By Maria Saporta
How sweet it is. Comme c’est bon.
It was a celebration on so many levels.
This is the first time in the United States (if not the world) that the French and German cultural organizations have come together under one roof — showing a spirit of cooperation between two countries that often have been at odds for several centuries.
One of the most uplifting moments of tonight’s celebration was when the French and German flags were raised on two of the flagpoles in front of Colony Square on Peachtree Street.
As the flags began blowing in the wind, musicians played “La Marseillaise” — the French national anthem, and “das Deutschlandlied” — the German national anthem.
Internationally-minded Atlantans filled the plaza in front of Colony Square to mark launch of this one-of-a-kind joint venture that symbolizes a true European union.
About 500 people — from many different nations and cultures — filled the atrium of Colony Square to enjoy food and drinks from both cultures while listening to speeches from dignitaries, witnessing the ribbon-cutting followed by live music.
What an incredible coming together. Both the French and German ambassadors to the United States were in Atlanta today to commemorate this special union (even though the French ambassador had to leave before tonight’s celebration so he could be in Paris on Friday to welcome U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her official visit to France).
Beyond all the fanfare, tonight’s culmination of the Alliance and Goethe meant a great deal to me personally.
Over the past 18 months, the Alliance knew it would be moving from an office building where it had been for the better part of two decades. As a vice president of the board, I had become deeply involved in reviewing the possible options for our new home.
The choices were narrowed down to two. We could move to Buckhead and be co-located with the French Consulate. Or we could move to Colony Square and be co-located with Goethe.
(Earlier on, we had hoped to be part of an international development that would house consulates, trade offices, foreign chambers of commerce and multi-cultural organizations — either on a global scale or as a House of Europe. But pulling off such a development proved to be far too complicated, especially during such economic turmoil).
So we were faced with having to pick Buckhead or Midtown; the French Consulate or Goethe. The debate between the two options threatened to split our board almost down the middle as we struggled to figure out where we belonged and how we could best fulfill our mission to provide French language classes and cultural events to Atlanta and its diverse residents.
Needless to say, I favored Midtown’s Colony Square and the relationship with Goethe. We already had been partnering with Goethe on many cultural events, and we were holding our Saturday classes in the Goethe space because the office building where the Alliance was located was closed on weekends.
Plus, I felt it was critically important that we be in the heart of Atlanta’s arts and cultural district, close to MARTA and accessible to our city’s diverse populations.
More than that, I also had a strong emotional tie to the decision. As I’ve written before, my mother, Nora Nehama Saporta, founded the Ecole de L’Alliance Francaise d’Atlanta back in 1963 with a couple of associates.
I always marveled how Mama, who knew little English when she moved to the United States in the late 1940s, was able to help make such a significant contribution to Atlanta’s multi-cultural offerings after such a short time in the city.
Atlanta was still a Southern town, in every sense of the word. I remember in the 1960s when Mama, Papa, my sister and I would speak to each other in French, Atlantans would stare at us as though we had come from another planet.
Somewhere along the way, Mama and Papa became actively involved with Goethe — developing close friendships with Atlanta’s German community.
For me, that was extraordinary. As Sephardic Jews, both Mama and Papa had been captured by the Germans during World War II. Papa escaped and joined the Greek resistance while Mama and her parents ended up spending an incredibly difficult year in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
I marveled at how Mama and Papa were able to overcome their experiences as Jews in Europe during World War II and open their hearts to the German community in Atlanta. (Papa — Isaac “Ike” Saporta — did have a natural affinity towards Germans because before the war, he had studied architecture in Dresden, and had become fluent in German).
It was about a year ago when the board of the Alliance had to face the moment of truth about our future home. Our decision was made easier because the Colony Square option ended up being about $200,000 less expensive over the 10-year lease.
And after we had voted in favor of joining Goethe at Colony Square, I shared the story of my parents special relationship with the Goethe Institute and how supportive they would have been that we had made this historic decision.
So tonight’s celebration for me was not just the coming together of France and Germany in Atlanta. It was a testament of my parents’ strength to bridge over the worst of human behavior by forging friendships in their quest of becoming global citizens committed to a peaceful world.
Mama and Papa would have been particularly pleased to witness the close collaboration of the Alliance and Goethe, of France and Germany, in their adopted city of Atlanta.
And that makes me feel all warm inside.