Monday, June 30, 2014

A Parisian Soirée

Jim Haynes with Author Talia Carner

          Tucked in a Parisian residential is an unkempt garden. Or rather, it is a pathway along the side of a building in which two-storey high windows allow peeks into artists’ ateliers. Just past a shed with boarded windows, one side of the path is planted with fruit trees. Take a few steps onto a narrow brick terrace, and you face the door to Jim’s world.
            Jim’s home is built upon a quirkily impressive history of literature and theater—and his love of people. The home has a kitchen that occupies one-third of the first-floor living area. In that kitchen, every Sunday evening for the past three decades, volunteers cook up a dinner for up to seventy strangers who’ve heard of Jim’s soirées.
             In our American standards—and perhaps in European standards, too—the living room is tiny for such an ambitious hosting. An upholstered bench runs along one wall, supplemented by a couple of chairs. Above them, a long shelf exhibits books by authors close to Jim’s heart.
             The real action of the evening, one soon discovers, is in the people who gather in that room, and by necessity, spill onto the terrace and the garden. A couple of ex-pats who’ve long settled Paris are helping around the party. The rest are either tourists from all corners of the globe seeking the flavor of old literary Paris, or temporary residents of Paris. It is easy to make introductions as one must squeeze close to a dozen people to fetch ice from the only commercial-size appliance in this otherwise modest dwelling that manages to whip up a meal for so many guests. The red and white wine, extracted from the spigots of cardboard pegs, help set the mood.
            I was first handed a bowl with three servings of three totally unidentified food. Each piece or mush challenged me with its different shape and texture, but I failed to guess what it was. Nevertheless, I trusted myself (and Jim) enough, and found the food to be quite tasty—yet still unidentified. Someone said this dish had Asian influence, and I was unable to argue one way or another. The main course was more familiar, though less edible, for the slab of meat that had never suffered the heat of fire or oven was to be consumed with only a fork. I recalled my visit to a French family back in the 1970s, where I was served my first raw meat, but it was eaten at the table, with the benefit of a knife.
            Even though we were all Jim’s guests, in his e-mail he suggested a 30 Euro donation (about $40) per person. He asked that the money be discretely placed in a recycled envelope, while Jim, sitting high on a stool at the back of the room, welcomed every person and ticked them off his list, noting the envelopes. One guest speculated that the octogenarian Jim landed a weekly income, cashing in on his long reputation and the media exposure his evenings had received. Totally legitimate in my mind—and well worth it. I found myself engaged in interesting conversations: An Australian duo of a mother-daughter visiting Paris; a Minnesota couple on a tour of Parisian most notable gardens (Jim’s is not on the list;) a mixed Caucasian and Black American couple that had inherited an apartment in Paris; a French web designer practicing his English; a retired architect with set views about the many countries in which he had worked.
            There is no secret to a successful Parisian evening: Put dozens of strangers who enjoy travel and meeting other people in a room with a garden, feed them, pour them wine, and let them start talking.
More about Jim Haynes:
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New-York-based novelist Talia Carner's explores the world's social issues. See