Monday, August 31, 2015

A Day in Paris, Boyd Style (or Sometimes Expectations Don't Match Reality)

Josh, Knox,and Kinley enjoy a croque monsieur (basically a French grilled cheese sandwich) with a lovely view of the Eiffel Tower.

If you're going to Disneyland Paris, you might as well spend a day in the City of Lights, too, right?  And the Boyd way of doing it is to cram in as much as you possibly can and then collapse in a heap at the end of the day (with maybe some whining and griping from the kids and plenty of Christmas-card-worthy photo ops in between).
  • Ride on the Metro? Check
  • Parisian street food snack of croque monsieur?  Check
  • Eiffel Tower?  Check
  • Carousel ride in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower?  Check

  • Notre Dame?  Check
  • Musee d'Orsay for some Impressionist art?  Check
  • Crepes at a sidewalk cafe?  Check
  • The Gardens Tuileries, enjoying the playground and views of the Louvre?  Check

  • An evening with fabulously interesting Parisians and several cultured ex-pats who, while dining with us in a former art studio in the 14th Arrondissement, would find my family adorable and intelligent and witty and far more aware of what lies beyond America's borders than most people with similar upbringings and would be in awe of what fabulously well-behaved and mature children we have?  Check.  Well, not really.  That's just what I intended it to be.
My friend Christi (a French teacher at a local high school here in Indiana) told me about Jim Haynes and his weekly dinners.  Mr. Haynes, an American living in Paris, has been inviting 50-100 strangers into his home every Sunday night for decades, providing travelers and local Parisians alike with the opportunity to meet new people while sharing a meal in an environment that's less impersonal than a restaurant.  He has entertained the rich, the famous, and the normal, and his friends help him cook every week.  My entertaining is on a much smaller scale, so I was fascinated.

I read articles and blog posts about Mr. Haynes and his dinners and decided to make dinner at his home a priority.  I even talked about it so much that my sister, Amanda, and her daughter, Elizabeth, arranged to go during their Paris visit in 2011.  While there, Amanda bought me an autographed copy of Mr. Haynes's cookbook which I pored over like the fangirl I was.
The cover of Mr.Haynes's cookbook

By all reports, Mr. Haynes was a master at introducing his guests to each other, finding out their commonalities, and helping every guest find another with whom they'd instantly connect.  I envisioned a spry man of 65 or so who would flit from one conversation grouping to another, refilling drinks and making sure no one was left without a conversation partner, all while surrounded by the magic of a Parisian evening and accompanied by the delicious fare in his cookbook.

So this year, when we realized that our Paris time would indeed include a Sunday evening, I got online, made our reservation for four, and waited for an email from Jim himself confirming our invitation to dinner at his home.  When it came, it included detailed directions and the request for us to bring a recycled envelope containing 30 Euros per person (or more or less if we felt like it) to cover dinner costs.  Dinner was still three months away at that point, and I was already giddy with excitement!

After our long day doing Paris Boyd style, we headed to the 14th Arrondissement, carefully following the directions.  We arrived in the garden where people had already begun to gather in conversation groups, and we tried to figure out what to do next.  I was a little surprised that no one greeted us or stopped their conversation to direct us to the right place, but I decided Mr. Haynes was probably occupied inside for the moment and, eventually, Kinley and I found our way to the kitchen while Josh helped Knox find a place to sit outside.
The garden outside Jim Haynes's home was where we ate dinner.  These pictures are from his AirBNB site. where you can book a night in his downstairs bedroom.  Click here to book an overnight stay.
Mr. Haynes was seated on a stool at this table.  People were seated on the couch and standing in groups talking while someone was serving soup from the stove.  (AirBNB pic)

Perched there on his stool with his head down over a pile of papers, surrounded by shelves of books with risque titles and erotic art, was Jim Haynes.  His mustache was more grey than his website pictures had shown and he was rather more slumped than I had expected, but there was no doubt that this was the man, the one who had entertained the likes of Yoko Ono and Chloe Sevigny and was now entertaining my family.  I walked up and introduced myself.  "Hello, Mr. Haynes!  I'm Gina Boyd, this is my daughter, Kinley, and we're here with our family."  I smiled my best Southern-belle-turned-Midwestern-girl smile and waited for him to welcome me with a knowing grin and a hug followed by suggestions of people I should meet.

He didn't even look up from his papers.  Instead, he fumbled with a typed list of guests and stared at it so long looking for my name that I feared he had fallen asleep.  Finally, I pointed to my name on the list and chirped, "Here we are!"

"Four of you?" was his reply.

"Yes, sir.  We're so happy to be here!  And what should I do with this?" I asked, holding out the recycled envelope that I'd carefully saved from our hotel trash can and into which I'd placed our contribution of 75 Euros for the food.  Again, he didn't look up.  He took the envelope from my hand, opened it, removed the cash and stuck it in his pocket with a stack of other bills, and added my lovingly-salvaged envelope to a pile of similar ones (not all recycled ones, I noticed) in front of him.

"Soup is about to be served and drinks are in the garden.  Help yourself," he said as he gestured to the door, indicating that I should go back outside and help myself to some cheap boxed wine.  He still hadn't even looked at me.  I wove my way through the crowd that was blocking the exit, and no one even spoke to me.

Back in the garden, Josh and Knox were standing alone, so I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I introduced myself to a lovely group of American ladies who were in town for a writing class, and Josh and Knox eventually made their way over as well.  As the evening progressed, we had a tasty soup followed by a chicken dish and the most delicious lentils I've ever eaten (I was told they were French lentils which aren't available here).
Knox whispers to Josh in the garden.  Notice no one else is talking to them.

We talked to the writers (one of whom has her own blog and later wrote an insightful post about the evening), met a couple from Texas, and did our best to avoid an American man who called himself a "regular" at Jim's dinners and appeared to be trolling for his next one-night stand.  A Parisian woman who was also a regular told us of her new business catering to the unique needs of ex-pats and advised us to get dessert quickly since it often ran out.  Somehow these regulars gave off a disturbing vibe, as if they all knew something about the real nature of these dinners that the rest of us didn't.  Remembering the books and art on display near the kitchen, I was kind of starting to think that maybe the dinner was some sort of bait for all of us newbies, and that we had been lured into something we hadn't bargained for.

As we finished our tiramisu, one of the Americans expressed her shock at having been hit on by another guest.  She felt violated, and her admission led another girl to share that she had just had a similar experience.  A Turkish girl standing nearby agreed that she, too, had been hit on.  So while we had loved meeting our dinner companions, we quickly decided that it was time for us to head back to the relative wholesomeness of Disney.  We said our goodbyes, and followed the directions in reverse back to the Metro.  Mr. Haynes didn't even notice we were gone.
The view of the garden as we left

Now let me just say that my French teacher friend Christi took her children to one of these dinners and had a perfectly wonderful evening.  In fact, it was her children's favorite evening of an entire summer spent in France, so I hesitated for weeks to even write this post.  But when I mentioned our odd experience to my sister, Amanda, she wasn't surprised.  She had been hit on, too, during her evening at Mr. Haynes's home, but had brushed it off as no big deal.

So I guess the point is this.  Dinner with Jim Haynes is an interesting and memorable experience.  It is undoubtedly remarkable that he gathers so many strangers together for a meal each week, and he inspires me to try something similar myself to reach out to the many travelers, grad students, and undergrads who are away from home in West Lafayette.  But if you go, go into this with your eyes open and a companion at your side.  And certainly don't worry about bringing a recycled envelope because he won't even notice anything but the Euros inside.

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