When You're Tired of Speaking French, Go to Jim's


Swirl, swirl, swig. My head hung down, I looked deep into my merlot. The late summer sun gave way to the lovely, lonely yellowish cast of street lamps. I sat hunched over, with my elbows on my knees, my fluted glass resting in my fingertips. I was still at the terrasse, and still drinking wine. Most people who noticed me, if anyone, surely thought I'd had one goblet too many. But I wasn't drunk, I was tired. I'm so fricking tired of not understanding anything! At best I vaguely get the gist of what's being said. Especially if spoken at the usual Paris speed, which is to say, reallyfastyouthinktheyweren'tbreathing fast. And if it's past 8 at night - whew, forget about it. It takes so much energy. I'm so frustrated by not being able to say simple things to strangers without great effort, or to tell my friends a story, or tell them a joke without having to explain why it's funny. Gr. Sigh. 

Among the folks I spoke with, this is a common experience for expats early in their host country stay or for longer-term travelers who don't speak the local language well, if at all.

I'd read in my Pauline Frommers' Paris guidebook about Jim Haynes' salon. It's not a hair salon. It's a salon, in french, which describes a meeting where intellectuals discuss and debate the issues of the day. Or, in this case, a place - Jim's home - where folk of every stripe get together and talk about whatever they feel like over a home-cooked dinner and drinks, all for 30 euro. And I wanted to meet some fellow travelers and speak English, or at least speak slower-paced français with people I hadn't yet exhausted with my tedium. And I wanted to do somethin' adventurous on a Sunday night. And I wanted to speak English (I mentioned that already, didn't I?).

Enter Jim Haynes.

At first, it sounded like a con. Call someone I didn't know from Adam, tell him "party of one, I'm traveling alone" and "yes, I'll bring the 30 euro in cash to your house"...?!?! But, I put the stranger-danger cynicism aside and phoned Mr. Haynes up.

The warm August Sunday evening crowd spilled onto Jim's front stairs and out into the courtyard, filled with a few long benches and chairs. Almost immediately someone greeted and introduced herself to me. And that kind of encounter happened all night long, and it was so refreshing to be met with so much friendliness in one place.

My first order of business was to pay my respects (and my 30 euro) to the host, and to thank him for accommodating me with a call only a few hours before dinnertime. Jim surveys his party from the best seat of the house: between the kitchen - as one of his appointed friends plays chef and prepares our meal - and the living room, where, between gathering each guest's financial contribution and checking names on the guest list, he introduces newcomers to whoever's standing nearby. And in a space that measures 15 square meters, that can be a lot of people. And there were some interesting characters in the crowd...

I chatted with a man from Iowa who, with his wife, had his young and very well-behaved children in tow. They were renting a houseboat on the Seine, and we swapped vacation rental property websites we liked.

A woman introduced herself to me by saying, "Is it you who's got that great big laugh? Wonderful!"

I met Martine, who began this salon, but gave hosting responsibilities to Jim when she moved out of the flat in the seventies and he moved in. Martine said she doesn't come often to Jim's salon, usually only in the summer and when it's nice enough to stay outdoors since the indoor areas alone would be too small to accommodate a big group comfortably.

I even met a very young filmmaker who had graduated from the same high school as I had in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, though about fifteen years later than I did.

While in line for dinner, I struck up a conversation with Robert, and his son and his son's girlfriend, Dan and Melissa, who were visiting Europe for the first time. Later, we took the after-party to their spacious flat in Saint Germain, along with a couple we'd met from Michigan, right near the church steps made famous in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. They promised to bring the Jim Haynes salon concept back home with them to New York City. I hope they have!

Besides the exceptional company, the food was simple and wonderful, the wines and beer ever-flowing. The menu included generous portions of chicken salad, couscous, lightly dressed salad, grilled eggplant and bell peppers, and cherry pie á là mode for dessert. As much as I missed anything from home, I'd missed having a home-cooked meal among friends.


Related reads:

  • Official website of Jim Haynes (jimhaynes.com), includes information on how to get on Jim's Sunday salon guest list
  • Story [audio and transcript] on Jim Haynes on "This I believe," a series from National Public Radio's All Things Considered (npr.org)