Friday, March 2, 2012

A Fresh French Institute

Café reopens in time for spring semester

By Marie-Josée Ryan

Conveniently located at Štěpánská 35, the French Institute in Prague can be recognized easily by the French flag waving welcome above the front door. There are as many, if not more, foreigners than French people visiting the Institute and taking advantage of the renovated café with a new and expanded menu, or using the new automated library checkout counter, or enjoying a film in the revamped cinema. 

Indeed, this institution stands as a fortress which has survived its share of storms. It was founded in 1886 as the Alliance Française, at the same address where it stands today. The name was changed to the French Institute in 1920. In 1951, it was forced to close its doors because it was accused of being an espionage center.  

In 1993, the Institute was celebrated by the late Václav Havel and François Mitterand (former French President), once and for all, as a milieu where people can think freely. As Frederic Boudineau, the current director of La Médiathèque, the library and media center, explains: “[After the 1951 closing] the library reopened in 1967, during the short period of softening that ended with the Soviet invasion of August 1968. The library stayed open during the ’70s and ’80s, but under constant pressure and surveillance by the communist authorities.”

Today, visitors to the French Institute can enjoy typical French meals at Café 35, international film screenings at Kino 35, its enormous library (Médiathèque), contemporary art at Galerie 35 exhibitions and French language classes. When asked about the café, Boudineau says, “It is very similar to a comparable place in Paris where people take their lunch in a very short time. I especially like the pies, called ʻquiches’ in French.”

A closer look at what’s new at the French Institute:

Café 35
Café 35, located next to La Médiathèque
The café opened after reconstruction in late January, and now offers a greater variety of dishes, from French escargots to quiche Lorraine. The prices range from 25 Kč for a croissant to 280 Kč for special dishes which regularly change, according to the season’s fresh products. With an adjoining terrace open during the summer, Café 35 becomes a rendezvous to discuss current events, arts and culture, or to simply enjoy a good French meal. Future plans for the café include musical performances, according to Boudineau. “We need time to test many things, especially the acoustics,” he says. “Two theater plays were given in January at the café, including a reading from Václav Havel. Modifications have to be made. For the moment, most of the events take place in the Kino instead.”

Kino 35 Cinema
Fully renovated in spring 2010, the cinema has the capacity to seat 200 viewers. Indeed, in 2011, Kino 35 welcomed a total of 14,000 visitors. There are films on the schedule almost every day, rotated for a total of 11 different films every two months. The majority are French films with Czech subtitles only. But there are other international screenings shown in the original language, which foreigners can be on the lookout for. Kino 35 will also be one of the venues in the upcoming Jeden svět (One World) festival, with screenings March 7-15 as often as twice a day, the vast majority in English, including The Redemption of General Butt Naked by USA filmmakers Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasion. (For a current schedule of what’s screening, check http://www.ifp.cz/Programove-rady)

New automated checkout service
Children's corner at La Médiathèque
“In the entry hall, with your library card, you can borrow any book displayed at any time during the day,” says Boudineau. Along with French books, La Médiathèque offers DVDs (some with English subtitles), French music and audiobooks for a small annual fee of approximately 300 Kč for students. According to Boudineau, about 4,000 people currently take advantage of the French Institute lending program, 75% of whom are Czechs. “Some don’t speak or read French at all, but use their cards to borrow DVDs with subtitles,” he says. “We also have an event called Story Time, which is for young children between 4 and 8 years old. There are 15 to 20 kids each time, and the vast majority of them know both languages, as they are often from a mixed couple (Franco-Czech). There is no special program, just the regular basis of a story every two weeks, on Wednesdays at 4 p.m.”

La Galerie
Currently at La Galerie until March 31, you can visit the exhibition La Maison by innovative fashion photographer Koto Bolofo.  Having published in such prestigious periodicals as Vogue and Esquire, Bofolo came to Monde d'Hermes (a French high-fashion house established in 1837), and took intimate pictures while exploring its people and products.

French Classes
Weekly language classes ranging from beginner to advanced levels are offered, as well as cultural classes on the regions of France. Intensive classes, where it is possible for students to become fluent, are offered during the summer.

Upcoming Cultural Gathering
“The middle of March is always a busy time because of Francophone week,” Boudineau says. “There will be expositions, movies and conferences from every French-speaking country in the world, from Canada to Moldava, which will propose an exposition in the library.”

The Institute’s website www.ifp.cz offers information in Czech and French only. Their Facebook Page, Institut français de Prague, has many English-speaking members whom you can communicate with if you have questions.

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