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Expat Salons in Paris

The Tradition Persists

In the golden age of Paris in the ’20s, cultural life revolved around cafés and salons. Of the latter, Gertrude Stein’s afternoons were probably among the most famous. The company and conversation to be found at Stein’s flat at Rue de Fleurus nurtured some of the world’s greatest geniuses of the time: Picasso, Matisse, and Hemingway to name three. Although those days are over, the salon tradition persists in Paris, offering valid opportunities for visitors and newcomers to the city to meet people, network, or just spend a pleasant evening chatting in someone’s private home.

Patricia LaPlante-Collins, a Paris resident originally from Atlanta, has been hosting a salon in her home for nearly 10 years. She opens her door on Wednesday and Sunday evenings at 6:30 p.m. to a small crowd of locals and out-of-towners gathered to discuss a scheduled topic, listen to a speaker, and enjoy a buffet.

On Wednesdays, the fare is limited to cocktails and snacks and the encounters are oriented to enhancing business and professional contacts. Speakers and topics focus on new products, services, books, and techniques of specific interest to the international business community. Sundays, which include dinner, are dedicated instead to music, art, travel, books, African-American culture in Paris, and topics of general interest.

I learned about these soirees from an American journalist now living in Paris, and on a recent trip decided to see for myself. I went there on a cold wintry Sunday evening when, at 6:30 p.m., night had fallen across the slate-tiled roofs of Paris. I rang the bell of an apartment building in Rue de Mulhouse in the second arrondissement and climbed the old creaking wooden stairs to the third floor. Patricia LaPlante-Collins, exuding old-fashioned Southern hospitality and charm, greeted me warmly and ushered me inside, where several guests were already assembled. A delicious smell of curry and chicken wafted from the kitchen where an assistant was preparing the buffet.

The evening began with a glass of wine and a half hour of informal conversation. LaPlante made the rounds, chatting with each guest for a few moments. The group consisted of American, French, and British guests. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed and the décor informally chic. I admired the tall bookcases stocked with books on architecture and with curious art objects revealing the passion that originally brought this hostess to Paris.

The soiree opened officially around 7 p.m. as guests introduced themselves in turn to the group, said a few words about themselves, and distributed calling cards. Next came an abundant buffet dinner, a mix of Southern home cooking and fine French cuisine, with wine, followed by the evening’s presentation. Over the last year, speakers included writers, singers, musicians, editors, journalists, artists, actors, world travelers, psychologists, life coaches, Web experts, and leading businessmen and women.

That night’s speaker was an expat mystery writer, Jake Lamar, whose novels are set in multicultural modern-day Paris. He read briefly from his latest novel and discussed his career. Questions and answers followed the speaker’s presentation, and the evening wound down with guests chatting among themselves, exchanging contact information. Announcements are made regarding available flats, upcoming speakers, interesting events happening in Paris.

By the time the evening was over, I had chatted with a French Web designer, a publicity expert, a language teacher, a British architect, a scholar who organizes tours of literary Paris, a woman who works in fashion, and a British engineer. “I always drop in when I am back in Paris,” said a fellow from Seattle, who used to run a restaurant here in town, “It’s always fascinating. It’s always different. It’s a place to be.”

Around 11 p.m. the soiree ended, just in time for everyone to get the last metro home from the nearby station. To participate in one of Patricia LaPlante’s soirees, held year-round, you can book through her website, www.parissoirees.com. The price of participation on Sundays, which includes dinner and drinks, is 20 euros. For English-speaking people newly arrived in the city, it’s a great way to make contacts and to find out about services and events of interest to expatriates living in Paris. For tourists, it’s an excellent opportunity to immerse yourself in the “Parisian atmosphere” and enjoy friendly company, conversation, and a gourmet meal for a very modest price. In a city known to be expensive and hard to penetrate, even a temporary tourist can feel like an insider.

For More Info

Websites of Interest: Adrian Leeds maintains a website, newsletter, and event calendar for English speakers in Paris at adrianleeds.com/parler-paris; The website of writer and publisher David Applefield, author of Paris Inside Out, is www.paris-anglo.com.

The American Library in Paris organizes cultural events: americanlibraryinparis.org.

WICE, www.wice-paris.org, a nonprofit cultural organization that holds courses, workshops, lectures, and other events for the English-speaking community.

Celebrated expat shrine and bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., shakespeareandcompany.com, holds readings at 7 p.m. on Mondays. Writers and visitors chat informally afterwards.

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