Competitive expats, Molière’s Misanthrope and one very long dinner party in Paris

My friends call me the Vagabond Lady because I tend to drift. Paris, however, has kept me stationary for 2 years, but I doubt I’ll stay longer than three. I was 42 when I arrived in La Ville Lumiere. A great age to embrace her distractions. With a lot of energy, and comfortable in my own sense of style; Paris doesn’t intimidate. She’s also teaching me a masterclass in how to take fun seriously. The type of city that insists you’re at the right place at the right time. A place offering aesthetes, the odd effete and competitive expats everything their heart desires. 

In fact, seven of these expats will arrive for dinner tonight, and they’re a tricky breed. This Parisian brand is separate in both temperament and approach. In Prague, the emigre’s and my fellow nomadic souls almost always spoke Czech. In Rome we all made an attempt to learn the language. In Malta and Bucharest, it was unnecessary; they spoke English. But here in Paris, the American abroad has one task only; to seek out invitations. To any exhibit, an art opening, a private Vernissage. During fashion week the expat wants a ticket to see couture. If it’s tennis season, they crave a center seat at Roland Garros. Last summer I just walked down and bought a standard ticket. Meandering along the side courts I was deeply intrigued with the eastern European stars, pounding their way to the next round. It reminded me of the time I took a train to Slovakia and woke up to find myself in a hotel that doubled as a tennis club. It was surreal. During breakfast a large window overlooked these young women, terrifically disciplined and intense. It would appear their determination has paid off and their dreams have come true. But I find the Parisian expat uniquely aggressive. What these people lack in linguistic skills they made up with feisty energy winding their way through the city as if on a mission. 

This was on my mind as I sat in a favorite chair sipping a cappuccino. I knew too many of them. Sure, I’d met several local Parisians, they were friendly, especially the women. But I didn’t think living here was a long term proposition so it didn’t seem worth the necessary emotional investment. In the meantime I could play out my hedonistic tendencies. I was generous with my dinner parties. This must have been unusual because invitations followed due to the effort, and my elaborate meals were free. I was surprised how many of my fellow Americans abroad tried to monetize these social events.  

I tried to focus on how this might be done but was happily distracted by the dramatic view. The Pantheon stared down at me majestically from the top of the hill. Notre Dame lived at the bottom, immediately to my right, and right in between, sat the Eiffel Tower. At a distance, her blue lights began their magic at sunset. My flat sat in the 5th arrondissement and the views were panoramic. It was my little paradise hence I wasn’t eager to leave it. And it was awfully difficult to secure. I had to provide a lengthy dossier including 6 years of financials and work history. I made money during the tech boom in Seattle and my consulting firm still had software engineers on various projects. Not nearly as many today, some 9 years later in the year 2008, but for the time being, I was financially secure. I just couldn’t imagine monetizing a social life as silly as mine. There was a man by the name of Jim Haynes who’d been doing this famously since the 70’s. He charged each guest 20 euro for the privilege of mingling with mostly expats in his ground floor apartment in Montparnasse. He cooked for a crowd around 50 so he wasn’t fussed about the menu. But I was keen on mine and couldn’t wait to take my shopping bag on wheels across the street to Marche Maubert; arguably one of the finest in Paris. 

I relished the time spent preparing for these dinner parties and the quiet moments after my guests left. The creative process was key until I could relive their stories after they’d gone. Stories that were beginning to sound different to my ear. Perhaps my perceptions were changing, home was far away and their tales now settled better in the imagination. If my American friend tried to convince my French acquaintance the US was the most enviable country I could be forgiven for understanding why my Parisian friend might disagree, albeit silently.

It was time to review a few dishes so I located my recipe book, nestled comfortably alongside dozens of other books in my library. My bed, belongings and magic carpet followed me everywhere. As did my beloved papillons, Colette and Godot. This made my peripatetic life feel familiar and dear no matter where I lived. And this recipe book was precious and packed with two weeks worth of recipes. Dishes learned at a comprehensive cooking school down south in Positano, along the Amalfi coast, taught by an extraordinary woman named Diana Folonari. She taught us the art of slow food from her villa overlooking the bluest sea we’d ever seen. The slow food movement began in northern Italy but is practiced throughout Italy, from top to bottom.  These recipes had become my specialties. The food would be Italian and the wine would be French and it all must be fantastic. 

