London is full of surprises; remnants of villages that have been half-devoured by developments, slivers of past eras wedged between modern high-rises; patches of nature, by-passed by roads jammed with speeding traffic and little pieces of other countries, foreign footholds on British soil, like Soho’s China town, Brick Lane’s little Bangldesh and of course, that slice of the wide brown land, Earl’s Kangaroo Court.
Quite recently, much to my surprise and thanks to a charming Francophile Londoner and her expatriate partner, I discovered, down in South Kensington, a quaint little outpost of France, where the flavour of the neighbourhood is distinctly French and where “Ca Va?” has supplanted “All right?”. It begins in the block just opposite the Natural History Museum, on Brompton Road, where the Tricolor flies and a queue of permit seekers straggles along the pavement outside the French Consulate General. Next door is the Lycee Francais Charles de Gaulle, the French Senior High School, where kids in sneakers and jeans hang out on the steps in a way that strikes a bold contrast with their uniformed English brothers and sisters. Behind it is L’Institut Francais which runs French Language classes for Anglophones, as well as courses for Francophones. Its café is meeting place and above all, a place to speak French. Its library is fantastic, lending not just books but also videos DVDs and CDs. The London French Cinema is also located here.
Behind it is the Primary School, where “Mamans Francaises” gossip in the playground while waiting for their “petits” to finish for the day. Round the corner is the Children’s library, its windows bedecked with stories of Christmas in France.
Over the road is La Cave au Fromage which offers a million wonderful French cheeses in a display that is a work of art.
Along the road is a Boulangerie/Patisserie with all the baguettes, the ficelles, the petits pains, the pains de campagne, the croissants and the tartes that Mamy used to buy from the Boulanger in the village.
Then there are the cafes, the bars and the restaurants….
So, if you’re suffering un peu de mal du pays, if you’re longing for a little je ne sais quoi francais, want to lose yourself in un film francais, or even have a yen to parler un mot de francais, head down to South Kensington, that little patch of London which is always L’Hexagone.