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French Women Spend Vacation Cleaning Wine Merchant's Grave

GREENWOOD HEIGHTS — Most of France goes on vacation in August, but one group of French women used their holiday time to put in some hard work at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Five French volunteers have spent the past week scrubbing granite and polishing bronze at the historic cemetery as part of program led by Preservation Volunteers, Inc., which matches French volunteers with preservation projects. The program was created by noted preservationist Everett Ortner, who passed away this year.

On Thursday, the volunteers braved the blazing heat to power wash, wax and buff the granite grave of Jacob Tartter, a 19th Century French wine merchant who was buried in 1885.

"We try to find [projects] that remind them of home," Green-Wood Cemetery president Richard J. Moylan said. Earlier this week, the volunteers applied wax to the bronze statue of Minerva, which salutes the Statue of Liberty — a gift from France. In past years (this was the program's 11th year) the French volunteers spruced up a monument associated with the French Culinary Institute.

The volunteers worked alongside the cemetery's preservation staff, who taught them techniques for restoring the various types of metal and stone at the cemetery. The cemetery staff doesn't speak French — "We're from Brooklyn, we barely speak English," joked Moylan — but they managed to get their message across with hands-on demonstrations.

The all-female volunteer crew was uniquely equipped for preservation work, said Frank Morelli, the cemetery's manager of preservation and restoration. "Some things are better done with a woman's hand," Morelli said. "Men like to grab a tool, but a girl will step back and then use their hands. The finished product blends in. It ends up looking way better."

The volunteers, who were from Paris, Lyon, Versaille, and Brittany, said their favorite task was power washing. "A dirty statue or grave becomes so clean after," volunteer Sylvie Bauer, 52, said. "It's great to see we've done a good job."

The volunteers also got to mingle with a few summer interns from the Williamsburg High School for Architecture and Design, and the French group stayed for a week at a private home in the Bronx, where they worked on restoring the Bartow-Pell Mansion.

"It's a really great experience because it's an opportunity to meet a lot of people, not just be tourists," said volunteer Camille Morvan, a 26-year-old from Brittany.