Tuesday, March 17, 2015

DC Kitchens Confidentially

My friend Rob is a sleuth, a  C.I.A. man (graduate of the Culinary Institute of America). Having been both a cook and manager in many  high -end culinary spots in the capital, he knows  secrets - the kind that restaurant critics don't usually  see or write about. Sexism, racism - all the isms at work under pressure backstage where the public is never invited. The beefy Southern Senator who backs a black waitress against the wall for a tryst after dessert in the Senate dining room for instance: whoever sees that?. The same Senator asking that none of his food be 'touched by the niggers in the kitchen.' Mr. Big more or less controlled my friend's job  so should my friend have interfered, talked back, rescued his colleague?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Scene in Georgetown

Isabelle Goetz, owner and chief attraction at Izzy's Salon on M St. in Georgetown, can give you the lowdown on personalities that pass through her fingers. She could if she wanted to but she is basically diplomatic and polite and smart enough to stick to the positive and ignore the negative experiences of her, admittedly highly personal trade.
Sitting under her scissors the other day was the Canadian Ambassador to the US: a tall good-looking man with a gorgeous show of graying hair. Izzy and Mr. Ambassador spent the time laughing together. He seemed to enjoy this time away from what must be the big office desk, the bureaucratic business back on Pennsylvania Ave. It could be why, in part, he comes across town for the experience. The talented Ms. Goetz sweeps her fingers through his hair and then snips and snaps in carefully considered  fashion. How had he heard about this salon and why do many men of his standing seemingly want to come here? It wasn't through his wife, she says; she doesn't know, can't recall a Canadian ambassador's wife on the premises. "Just someone mentioning something," she says, brushing off the VIP allegiance to her handsome well-appointed quarters. Because such a "nice man" as the Canadian isn't alone. The director of the National Gallery of Art has been seen in Isabelle's ("Izzy's") chair., among other titled gentlemen of note.
So what is the secret of her charm not to mention her talent, enough so that prospective US President Hillary R Clinton has been and continues off and on to be another of her clients? Through whom Isabelle met Queen Rania of Jordan when she was in Washington. The queen took a shine to her, hearing that the comely stylist was a passionate motorcyclist like her husband the king. That led to an invitation for Isabelle to travel Jordan's roads on wheels with a friend. And more recently  Ms. Goetz  (known as either Izzy or Isabelle to many others, including Father O'Brien, one of Georgetown University's vice presidents, another regular ) went on vacation for a week in Vietnam where she has a friend with a Harley so she didn't have to bring her own with her.
As a teenager in Belfort, France, she was encouraged early to consider hair styling as a career and started apprenticing as well as schooling in the profession. Determination helped, as did the chance to work in Paris and then soon after with French-born Cristophe who had the Clintons under his hands for a while in California. "Twenty two years in France and 22 years in the US," amazingly she remarks. She is as dual a citizen as you can get.
Some of her skill must have to do with her discretion as well as an ability to create a family on the premises. Her father was one of her helpers when she designed and renovated the salon. At least two other stylists (and colorists) come from the her home town in France and have been with her through the years.  She says she calls herself Izzy to downplay the pretension of a profession that is as competitive and peculiar as they get  - especially in Georgetown.  

Monday, March 9, 2015

Metro Musings, contd.

One never knows what a Metro ride can offer.  While frantic scrambling goes on at the top of the managerial chain, lamentable and sad confusion over who is to run the country's second largest under/overground train system, passengers take what pleasure they can in the offbeat moments during a trip when the greatest mystery may be whether they will get to their destination without mishap. Sitting across the aisle from me on a crossing from Virginia into the District recently was a very distinctively dressed gentleman in a riotous patchwork costume, jacket and trousers, the epitome of creative fashion daringly applied. An original!
It helped that he had a totally free head of white hair, Afro style, and sat plugged into music that kept his multicolored shoes bouncing along in tune to  rhythms only he could hear. He carried a backpack with appliqu├ęs, much like his suit; both were composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of different textures and textiles in roughly square shapes and patterns. There was, in addition, a sort of white fur trim around the cuffs. It obviously had been custom made, a miraculous invention. Was he an actor trying out for a part or just someone on a roll? He was most definitely 'comfortable in his own skin' as the expression goes, a nonconformist in a city of buttoned-down blue two-piece suits, joyous and happily unselfconscious in his selectively original mode..

