La Vie En Rose is playing softly as I sit comfortably at a round café table surrounded by French bohemian décor at Chez Lulu. The croissant is flaky and buttery, a perfect model for everything a croissant should be. The wait staff don the black and white striped long sleeve shirts Coco Chanel popularized after observing their aesthetic flair on French sailors and fisherman at the turn of the 20th century. I sit back, take a small sip of my drink, and allow my senses to become immersed in the soulful vocals of Edith Piaf. This is my refuge, my Paris- in Birmingham, Alabama.
Physically I have yet to travel to the actual Paris in France but for almost forty years I have traveled there frequently in my imagination. Melancholy daydreams find me endlessly wandering the Parisian streets, taking in the scene of quaint cafes and charming boutiques. What is a Francophile to do with champagne taste on a water budget? Daydream. Birmingham, Alabama, in the heart of the Southern Bible belt, holds its own mix of French treasures.
Chez Lulu is a bohemian French Café and bakery reminiscent of Hemingway’s Paris in the 1920’s with its velvet cushions, original antique oil paintings, and a song selection ranging from Edith Piaf to French new wave. The owner annually hosts many exciting events including “Bastille Day” with live music, a “’peasant” garlic menu, historic costumes, and a parade around the block which ends with a theatrical storming of a faux castle. Even Marie Antoinette makes a grand appearance, though no more popular than she was in 1791.
For a more formal dining experience, Birmingham’s Chez Fonfon delivers an authentic French cuisine. The menu is written in French though there is English fine print in the descriptions to help us Southerners who are rusty on our French vocabulary. It is owned by renowned chef, Frank Stitt.
Once I have my culinary needs taken care of, I love to venture to the many exquisite French antique stores in the area. From French country to more regal Louis XV antiques, there is always a treasure to discover. Many of these French antique treasures decorate my own home as I play my vintage French records and watch “A Bout de Souffle” yet again.
With a splash of Chanel Number Five on my wrist, faux Chanel earrings to dote (a highly kept secret until now), I have created my own Paris in the heart of Dixie. One day I will find myself exploring the actual city of Paris and I know it will be everything my heart has anticipated it to be. Though, I have to wonder, will my Paris in Birmingham still reign first in my heart?
WRITTEN BY SUSAN PRUITT. Susan is a researcher at UAB, Department of Pathology. She is also a painter, writer, and forever Francophile at heart. She resides in Birmingham Alabama.