My happy, happy birthday celebration

Screen shot 2013-12-11 at 3.32.30 PMYou may have read on these pages that every now and again, I hold a literary salon in my home, inviting published authors to come read to us from their work and talk about their journey in becoming an author. The evenings have started to build a reputation for themselves, drawing 25-30 people into my home on a Monday night. Fun, happy people who are thrilled to stay and chat. It is wonderful, and it is my dream come true, but I don’t live alone. I live with a man who starts his day at 6am.

Last month I learned that Mr French would be out of town the second week of December. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the upside to his business trips. I’d host a words&wine evening chez nous!

I looked at the calendar and my eyes popped wide when I realized that the second Monday in December happened to be my birthday. Not only would I get to have my literary salon, but I’d be having an unBirthday party, as well!

Screen shot 2013-12-11 at 3.33.34 PMThe last time I threw myself and unBirthday party it was for my 40th birthday. Everyone in the house thought they had been invited to celebrate my becoming a French citizen. We ate foie gras and oysters, sipped champagne and danced into the wee hours. Our neighbor, the gracefully elegant French author Saphia Azzedine showed up with her then boyfriend, Jamel Debbouze, who, at the time, was the most popular comedian in the country. Their presence catapulted me into stardom with our French friends who were suddenly very impressed with my “connections” and on Monday morning I was suddenly the “cool” Mom waiting to pick up her kids in front of the public school.

This year was just as thrilling. Our original author had to drop out at the last minute, due to a passport gone awol. With just 24 hours notice, my friends and rockstar authors, Jenna Warnecke and Lisa Czarina Michaud agreed to step in and save the evening. People were impressed. Not only did could I plan a literary salon, but like a famous baseball coach, I hadScreen shot 2013-12-11 at 3.33.08 PM a ready stable of pinch hitters.

Jenna is the author of the practical blog, Paris Cheapskate.She has straight, shoulder length hair, and wears dark glass that give her a strict librarian look that contrats beautifully with the shocking reds of her wardrobe. You know this girl has depth before she has ever spoken a word.

In someways, Lisa is her direct opposite, with sensually full Italian hair, an irrepressible smile and so much coquine seasoning, it has become her nickname and the force behind her blog, EllaCoquine, Tales from a Chambre de Bonne.

Both girls wow-ed the crowd, each in her own, very unique way. And as a little cherry on the whipped cream of this very perfect birthday celebration, Em ratted me out, announcing that it was my birthday and Mary Kay from Out and About in Paris led them in a round of the Birthday song. It was at this moment, my face turning the color of an heirloom tomato, that I realized I have not had a group of people sing happy birthday to me since I was 15 years old and my mother organized a 7am surprise birthday breakfast in my bedroom.

I could not have wished for a greater birthday present.  If you’d like read more about the evening and what our two authors had to say, please join me on the words&wine blog.



A murderous weekend, part 2

Le Moulin de BarreMaking it through the hazards of the night we arrived at the Moulin, an old grain mill with a productive hen house and impressive kitchen garden. After checking out our room and washing away the cobwebs we’d acquired in the chateau, we headed to the bright, warm dining room to a welcome dinner featuring farm fresh food prepared by our hostess Doreen. Our English hosts were as warm as their kitchen and even more charming. Another guest, a French man, started asking about their chickens. Did they send them to the butcher, or kill them themselves? How did they slaughter them exactly? He must have felt Cara’s murderous vibes. The conversation evolved and I spoke about a Parisian butcher who had tried to sell me a very expensive pheasant from my coq au vin recipe. “Zat ees not a really coq au vin, zen…. For a really coq au vin, you must have ze blood of ze coq. You can not get ze blood from ze butcher.” His wife’s arms shot up in utter horror.

Saint Severin Jacques tatiI took that moment to introduce Cara as a professional killer and mentioned that traveling with a mystery writer had made me somewhat paranoid. I was really looking forward to a run in the countryside the next morning, but I couldn’t help thinking that its always the lone female runners that get reported missing and are later found chopped up in the trunk of some lunatic’s car. The room got silent. I heard a fork drop. “It’s not the lunatics you have to worry about.” Cara warned, “Its the hunters.” Everyone nodded in agreement, amazed that I had not considered the negative side effects of getting hit by a stray bullet.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 3.49.41 PMI had taken an extreme dislike to the “other guest”. Even before the chicken inquisition and blood recipe. The next morning over breakfast, I understood that he had talen an even stronger dislike towards me. He kindly informed us that the hunt had been canceled for the day… something to do with kill quotas and that I could go for my run after all. We’d already been late for our delicious breakfast of skillet drop scones, house made yogurts and jams and Cara’s prerequisite coffee, so I thanked him and decided other adventure awaited me that day. We decided it was time to change the mood and headed to St Severin where the hysterically funny French actor Jacques Tati had filmed the comedy, Jour de Fête. As we got out of the car there was a “pop, pop, pop” of gun fire. Loud and not very far away. I considered a drop and roll under the car, but Cara was nonplussed, hunters, she reminded me. So the hunt had not been canceled after all. Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 3.49.23 PMAnd the “other guest” had clearly hoped I’d find myself mistaken for a loopy deer and shot on site! We headed onto town, admiring the caravan from the film, the historic hall, the medieval porte and all the colorfully decorated stores celebrating Tati.

