Rotary Club of Paris Académies
It’s lunchtime on a Monday at Le Procope, the oldest café in Paris, and an impeccably dressed waiter offers each of the assembled Rotarians a Champagne cocktail. He then presents the prix fixe menu, which features a choice among three starters, three hearty main dishes, and two rich desserts.
A visiting Rotarian from California wonders aloud if lunch will be followed by a nap.
“On mange bien à Paris” (“We eat well in Paris”), says Jocelyne Greco of the Rotary Club of Paris Académies, with a sympathetic smile.
That’s especially true of the members of the Paris Académies club, who eat well each week at one of the city’s most storied establishments.
Le Procope has been a gathering place for Parisian intellectuals since 1686. Voltaire drank coffee here — 40 cups a day by some accounts — as he argued with his friends about literature and politics. His marble-top writing desk has a position of honor in the restaurant’s entryway. George Sand, Victor Hugo, and Oscar Wilde are among the many literary figures who spent time at the café. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin ate here often when they were the U.S. ministers to France; it was also a favorite meeting place of French revolutionaries Maximilien Robespierre and Georges Danton.
The café’s framed portraits and crystal chandeliers give it the feel of an elegant private home. Bookshelves filled with well-worn volumes line one dining room; hand-printed wallpaper dating to 1830 covers the walls of another. The restaurant is also a museum: Display cases house Napoleon’s famous hat and the last letter Marie Antoinette composed before she lost her head.
It’s an appropriately venerable setting for a Rotary club whose 38 members include artists, architects, physicians, professors, the president of the Sorbonne, and a former inspector general of the libraries of France.
“This is more a cultural club, not a business club,” says member André Goezu, an artist who is known for his engravings. “We are intellectuals.”
Paris Académies meetings often begin with a game in which members try to name the originator of a famous quote. Recent agendas have included discussions on Brexit and the French economy, and guest speakers give talks on diplomacy, chemistry, and art.
The club’s annual fundraiser is a classical music concert at the Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris, which houses the collected works of three Polish artists who called the city home: poet Adam Mickiewicz, composer Frédéric Chopin, and painter and sculptor Boleslaw Biegas. Last year’s event, which featured performances by musicians from a well-known Paris conservatory, drew a sellout crowd and raised 3,000 euros.
Several members participate in a “lecture club” where they discuss philanthropy-related books and write summaries for their fellow Rotarians. Each spring, they vote on the best book of the Rotary year.
For their latest club project, Paris Académies members helped with the restoration of paintings and drawings at the Musée Jean Moulin, a museum dedicated to the artist who was one of the leaders of the French Resistance during World War II.
This is more a cultural club, not a business club. We are intellectuals.
club member and artist
If any of that sounds intimidating, it shouldn’t. The Paris Académies brand of intellectualism is the inclusive sort, and club members welcome guests and are committed to using their talents to spread goodwill.
Some of their activities will sound familiar to many Rotarians: They give to The Rotary Foundation; they hold an annual drive for a local food bank; they host international students — most recently, from Japan and Canada; and they’ve formed partnerships with clubs in Belgium, Germany, and the United States. Visiting Rotarians will also recognize the sense of fellowship at meetings.
“This society where we are together, this is very important for me,” says Goezu, whose language skills help visitors feel at home. The Belgian native speaks English, Flemish, French, German, and Latin. (“In Belgium, every student learns four languages,” he notes modestly.)
It’s typical for two or three Rotarians from other countries to attend each club meeting, Goezu says. The location is certainly a draw: Le Procope is in the historic Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris’ 6th arrondissement. This is the Paris of our collective imagination: sidewalk cafés, boulangeries, chic boutiques and galleries, tree-lined boulevards. It’s the birthplace of café culture and bohemian intellectualism, and it’s a worthy destination for any traveler who wants to explore Paris beyond its most famous monuments.
After a multicourse lunch at Le Procope, a walk around the neighborhood will sound like a particularly good idea. A short stroll north takes you to the Seine and the Notre-Dame Cathedral. To the south, you can empty your wallet at the shops on Boulevard Saint-Germain or wander among the flowers, trees, and statues of the Luxembourg Gardens.
Afterward, you may find yourself circling back to Le Procope for some coffee and contemplation. As Voltaire once wrote (possibly at this very café): “God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.”
— Kim Lisagor
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