There would be so many flowers Edwina would exclaim, “It’s too much, it’s like a jungle in here!” I had a fetish for flowers. Her desire to undermine my efforts would evaporate through my happiness.The aim was to create the kind of ambiance to arouse, to inspire conversation worth recalling while cleaning up. This was my private time, to imbibe the setting, which was spectacular, even at night. The entire length of the salon offered fantastic views. The windows stretched from floor to ceiling. The Haussmann architecture from outside penetrated the entire space, offering a baroque fairytale quality to my home. The flat was elegant and funky without an angle to be found. It was shaped like a horseshoe and wrapped its way around the top half of our building. 

My bedroom sat at the back. When guests chose to walk down the corridor and check out the rest of our space, I might hear them ask, “Bailey, have you seen this?” As if I hadn’t, knowing they’d caught a glimpse of my neighbor down below, a famous soft porn actress from the 80’s. Her bedroom could be seen from above. She never closed the drapes. There was no need to keep her lifestyle confidential. She preferred male company and she didn’t like me. Everyone avoided her, assuming she might be self-medicated or simply in a bad mood. This lent a slightly decadent flair to the environs. The French took little issue as they appreciated their artists and film stars forever. No matter if they wrote one book or one poem, or performed memorably in one film, they were forgiven anything and honored the rest of their days. 

The same psychic pull that inspired a life in Europe compelled me to take my shopping bag and walk down the polished wood stairs to our front door. Once outside, without a porn star in sight, I took the tiny elevator down the five flights. I stepped out onto Rue de la Montaigne Sainte Genevieve; the street with the longest name in Paris. The Sorbonne was located a few blocks away so I’m greeted by students and struggling artists running along streets romantically named after poets and artists. It’s late spring, the air was dry and wide open with frenetic energy. Market Maubert was packed with patrons. The temporary stalls cascaded down from the main stores until they met their end on Boulevard Saint-Germain. It’s a chatty culture and discussion is fluid creating surround sound. Flowers demand my attention but I must wait until the end, they are the grand finale. The flower guy speaks Italian and loves it when I do too.

I discussed my menu with the wine merchant and placed the bottles at the bottom of the bag. Then next door I found the butcher surrounded by fowl hanging from above and turning around the rotisserie dropping fat on those precious potatoes. I collected my vegetables, the grissini, and chicken, leaving just enough space to grace the top with colorful bundles of sweet peas and violet bluebells. Then I bought some tulips at the last minute, they looked so happy, full of red and orange stripes, and tucked them under my other arm. I paid the price, happily, which is dear and make my way home. I pull out the hand painted linen tablecloth created for my mother. The artist once said, “I just want to be able to talk like her,” and after hearing my mother talk about her latest bird watching excursion, she painted several birds in primary colors, each sitting on a green perch; perhaps the happiest tablecloth I’ve ever seen. 

I arrange the yellow and purple sweet peas in goblets bought in Positano. Black and yellow goblets at each end with candles in between, plates to match and linen napkins to match the tablecloth. Edwina arrives first, she always does, in search of gossip; it is her currency. 

“You spend too much money on flowers, it’s too much!” I smile and bring out a glass of Veuve Cliquot. She asks, “So tell me about the dinner party, what did I miss?” She knew better than to show up and she’s known Laura for years. Unlike Edwina, Laura lives in Paris full time, but both of them pawn off less desirable friends on others, people like me who don’t seem to mind. 

“It was just the four of us, it was awful the husband almost drank the entire bottle of Chivas and burned a hole in my dressing gown.” She laughed, “You weren’t wearing it, were you?” I said, “Of course not, but it was hanging in the guest bedroom outside the bathroom door. He kept wanting to smoke so I asked him to go in there and opened the window. I found it the next morning, thank god he didn’t set it on fire.” 

“I warned you, Laura takes advantage of you and she’s notorious for her awful dinner parties. You should’t take the bait. Is it true they own a Swiss bank?” I said, “I wouldn’t know, they just kept sniping at each other…” Edwina interrupted me, “that’s why you should never have couples, never a good idea, they compete and take over the conversation.” I had to agree, “It only lasted 3 hours, shorter than my others, but felt like the longest dinner party I’d ever had. God, once he laid his eyes on that bottle of Chivas I knew it was his. To think I always put so much effort into the wine, I think she was unhappy being back in Paris.” 

Edwina said, “I’ve heard she’s very bitter, and hates Geneva, she had one of the best salons in Paris years ago, she was part of that Peggy Guggenheim crowd, that level, very impressive.” 