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tango Nights in Buenos Aires



Gloria was glorious. And glamorous. A tall 48-year-old Argentine-born beauty with a bum foot (ligaments went awry while stepping off a curb), she seemed the epitome of  why so many people think of  Buenos Aires as the epitome of South American sophistication. Her 24-year-old daughter  translates French for a living, she said: how much more European  - i.e. cosmopolitan - can you get I told myself while reveling in a first-time acquaintance with a native of a city as reviled politically these days as it is valued romantically.
 I had requested help - a guide -  to see something of night life in a town that famously comes alive only after dark. Hence, my trip with Gloria to the Portenito Bailarin at rue Batiba 345 where I understood I could have a tango lesson as well as witness  Portenos  dancing the night away. (The name for Buenos Aires natives comes from the fact they live next to a river port, the Rio de la Plata separating their city from Uruguay.)
Gloria had striking dark hair and eyes set off by a black top and sparkling earrings and the proper languor and know-how appropriate for a professional guide who has chaperoned outsiders (non-Spanish speaking souls such as myself) around for years: enough to know that, in her opinion, Brazilians can be too rough, too bold, too boorish to bother with. Older Americans like myself are perhaps more cowed, hence better behaved. She knew the town; she knew Luis, a former porter at the Plaza Hotel turned tango professional who, she said, had introduced actor Robert Duvall to his Argentine-born bombshell wife Luciana many years ago.
 It could have happened at just such a milonga as this one where we sat on a recent February evening.The Duvalls are avid  dancers, as is Gloria when she finds men tall enough to be partner.
An hour or so into the evening, when the place was getting crowded, she introduced me, a  tourist from Duvall's home country,  to Luis. I received a warm hug when I told him of my Washington background. (When they are home, the Duvalls live on an estate in the Virginia countryside, an hour or so away. ) Luis had come late to this twice-wceekly dance spot  in BA's Centro district  at about the same hour the Duvalls were being seen worldwide on TV in Los Angeles at the Oscars.
Luis, tall and burly with a wide smile, will be a judge at a tango competition in August but on this night he was shepherding a group of Japanese tourists who said they had met him in  Tokyo. (Cosmopolitan people roam the world.) It was nearly midnight by then; the room was astir with dancers changing into proper shoes, exchanging greetings, claiming tables. Champagne bottles appeared on the neighboring table where milonga regulars sat together taking a break from the dance floor. The place had a neighborhood feel to it; a large number of people seemed to know one another as they surged through the entrance doors. It was a simple unadorned room with a bar in the back.

Ostensibly I had signed up - with guide and driver - to take a tango lesson, but what I really wanted was to immerse myself in a local crowd, to feel myself temporarily a part of the scene. Just off a hiking trip in the wilds of Patagonia, this was my chance, superficially anyway, to compare Chilean and Argentinian personalities. To feel I belonged somewhere  and not just another tourist on the trail or waiting in line for MALBA (museum of Latin American art in BA).

Milonga, technically, is a modern form of the tango: a faster version, Gloria explained. The name also applies to gatherings occurring several times a week at various venues around the city. A tango show is another affair, more or less commercially driven with tourists the main audience - slick and effervescent, bracing and nearly surreal in its captivating expression of sexual play. Tango parlors are decorative and expensive where milonga in contrast is a lively exchange among friends and strangers  welcome to take part by paying a mere 70 pesos, or roughly 7 dollars a time. Wine, water, champagne all extra.
In spite of myself,  I flunked my  lesson. It wasn't the fault of my teachers who took me in hand with commendable compassion: first the young woman in eye-catching high heels and strapless full skirted dress and then her formally suited male colleague who smiled the whole time while patiently instructing me in  proper comportment -my  left arm resting on the middle of his back, not his shoulder  ballroom style- and outlining the basic steps. There were six of them: under, over, under again and a step backward with the left foot while he did what appeared to be a shadowing routine.  The dance, done right, is juxtaposition of opposites. The upper body  stays firmly under control while  legs whip sideways and back and forward again like flashing swords. High heels with straps over the instep are necessary equipment for the woman; soft leather shoes for the man. I was told to look up, not down at my feet, to concentrate on  balance - achieved only on the ball of the foot.
I wasn't in tune,  neither mentally nor athletically.  And certainly not sartorially. All I had to wear were either my hiking boots or grungy ballet slippers to go with loose black wash-and-wear slacks and a polyester print blouse. The dancers costumes swirling around me, by contrast, were short and sexy.  I was shamefaced, smiling and sweating until it seemed best to claim my seat again and take a long drink of water.
Gloria had sat by observing,  giving me encouragement with a upbeat tilt of her head. What else could she do?  My muscle memory wasn't up to the challenge. My feet felt too far from my head.
Recorded music surged continually through the hall under bright lights. A tango requires a pair to have three  dances together, after which partners can change hands if they don't agree to continue. An interim bit of modern pop  and then the familiar insistent rhythmic beat returns. Teachers merge with  the pupils who come faithfully each week, on a Tuesday and Sunday. Other nights the hall is used for salsa. All ages are welcome; no judgment rendered about either status or attire.
 I joked with the manager that maybe the reason Portenios came out at night was to escape creeping global warning temperatures of the day. He laughed appreciably, giving me a sign of approval for my lame wit,  hugged me in farewell and asked me to return in two days' time, for the next milonga.
Glorious Gloria: a guide for hire. You could do the same (anyone reading this). Website for reliable informed guides in BA is www.vandvexperience.com. You never know what fate has in store. I've since been reliably informed that actor Matt Dimon also fell under the spell of an Argentine beauty in similar circumstances and is now the happily married father of three. Portenos come in all sizes and flavors...