Lives Lost: Boss, bottle washer and heartbeat of French bar

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In this undated photo provided by Christian Guemy, Viviane Bouculat poses by a portrait of her by street artist Christian Guemy, known as C215, late in 2019, and painted directly on the wall of restaurant l'Annexe, in the Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. For three decades, Viviane Bouculat was the owner, cook and beating heart of lAnnexe. Anyone was welcome, but over the years it became a haven for local artists, actors and musicians. Bouculat died March 31, 2020 of coronavirus. She was 65. (Christian Guemy via AP)

PARIS – When she wasn’t running her own restaurant, she was eating out. And when she wasn’t giggling, she was sending everyone around her into gales of laughter.

For more than three decades, Viviane Bouculat was the owner, impresario, cook and bottle washer at l’Annexe, a bistro in the Paris suburb of Ivry-sur-Seine. Anyone could eat, drink and attend cabaret nights at her place, but over the years the restaurant became a haven for local artists, actors and musicians in the town regarded as the capital of French communism.

“She welcomed everyone with arms open wide” Christian Guémy, the street artist known as C215, said of Bouculat.

This winter, the artist splashed streaks of red and orange on a wall of l'Annexe for a larger-than-life portrait of the woman viewed as the bistro's beating heart. Bouculat died March 31, soon after becoming ill from the coronavirus. She was 65.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of an ongoing series of stories remembering people who have died from coronavirus around the world.


With red-and-white checked tablecloths, curved-back chairs and menu of traditional French fare such as boeuf bourguignon and blanquette de veau, l’Annexe looks like any neighborhood café where locals grab lunch or a quick coffee on their way somewhere else.

But Bouculat had a way of turning customers into friends, and friends into confidants. Suzanne Chamak, a lover of French song and inveterate organizer, was among the many who made the transition. Over a series of dinner and drink conversations, they hatched a plan to hold monthly concerts at l’Annexe.

“She was always willing to do things,” Chamak said. “As soon as you came up with it, she wanted to try it.”

The calendar quickly expanded into weekly shows that packed the restaurant’s two rooms with people of all ages.

When she needed extra hands on busy nights, Bouculat asked the waitstaff of other local restaurants if they wanted to pick up extra hours.

At first, working at l'Annexe was just a job to Bernadette Marie and Raquel Magalhaes, two of the part-timers who served drinks and kept the buffet table filled. But they, like others, formed a personal bond with Bouculat. The trio became inseparable, jokingly nicknaming themselves “The Three Bad Girls.”

Bouculat had a way of teasing the mischievous child out of people and “brought everyone together, young and old,” Magalhaes recalled of a friend nearly 25 years her senior. Long after Magalhaes and Marie stopped waitressing at the bistro, the threesome endured through regular outings to restaurants and to old-time summer dance halls along the Seine River.

Marie started her days at l’Annexe, dropping off bread and croissants from a bakery. She let herself in, and she and Bouculat would sit by the window, drinking coffee and chatting before they parted ways to work. She returned to the restaurant in the late afternoon, as did Bouculat’s son, Fabrice.

If a customer lingered late over a meal, Bouculat stayed open, and since customers were friends, nights tended to go long.

“She would stay two hours with whoever wanted to stay. Her bar was her life,” Marie said.

Bouculat nevertheless had planned to retire and hand over the restaurant to new owners in June. But the doors of L’Annexe last opened for business on March 15, two days before a nationwide lockdown to slow the coronavirus took effect in France. Most of Bouculat's friends didn't see her again after that.

Magalhaes of the Three Bad Girls turned 41 the week of the lockdown. She was sleeping when Bouculat called to sing her “Happy Birthday.” The voicemail is still on her phone, as is a video of Bouculat singing and dancing with a mop on her head.

“That was so Vivian,” Marie said. “Whenever there was two or three minutes with nothing else, she would do her crazy little thing.”


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