I said, “I stayed in Geneva for 6 months, oh those Alps, so close, you’re absolutely surrounded by them. All that taupe grey, everything is so organized and elegant.” I could have gone on but expats prefer to talk about Paris and the next event. The rest of the guests arrived and we sat down. I poured out the bottle of Pinot Gris and brought our my first course. My kitchen was tiny but organized, allowing me to focus on my little creations and present each course one at a time; like my eggplant bundles, filled with tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella and parmigiano. The puffed pastry was perfect and it was a crowd pleaser. 

Ashley sat next to me, an older man who lived in the 6th arrondissement. He owned a top floor flat and spent his days wandering Paris watching old movies. He was always flirting with the younger woman, hoping for a rendezvous, unfortunately his only conquest had been Laura. He asked, “How was your dinner party?” Apparently everyone had heard about it. I relayed the particulars and Ashley changed the subject and said, “Your food is excellent but what a shame having to compete with the smell of baby powder. You can always tell when Laura has arrived. To be honest I find her invitations overrated. 

Edwina said, “That’s because you’ve lived here for too long and only go to the movies.” Ashley smiled, “Well, she did get me into the Jockey-Club, so there’s that.”

I served my risotto with basil and parsley and Ashley, in full appreciation, said, “It is al dente, I can feel it in my teeth.” Ashley also had a place in Lecce, in southern Italy where he spent the summers. He extended an invitation and I declined but did appreciate the compliment. I said, “I can’t cook French, the sauces are too fussy and I can’t digest it. I took a friend to Tour d’Argent last week. It did not disappoint but that food!”

Ashley continued, “Italian is much more difficult to get right, there are few ingredients and each stands out, but you do it so well.” By the time my Petto di Pollo alla Milanese arrived with yellow, red and green peppers my guests were getting settled in. Ashley said, “There must be a trick to this,” I leaned over and said, “you have to soak the chicken in egg for an hour before, isn’t it wonderful, it’s like Wiener Schnitzel without the veal.” 

Edwina wasn’t interested in the food or how the soft yellow bell peppers with basil and garlic made the dish so creamy. This didn’t stop her from eating everything and by the time the salad arrived she asked, “Who wants to join me at the Bastille for the Opera tomorrow night?” No one volunteered. Then Matilda, one of the younger women said, “Oh, I’d love to go, do you have an extra ticket?” Edwina was about to respond when Ashley said, “No, but she’ll make you wait until the last minute, hoping someone will pawn off their ticket at a reduced price. Edwina has perfected this into an art form. She knows exactly who to stand next to…”

My guests included three men, nondescript, distant friends of Edwina’s, who said little and showed even less interest in the two single women. They were just passing through on their way to Provence. I tried to ask questions and concluded they were all in the legal profession, and seemed a little taken back by the easy banter between Ashley and Edwina. I realized my older friends appeared like a softer version of the couple that owned the Swiss bank. A few hours later, after the lemon sorbet with sprigs of mint was served, after the final bottle of wine emptied, my guests left one by one. Edwina lingered until it was just the two of us. She said, “Listen, I have friends who can get us into the Louvre on Tuesday, when it’s closed. I have an old Press Pass which always works and you can come with me.” I nodded her way knowing it would take some maneuvering, a bit of a hassle but it would be worth it.

As I put the dishes away I focused on Ashley because he appeared lonely. I couldn’t even remember why he came to Paris. I think he was chasing a woman who never returned his affections. We talked about that and the Italian woman he recently met in Lecce. He had expectations. But they were low. Ashley had two children from a previous marriage but once he left Oklahoma he never looked back. I assumed he never received a strong return from his investments. All the more reason to spend his afternoons in a dark room with images pouring out illusions he could hang onto, at least for the rest of the day. He was a true romantic, most men were, while Edwina, like most women, realistic. She devoured invitations and they never lost their novelty. She was from Colorado, where her husband had a thriving law practice that paid for the privilege of her life in Paris. The few months spent here let her forget about home, its obligations, and her husband’s step children. During dessert one of the younger men said, “Edwina, you’re like a dowager from another era.” This pleased her immensely. For a minute. Then she went back to bickering with Ashley. 

