More than Just Poutine: Place de la Francophonie (the French Quarter)

French-Canadian culture goes way beyond fries and cheese curds at Place de la Francophonie.

Pop quiz: What’s the official language of the Olympic Games?

Trick question.  There are actually two: English and French.  English is a no-brainer but why, you may be asking, is French spoken at every single event.  Well, it turns out that the father of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, was a Frenchman.

I learned this bit of trivia and a whole lot more today at Place de la Francophonie, the official pavilion of French-speaking Canadians.  Now, some Olympic houses are a sure thing.  Head to Irish House, you’re bound to find a party.  Duck inside House of Switzerland, you’re going to find lots of fondue.  But many of the houses – including some of the favorites of these Games – aren’t so easy to pigeonhole.  You never know exactly what you’ll get, and that’s part of the fun.

Place de la Francophonie is located at the False Creek Community Centre on Granville Island.

Today, on a rainy Tuesday on Granville Island, I struck gold at Place de la Francophonie.  The French-speakers have colonized the False Creek Community Centre, a sprawling complex of classrooms, sports facilities and art studios on the Island. Out back you’ll find the Air Canada stage, a huge outdoor venue that can accommodate 2,500 fans of Francophone music.   The shows, which are all free, don’t start until 6 p.m., so I took the opportunity this afternoon to check out the rest of the house.

Serendipity was on my side.  Tucked away in a side room, I found the temporary headquarters of Espace Musique, a popular French-Canadian radio station (90.9 FM in Vancouver).  They were in the middle of broadcasting a live performance by Anique Granger, a young singer-songwriter from Saskatchewan who was due to take the big Air Canada stage later in the evening.  I navigated the tangles of cables and radio equipment sprawled around the room and took a seat right in front of Anique.  I was sitting close enough to hear her fingernails tapping on the lacquered surface of her steel-string guitar as she worked through a set of haunting, melodic folk and rock.

Saskatchewan artist Anique Granger performs live for a radio program at Place de la Francophonie.

Afterwards, I peeked into the adjoining building at the Francophonie campus, a studio space called Arts Umbrella.  Now, I know art galleries aren’t for everyone, but this one is a little different.   For the duration of the Games,  Saskatchewan artist Sarah Beck will be working on a massive sand painting inside.  Modeled after Tibetan mandalas, the painting is made from millions of grains of colored sand and, when completed, will look like the back of a giant Canadian $5 bill.

Saskatchewan artist Sarah Beck creates a massive sand painting in the Arts Umbrella building.

When I arrived, Sarah was sprawled out on her stomach, painstakingly adding a few grains of purple sand to the evening sky featured on the bill.  She estimated that it should take her about 70 hours to finish the painting, working 10-12 hour days all the way up to Closing Ceremonies.  But here’s the catch: In a statement on the ephemeral nature of life – and of money – she intends to destroy her creation once it is completed.   She’ll dance right over it and mash it back into a mess of sand, an act she says always feels liberating.

I think it’s a lesson Vancouver might well take to heart.  This beautiful Olympic creation – a masterpiece almost a decade in the making – will vanish forever on Sunday night.  Get out there and enjoy it while you can.

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