the city, he’s happy in his little corner of the world after such a long journey. He figures that with so many people being displaced all over the globe, his lot isn’t bad.

“On 16th Street in the 60s, all the Jews used to live there. Then they all moved to Potomac,” he said. “The real estate people chased everybody. But I’ll tell you something. In the next block, you have about 3 or 4 old black families that still live there. Which is great.”

And in a neighborhood where the charm and concern of a local shop are increasingly going away, it’s fitting that on 26th and P Streets, Sarfati sells antiques.

 

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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