The following week we met at Edwina’s apartment in Place des Vosges. It was the size of a large studio, a treasure box, covered in large French paintings, ornate gilded French sconces above tiny tables and chairs draped with heavy embroidery. There was just enough space to breathe beneath a bedroom extending from an alcove above. Her little Versailles. She greeted me with, “Your not going to believe it but a man came by and placed a large pile of money at my doorstep. I’ve sold the place and made a bundle.” This must have been her goal all along. “Of course, I’ll have to buy another, but not here, I couldn’t possibly afford it.” She certainly was savvy with her husband’s money.  

We walked down to the Louvre, and it was a hassle and it was worth it. There were no lines, just the 2 of us with Edwina telling me to wait patiently behind her as she flashed her Press Pass. She wasn’t going anywhere and the young woman behind the glass knew it. Eventually we were let in and located Edwina’s contact. He took us into a large room to study the Rococo period with plenty of nudes. Edwina told him she was writing a book. I never knew if this was true because I never really knew what to believe with Edwina. It was a treat and I was grateful even if I preferred Musee d’Orsay. Where Degas and his dancers appeared at home, teasing us they would never go on tour.

When we left Edwina said, “The big sale is tomorrow. Let me know if you want to join me at the store. You have to be early, it will be insane.” The annual sale at Issey Miyake’s flagship store at Place des Vosges was a scene, when the Japanese designer became affordable if only for one short day. When we could fight for a few treasures as the Parisian women attacked those piles with gusto; it would be intense. And it would be worth it. 

The following week I decided it was time for some hassle free fun. And I knew just the place, popularly known as La Maison de Moliere. There was no need to scalp a ticket at La Comedie Francaise. I sat in the front row. I wanted to familiarize myself with those lovely men I saw sipping a cafe at Place de Colette before the play. Sometimes I would walk down and sit at a small table with my two papillons, Colette and Godot and order a Salade Nicoise. We three would watch the beautiful young actors chatting before going inside to work. Even when they didn’t throw a glance my way I feel sexy, everyone feels sexy in Paris. The men are twice as captivating on stage. And I can’t say precisely when it happened, but somewhere in the middle of “Le Misanthrope” perhaps Act III, I felt like I was deflowered by Clitandre at Comedie Francaise. 

I am no longer a virgin of French theatre because Jean-Baptist Poquelin’s prolific ghost is very much alive, breathing deeply  into our modern, world weary souls. This is the milieu of Moliere, his stage name, his words inspire so many effeminate gestures! And then, the women! Emotions so devious, raw and ripe with wit, even the native audience exudes a kind of exhaustion by the time Act V arrives. This is the French at their most chatty and catty, full throttle, sexual innuendo unnecessary, men violently kissing men, mademoiselles equally provocative in gesture. I’m enthralled and so familiar with the play the language proves no barrier; I get it. 

Am I Alceste in spirit? Or should I fall in love w/Philinte. I’m so confused, it might be that French actor with his cane, his fingers so elegant, in control; he owns that long prop. French lines as lyrical as Italian. They may borrow liberally from Commedia dell’arte, from their cultural cousins in Italy, but  take themselves far more seriously! 

The first Marquis appears, ornate and cultivated, then the next, overtly ostentatious, each boasting luxurious wigs with meters of curl cascading down their velvet clad backs. One blonde, the other silky grey, faces painted white with moles here and everywhere. I can feel the French audience sit up, in unison, anticipating that which they do better than anyone; l’affaire! 

The mis en scene is slightly sinister. The back lighting atmospheric. They play as coy with the audience as they do with one another. Tears flow alongside a river of bitter maliciousness. The women; cruel and competitive. No wonder the men are so vulnerable to their every whim. 

The arc of emotion aims high and hits the dramatic bulls-eye. Then it bends to scientific law, enabling these sweet underdogs, Eliante and Philinte, to end up together, happily ever after. 

The audience came with its own drama. To my right a group of Algerians, maybe 8, reacting in a fashion that made the Parisians shush them, wave their fans or programs their way, insisting they assimilate, digest and regurgitate the play in just the right way.

Then there was the private box, the one above, to my left, this group gets my attention. It’s a French nuclear family; one husband, one wife, two small children and another woman. The two children sit up front, spending most of the performance dangling over the 400 year old balcony. Each time the action on stage dictates, as if on cue, the young ones spring from their seats to mimic Alceste throwing himself across the stage for the umpteenth time. These people learn young, it must be in their blood. 

The stage consists of one drawing room, the decor is eggshell. Few props; one cane, two ottomans and three love letters. Never a gaffe, nor an awkward moment, just one long dramatic mass of neurotic, chatty conversation. 

Hey, what say, I’m going back tomorrow. 

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