A local café was open, the kind that would have been foggy with smoke had the laws not changed and where some were on their third or fourth beer (or kir, or Pastis…) despite the early hour. Alcohol. The perfect social lubricant. We started chatting the crowd up, beginning with questions on Jacques Tati and the film before asking what we really wanted to know. The front door swung open. No one was there.” A phantom” warned the bar owner. Were there witches nearby?, we ventured. Yes, yes, indeed.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 3.49.58 PMNobody admitted to having seen something themselves but a friend had seen butterflies alight on the hands of witches visiting La Mare au Diable. And healers? What about the healers? We struck gold as one man was a big believer and had a healer of his own. And the healer’s business card.He confirmed that the magnetiseurs are born with their gift. They can not charge for their services, or they may loose their gift, so patients simply leave what they wish. Often as little a 10€. The can not cure people, but they can absorb their pain and know to be especially effective with burns.

Thrilled at having the inside scoop, we were off. Dodging hunters and their bullets as we sped our way back to Paris. Safe and sound. For now.

A murderous weekend

Cara Black

As we said our good byes at a bus stop, the successful American mystery writer, Cara Black, stumbled back, “Wait! your mother-in-law lives near Nohant, Mary Kay told me. I’m dying to go to George Sand’s house and I’m in town until Thursday. Are you up for an adventure?” Two days later I found myself alone on a dark autumn morning, driving through France with a woman I’d only known for twenty minutes. A stranger who spends her life plotting murder.

Maison George SandDuring our introduction over coffee, I asked Cara where she’s from and discovered that we’d been neighbors in San Francisco. She’d carpooled with my close friend (also a successful author) Allison Bartlett and she knows my aunt (you guessed it) Victoria Zackheim. Our connection was feeling spooky…

The sun just started to rise as we headed out of Paris. Three hours later, Cara’s ears were ringing from the incessant jabbering of her chauffeur (yes, moi) we pulled up to Mama French’s door in Chateauroux and whisked her off to lunch. Cara is intrigued by the rumours of withcraft and traditional healers in the Berry region. Over lunch she couldn’t resist peppering our hostess with questions… Was it true? Had she ever known of a witch? Solicited the services of a healer?  Mama French’s face went white and her mouth closed tight as a button. When Cara excused herself from the table Mama Fr leaned over and whispered that all those stories give the Berrichons a bad reputation in France. It was NOT a discussion to be had with outsiders, especially not in public and certainly not with published authors who may include that kind of damaging information in thier 15th mystery novel! We left our meal full of food, but without any leads.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 12.04.57 PMAs we drove along, Cara told me more about Amiée Leduc, her Parisian private detective who wears three inch heels, flashy nail polish and drives a pink Vespa as she solves morbid crimes in every quartier of Paris. I learned how to find the most mysterious crime scenes and plot the most gruesome murders.

Eglise George Sand NohantWe arrived in the tiny hamlet of Nohant, eerie bag pipe music wafting through the deserted square as we visited the graveyard and a church with wide ropes draped to the side, perfect for ringing the church bells, or hanging a man. George Sands home was lovely, but creepy, everything left intact, exactly as it had been when she died in 1876, despite living there herself, until 1971!

Chateau SarzayA small detour and we found ourselves visiting the privately owned medieval fortress of Sarzay where the owner has spent the past thirty years rebuilding the chateau, stone by stone, filling it with taxidermed animals and ancient weaponry. I think Cara’s knees went weak as we entered the Salles des Gardes, and there, spread out on a table the size of my living room was a collection of killing devices centuries old. There were no rope barriers, no supervision. Just a mystery writer, a photographer and an unlimited opportunity for gore.

The weather had been unseasonably warm, but the blue summer skies suddenly turned a vivid yellow, then black. Without warning, torrential rains start to pour down we found ourselves scrambling to descend the 14th centurywinding staircase, with narrow, uneven steps and without any light. There was a scream as a pigeon swooped past, a gasp as a step was missed. Outside, we made a mad dash for the car and headed into the prematurely early night to find our lodgings.

