Friday, January 9, 2009

Washington Social Diary

Outside the French Ambassador's residence on a cold and rainy January night.
The French Perspective
By Carol Joynt

With not even a week gone by in the New Year, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont opened the doors of his home and invited in a group of serious Washington thinkers and media types to consider the relationship of the “new administration, France and Europe.”

In the dawn of the post-crash era, the timing, the intellectual tone of the evening, the guests, and the subject seemed just right. It was business attire, a lecture and a good dinner - possibly a new kind of ambassadorial chic.
Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine in the middle of his talk on American and European politics.
Vedrine makes a point. Vedrine asks: Will Obama's American be "realistic or militaristic?"
The attentive audience at the lecture by Hubert Vedrine. Ambassador Vimont listens from the back of the room.
The “Kalorama Lectures” were launched last summer by Vimont, with the guiding hand of his press counselor, Emmanuel Lenain. Each lecture features a different French dignitary.

On this occasion we heard from Hubert Vedrine, a career civil servant who has filled many roles: spokesman for former President Francois Mitterand, Secretary-General of the French Republic, and France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. He’s also an author. His most recent book is History Strikes Back, an analysis of the impact of global conflicts on the 21st Century.

Above all else, Vedrine makes clear his view is “the French perspective” when he says that the world, and especially Europe, consider President-elect Barack Obama a “mythical person. The good President coming to run the bad President out of town.” He admits his words are exaggerated, but says, “It’s important that the new President has a clear break with the current administration.”
French Embassy officials sit comfortably and listen attentively as Hubert Vedrine lectures.
French Ambassador Pierre Vimont with former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine. Journalist Bertrand Vannier with French Embassy press counselor Emmanuel Lenain.
Vedrine said many want to know if Obama’s America “will be militaristic or realistic?” He graded the first term of George Bush’s presidency poorly, and was more kind to the second term, but had no kind words for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The approximately 50 guests listened – some through an interpreter – as he analyzed the American and European relationships with China and Russia, but especially Iran and Iraq. He warned that Westerners “have to have a completely different strategy with the Arab world. If we don’t deal better with these people we will not able to maintain our influence.”
White voile, silver, crystal and red roses.
The French Ambassador's dinner underway...
The guests pondered these thoughts as they walked the cross hall from the the Ambassador’s drawing room to his green paneled dining room, where we were greeted by a team of waiters and tables with white voile cloths and bowls thick with red roses. Dinner was Confit de homard, pomme, celery et truffles, served with a crisp Premier Cru Chablis, and Filet d’agneau persille avec Fondue de carrottes a la sariette, served with a Santenay Premier Cru Les Gravieres. Both wines were the 2005 vintage. Champagne was served with the chocolate dessert.

Past speakers at the lecture dinners have included former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and former Prime Minister Eduoard Balladur. They are a fresh idea and one can only hope that other ambassadors will want to steal it from Vimont and soon enough Embassy Row will be dishing up diplomatic perspective and provocation with the charming manners, fine wine and good food.
The long red hall leading into the Washington Antiques Show at the Katzen Center.

The Washington Antiques Show is one of the last of the great cave dweller gatherings. No matter the weather, politics, or the economy, they show up. If the numbers have dwindled it has more to do with the mortality rate than the inflation rate.

In certain years, quite possibly this one, they may shop more sparingly than others, but they put on their best suits, the good jewelry, and smile with sincere warmth at seeing each other.
The martinis and the white wine. Behind the scenes - the catering staff.
The music. The bar.
The cocktail hour. The beef stew, rice, green beans and artichokes in filo from Susan Gage Caterers.
The opening night Preview Party on Wednesday was as much about curiosity as anything. The Show, in its 54th year, made a big change. They switched venues from their decades-long home, the storied Shoreham Hotel, to the shiny and new Katzen Arts Center. The response was positive.

While there was the issue off having the display booths distributed among three floors, rather than one vast hotel ballroom, patrons and exhibitors liked the location – away from downtown – and the ample indoor garage parking. Sometimes parking is all it takes to please certain Washingtonians. “Face it,” said one veteran, “this is basically the membership of the Chevy Chase Club.”
Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife, Rima Al-Sabah. Elinor Gordon and Betsy Winn of the Elinor Gordon Gallery.
Tim and Jane Matz. Alan Cunha of Cunha-St. John Antiques of Essex, Ma., with Ellen Charles.
Caterer Susan Gage. Nancy Flather with Frank and Patricia Saul.
Kevin Chaffee and Ellen Charles. Wiley and Janis Buchanan.
The weather was an issue, too. It poured outside. Dinner was supposed to be in a tented area beside the building but the rain got the best of the tent, a flood followed and caterer Susan Gage organized her team to seamlessly move the tables and chairs and food to a variety of interior spaces.

Few of the guests noticed the near-disaster. It helped that there were full bars on every floor and happy waiters passing cocktails without let up. Gage not only has stealth service skills, her food is delicious, easily the favorite of the cave dweller class and many others who take pride in offering guests a great spread. She’s looking forward to an inauguration dinner she’ll do in concert with foodie icon Alice Waters.
Looking down at an exhibition space at the Washington Antiques Show.
The chairs of this year’s Antiques show are Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and his wife, Rima. They arrived and became the center of a small entourage who followed them from exhibit to exhibit. A friend of hers walked over to confide to me, “She’s really stressed.

Her inauguration party is what’s on her mind. It’s the party and many of the people she’s invited have called up to say they have four houseguests they want to bring. People have called to RSVP who weren’t even invited.” Well, that’s the price of hosting the inauguration party. It could be worse. Arianna Huffington’s guest list for her inaugural blow out at the Newseum has bulged to 1,000 people.
The dinner, which was hastily moved from a rain drenched tent to available interior spaces of the Katzen Center. Most guests didn't notice.
But the inauguration was not the focal point Wednesday evening at the Katzen Center. It was beautiful furniture and objects and jewelry and paintings and, of course, Elinor Gordon’s incredible porcelain.

Elinor is an antiques show veteran. She’s had a booth at every Washington Antiques Show since the beginning in 1955. She seemed happy to be here, but said she’s pulled out of New York’s Winter Antiques Show. The reason: the economy. But then she’s a businesswoman, not a cave dweller.
Carlson & Stevenson, Manchester Center, Vt.
The Finnegan Gallery, Chicago. R. M. Worth Antiques.
Jeff R. Bridgman American Antiques, York County, Pa.
Running Battle Antiques.
Charles L. Washburne, Solebury, Pa. Raccoon Creek Antiques.
Robertsons, New Hope, Pa.
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.