Thursday, October 18, 2007

Washington Social Diary: Weekday Luncheon

A Monday lunch of sunlight, fresh air, good food, and conversation.
By Carol Joynt

When Washington needs a diversion from the day in and day out of our own government, the diplomatic corps are graciously at the ready. Whether it’s a glass of fine Shiraz in Australia, fresh pasta in Italy, high tea in the U.K., or a warm skol in Sweden, the best ambassadors throw open their doors and transport guests to their homeland. The invitation will be to either the embassy or the residence. Whether it’s one or the other matters; the embassy is fine for receptions and the like, but it’s the residence that is the “A” ticket for seated luncheons and dinners.

The chateau that has been home to French ambassadors since the 1930s.
Just so you know, if you announce you’ve been to the such and such embassy for dinner, the next question will inevitably be, “Embassy or residence?”

Once upon a time the diplomatic mansions were clustered along “Embassy Row,” a mile long stretch of Massachusetts Avenue that is grand but showing age, and while “Mass Ave” still scores some of the top dogs in terms of international clout – Italy, Brazil, Britain and Japan – the international community has expanded substantially and neighborhoods throughout the city can claim one diplomatic mission or another.

In this century’s Washington, references to “Embassy Row,” just like “Foggy Bottom,” or “Capitol Hill” are more figurative than literal. (However, in some pin-striped circles you may hear a gruff complaint that Embassy Row isn’t going to like what Capitol Hill did with a Foggy Bottom initiative).
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont, French Film Festival Director Lysbeth Sherman, Festival co-chair and AOL "Founding Chairman" Jim Kimsey, and Elisabeth Rivasseau
One thing that hasn’t changed over the decades is the draw of an invitation to the French ambassador’s residence, sitting as it elegantly does on its own lovely spread in the Kalorama section of town, wedged between Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues. In a neighborhood that is largely diplomatic the French residence stands out. Look at it with blinders on and its every bit a transplanted Loire valley chateau.

So, it’s news when a new French ambassador arrives in town, as Pierre Vimont did last month. The interest in him is ratcheted up by the interest everyone has in the also new and proudly America-loving French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, who famously spent his summer holiday at New Hampshire’s Lake Winnepesaukee, and just as famously is having a difficult time keeping his wife in their marriage. For better or worse, some here call him France’s Bill Clinton.
The drawing room of the French ambassador's residence.
Vimont was diplomatically affable on the subject of the Sarkozy marriage when he hosted an intime luncheon at his home here Monday. After all, he said, in France this is news but not shocking news. The main topic was cinema, as the lunch was to honor the upcoming “C’est Chic” French Film Festival and its chief organizers, Festival director Lysbeth Sherman and Cultural Attache Roland Celette, as well as AOL’s Jim Kimsey, who is co-chair with the city’s first lady, Michelle Fenty. Also joining us was Elisabeth Rivasseau, the well-traveled wife of the DCM (deputy chief of mission).

Vimont opened his home to us as well as the beautiful October weather, pulling up the windows in the dining room to let in the warm air and sunlight. White gloved waiters passed silver trays of drinks and toast rounds of pate de foie gras. I had to pinch myself and ask, “Is this really Washington on a work day?” Actually, it was Paris any day.
A favorite painting of mine
The ambassador walking his guests out after lunch.
After drinks in the stunning rose and gold drawing room we moved to the green paneled dining room and a round table set with a centerpiece of apricot autumn mums that matched the room’s chairs and trim.

A team of waiters in formal dress served langoustines with an infusion of citron, roasted sole with tomato confit, and Gelee de fraises au Montbazillac, and wines with each course.

Lysbeth Sherman on the residence's front steps.
Vimont, a native of Paris, is a career diplomat with the Foreign Service in his blood. He first lived in Washington when he was 4 and his father was “number three” at the Embassy.

Between then and now he got a law degree, studied politics, entered government 30 years ago and has served in various high level posts in London, Brussels, New York and, of course, Paris, where he was chief of staff to the minister of foreign affairs for the past five years.

Like Sarkozy, he’s fond of America and the rustic countryside. Unlike Sarkozy, he’s not married and rumors fly as to whether he has an a girlfriend, though still unseen. For the moment, Madame Rivasseau is his stand-in hostess. He understands he’s in for an interesting time here, as we embark on a highly charged political year and the eventual transition from one administration to another. He beamed at the thought.

In a departure from almost every other Washington luncheon, after demitasse and sugar cookies, conversation continued for another half hour – Iraq, Colombia, the death of famed French mercenary Bob Denard – but then reality set in. We put down our Porthault napkins, pulled out our Blackberrys and adjourned to the waiting real world.

Photographs by Carol Joynt
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