Screen shot 2013-10-30 at 12.08.12 PMThe rain turned to hail, pelting our windshield faster than the wipers clear our view. Large, swampy drainage ditches that lined the road made pulling over impossible. The GPS led us through twisting, hilly lands getting us to Vigoulant where we followed the sign pointing to the Moulin de Barre. We drove up the hill. And up and up, without seeing a single sign of life. A large tree branch (or was it a tree?) had fallen and barred the road. Cara ran put into the pitch black of the night and was relived to find that is was a light branch, easy to remove. The trees started to form a low, narrow canopy and tall grasses grew between the wheel ruts in the mud. The mud? We’d gone beyond the roads and were now on a narrow chemin. We called our hosts, made a u-turn and headed back down the hill where our host Geoff stood under an umbrella with his flash light to guide us in. We hadn’t noticed any lights because sometime during the day, someone had ripped the light fixture from their sign. Was it intentional? Had they known we were coming?

to be continued…

Lil’ Robert

Screen shot 2013-10-23 at 10.15.19 PMThe UK has the OED, the US has Noah Webster, and France? Le Petit Robert. Every year I wait expectantly as this leading French dictionary brand prepares to release its list of new words for the year.  The list is always an interesting reflection of the times, peppered with words popular in specific regions of France, including slang, words like courriel that the Québecois invent in an attempt to keep French uniquely French, a lot of words from the English language and now, a fair whack of high tech terms. The Regional words usually mean nothing to me, while the Quebecois ones crack me up. It may have made into the dictionary, but absolutely no one in France sends a courriel. They send “mail” because email would have had to be spelled imail, and that would have caused problems with Apple. Which is mind boggling. An entire nation  inadvertently intimidated by a tiny little company in Cupertino, CA.

Last year we earned such elegant terms as cougar and vuvuzuela, with a whip and a wrap to keep things spicy. But mostly, it was about technology, with the terms nerd, flashcode, microblog, texter and tweet. We also got a snack; donut.

This year, some one was hungry, because we now have amaretto, cupcake, gravlox, jello and pannacotta. A really fun new one is Belgitude; to act like a Belgian. Of course, this is only funny in France, where the Belge are the butt of most jokes. I’m guessing that countless articles about the actor Jean Dujardin inspired oscarisé, which is pretty bold since even Hollywood is to modest to invent a word like “oscar-ized”! Staying with film, Woody Allen’s neurotic film characters may have been the inspiration behind psychoter, or to worry about nothing.

On frantic a Saturday, as I deal with a BHV delivery that never arrived, while the mail lady rings the bell asking me to buy a Christmas calendar and the cat coughs up a hair ball, Mr French may came up behind me, rub my shoulders and whisper the new word calmos in my ear. And sometimes M’s stories about where she’d like to go for the evening strike me as a little chelou, slang for louche, which is French for suspicious. There is also the trendy branchouille which is something just a bit too branché (trendy), so now there is a trendy word for saying too trendy that got so trendy they’ve put it in the dictionary!

Introducing// Words&Wine

thannk you to Mary Kay of Out and About in Paris for this photo...

thank you to Mary Kay of Out and About in Paris for this photo…

Last spring I hosted an author reading in our home and wrote about it here, telling the world about my dream to host a literary salon. Usually, dreams don’t just come true, you’ve got to make them happen. When I heard that author Juliette Sobanet was coming to Paris, it was the perfect opportunity to take things one step further.

SO I reached out to my friend and blogger par excellence, Ella Coquine and asked her to co-host a reading with me. Not only did she agree, but she came up with the greatest name… Words&Wine.

Ella came early to help me set the scene, adding tea lights and flowered table cloths for an ambiance that was clearly inspired by our author’s romantic novels. Nearly 30 avid readers and writers showed up, each one bringing a snack or drink to share. The table was over flowing with goodness; a Kiwi onion dip, Swiss-American tapenade, Reine Claude plums, automnal dahlias, a wine from the Jura that made a Frenchman nearly swoon, seasonal salads, and a scrumptous cake flavored with fleur d’oranger.

After an hour of eating, meeting and greeting, we were ready for some reading… Juliette took center stage her latest novel, Dancing with Paris firm in hand. She was seated on a velvet divan that Ella had known would be the ideal setting for a reading that involved, murder, intrigue and a dashing stranger. Juliette left us on a cliff hanger and I know for a fact that Amazon did a brisk business that evening, from women wanting to know how it ended…

After the reading, Juliette opened up the floor for discussion, candidly answering questions about her life and her journey to becoming a successful author. She told us that when she was 15 she just knew she had to come to France, master French and become a French professor. I saw heads bob in agreement, at least half a dozen other women identifying with that feeling of being a young girl, in the middle of nowhere and for no logical reason what so ever, falling head over heels in love with this foreign land.

It was an inspirational evening. One that made a few dreams come true.

Merci to EllaCoquine, Juliette Sobanet and everyone who joined us last night!!

For photos of the event, visit Out and About in Paris’ album

If you’d like to be invited to future Words&Wine events, don’t be shy! Contact me at sabesphoto (au) yahoo (you know the symbol) com.


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