Connecting with the Franco-American Experience in Old Orchard Beach

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Summer in Old Orchard Beach is a Maine experience nearly every native has enjoyed, but especially for York County Franco-Americans like my husband who recalls spending many hours of his youth enjoying the beautiful beach, just like any other kid. There's a sense of timeless culture to Old Orchard Beach. It's a town set apart where "déjà vu all over again" is more than a cliché because so little has changed since the 1940s. Sure, the pier is not so long anymore, but the town keeps stretching it out to sea like a rubber band. A town with a spectacular and clean beach spreading out as far as the horizon, an amusement park sitting like a movie set right on the ocean front, plenty of old fashioned arcade entertainment, reasonable prices and a family environment should be a success in any state in the union. Still, Old Orchard Beach, affectionately known as "OOB", holds special memories for York County's Francophones who still find collegial comfort in the town's faithful hospitality to French speaking Maine natives as well as thousands of Canadian tourists. Generations of Francophones have flocked to the coastal town known for displaying "bienvenue" signs in appreciation of Francophone business and showing respect for the culture. By welcoming the French speaking tourists, the town can take credit for nurturing an early example of ethnic diversity in the otherwise homogeneous Maine population. Moreover, OOB can take pride in openly and firmly acknowledging the French presence in Maine. 
 Old Orchard Beach has been a popular summer resort for the Quebecois tourists and their distant French relatives living in adjacent Biddeford as well as other York County towns like Sanford. Local beachside stores and many establishments seek French speaking help. Writer Michael Guignard writes in "La Foi - La Langue - La Culture: The Franco-Americans of Biddeford, Maine’ that the close proximity of Biddeford to the French speaking tourists in OOB has given some younger Francos a reason to retain and brush up on their bi-lingual speaking skills. A major incentive for this language diversity, not surprisingly, was because young Francos are attracted to the Quebecois tourists and many marriages have evolved from these international summer romances, says Guignard. 
 Recently, my husband and I had the enjoyable opportunity to bring our two lovely granddaughters from New Jersey, Amanda, age 12 and Erin, age 7, for a day at Old Orchard Beach. We capped off a perfect beach day just in time to get away from a fast moving cloud burst by collecting hundreds of skeet ball tickets while playing inside the dry beachside arcade. After appropriately picking out prizes earned by their high winning arcade scores, the girls witnessed Pépère negotiating the selection of their souvenir tee-shirt purchase, conducted in naturally spoken French, with the saleslady who was from France. Although the duration of the French language tee-shirt sale was short, it was a moment frozen, like the town itself, in a time capsule. A new generation witnessed the passing of what was once common practice, from grandfather to granddaughters. Franco-Americans should give due credit to the natives of OOB for supporting cultural "la survivance".

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Published on August 16, 2001
Copyright ©, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux