Friday, March 27, 2015

Walk Behind Me

When the French flag is flying over the Byrd Theater, I know it's time for my annual binge-watching.

While it was tough to abandon a sunny, 77-degree afternoon to enter the darkness of the Byrd Theater, no self-respecting French film lover would do otherwise.

Given that it was the first day of the festival, what surprised me was that it wasn't more crowded, although 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon isn't ideal for the 9 to 5 set.

As the first film of the day, it came closest to starting when it claimed it would. If there is one thing the French Film Festival is not, it's punctual about starting.

"Do you know why you're special?" Peter, the FFF organizer, asked of us about the film borrowed from the British Film Institute. "You're about to see the only 35 mm copy with English subtitles of this movie in the world."

I'll be the first to admit that I get a kick out of knowing that sort of thing,

The film was Francois Truffaut's "Day for Night" and considering I'd only seen one Truffaut movie in my entire life ("Wild Child"), I figured I owed it to myself to be there to see the cinematographer and stunt coordinator of the film introduce it.

When the film started, I was immediately reminded of how much I enjoy watching movies on film and not video. I love the look of film.

The 1973 film was about a director (Truffaut acting) making a film (maybe that's why it won the Oscar for best foreign film) and starred Jacqueline Bisset, an actress I'd forgotten all about, but remember all the guys being hot for at the time.

It had plenty of very French moments - "Walk in front of me so I can look at your behind" - as well as a story that involved everyone falling into bed with everyone else oh-so casually. Or maybe that was more of a '70s moment like a package arriving in brown paper tied up with string.

"Do you think women are magical?" one immature guy asks his co-workers. "Some are and some are not," he's told by a woman. By a man, it's, "No, but their legs are because they wear skirts and we wear pants."

I already had an inkling of that.

When filming on the movie within a movie ends, it's with one character's simple conclusion: "My sweet, my darling, you're wonderful. We all need that." Do we ever, none more so than those who don't get it much.

So now I've seen my second Truffaut film, enjoyed it immensely and realize I need to see more.

Walking out of the theater, the air was almost as soft and warm as when I'd walked in, although we were on our way to sunset.Still, it was a treat to not be the slightest bit chilly going outside.

Having taken a pass on the next French offering, I headed straight to the Valentine for the opening of "Beard Wars," a brilliantly curated new exhibit.

Making my way through a crowd that included some of the most awe-inspiring beards you can imagine, I found myself in front of a wall of photographs both new (by the multi-talented Terry Brown) and old (no doubt from the collection).

On the left hand side of each was a Civil War general with a picture and a description of the man and what he was known for. On the right hand side, a picture of a Richmond guy with a very similar beard and a bit about him.

I knew we had some world-class beards in this town (hence the Richmond Beard and 'Stache League) but I have to say there were some magnificent match-ups.

One guy's wife asked him to shave his beard because it was scratchy and he compromised by shaving his chin, leaving his mustache, mutton chops and side beard, also knows as "friendly mutton chops." Friendly to the wife, I suppose. See? I was learning new things.

Another guy had come out at the First Annual Mid-Atlantic Beard and 'Stache Competition, figuring it was the best way to show people how he self-identified. Well done.

Midway through the show, I ran into a photographer friend, IPA in hand, and chatted with her long enough to learn that she checks my blog any time she runs into me to see if she merits a mention. This is that.

Yet another said he first grew facial hair when he hit puberty because he hates to shave. Hate, he repeated in case we weren't clear on that. One used his nipple-length beard as a conversation starter. Curly, straight, gray, red, blond and brunette. One guy's mustache was wider than his face.

There were also on display four shaving mugs and a rare silver-plated mustache cup (to keep your beverage out of your 'stache) from the collection.

Turning from the cups, I almost ran into a guy with mutton chops and a fabulous handlebar mustache handing off his beer - complete with straw - to his mother. She and I chatted for a bit and I joked that her son should have brought a mustache cup so he wouldn't have to use a straw. "I offered to bring mine for him but he said no," she claimed. So much for my joke.

Turns out her son has a sponsorship from a facial hair grooming product company, meaning his visage has appeared in a British sporting magazine and he's gone to Austin to compete in beard competitions on the company's dime.

Who knew facial hair had such big payoffs?

In case you can't tell, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit and a big part of that was because of how it had been curated with the generals for comparison. It was like a cultural lesson in the similarities in facial hair between now and 150 years ago.

Leaving the show, I walked past three bearded guys shooting the breeze in parking lot. Two of them had beards past their arm pits. It truly was impressive.

Back in Carytown, I dropped by Secco for a glass of J. Mourat Collection Rose and a hilarious story. As a guy is leaving Secco, his friend spots him from across the street, yelling to ask what in the world he's doing at a wine bar.

"This where bitches be at!" he hollers from Secco's front door all the way across Cary Street. The owner is thinking of having that screened on t-shorts for the staff. I seconded the motion.

From there, I went on to admire photographs of a friend's mother from the '60s, '70s and '80s. What a stylish creature she had been despite a cigarette frequently in hand. Some were even taken in Paris, making them an ideal prelude to my next stop: more French film.

The crowd for "The Return of Martin Guerre" was half the size of the one for the 7:00 film, but I guess that's to be expected on a school night when you're talking about a film that doesn't start until after 9 p.m.

Introduced by its director, Daniel Vigne, the film appealed to me because it was one of a handful of the films that made up my first exposure to foreign films and I still recall being moved by it, partly because it had been based on a true story.

Something that struck me tonight that would not have occurred to me in 1982 was that it was a film about identity theft in the 16th century. How au courant a theme is that? And, get this, the village where the story took place faded back into obscurity after the notoriety of the film, only to grab the headlines again four years ago because a terrorist cell was discovered there.

Mon dieu, it was fascinating to see Gerard Depardieu young (34) and not as big as a whale like he was in "My Afternoons with Margueritte," which I also saw at the FFF.

Just as compelling was how much more relatively realistically the 16th century was portrayed in 1982 than it would be now. People's clothing looked dirty and hand-sewn. If the actress who played Martin Guerre's wife had on any make-up at all, it was undetectable. It's ridiculous to see a woman playing a peasant and see that she's wearing mascara or even the palest of lipstick.

That said, I don't buy Martin returning from fighting wars after nine years with a bowl-cut haircut. Seems unlikely.

What I particularly enjoyed was watching the love story unfold between the Martin pretender and the neglected wife of the real Martin. The actors conveyed a very touching and sensual relationship.

Being totally engrossed in the film, I couldn't have been more surprised when the two women in my row got up and left an hour into the film. What, you don't like a well-acted true story, shot in a real medieval village and scripted to use words like 'calumny'?

Be gone, ladies. Obviously we're not cut from the same cloth.

Your legs must not be as magical as mine.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

At Home in the '60s of My Mind

The hand stamp said it all: Get well soon.

Not that there was anything wrong with me, but how could I not qualify for better after a night of kick ass world music?

My day played out productively, but I didn't even leave the house for dinner until after 8:30, stopping at Garnett's for a farmer's salad and the New York Times, a quiet meal at the counter.

The funniest moment unfolded when a neighborhood man came into pick up his take-out order. When he asked for a piece of the buttermilk pie sitting on a cake stand on the counter, the girl went to lift the top off and it went flying (cracking on the floor even) and the pie would have slid off the counter if her nimble fingers hadn't snatched it back at the very last moment.

All three of us looked at each other big-eyed and then burst out laughing. Hell of a save, honey.

Given my late start, I had no time for dessert, barely making it to Balliceaux in time to pay the piper, have my hand stamped with "get well soon" and head to the back room which was already mostly full.

Familiar faces abounded: the former neighbor and his date who recalled meeting me at the Mozart Festival ("I was wearing my puffy coat that day"), the organizer who's no longer a platinum blond ("Too much work!"), the film guru ("You need to see 'Wattstax.' You'd love it"), the printmaker and her DJ husband.

As many times as I've seen Yeni Nostalji singing another memorable set of Turkish pop songs from the '60s and '70s, this was the first time I'd seen them playing '70s Turkish movies behind them (with an occasional tag, "Nostalji TV").

Such wide bell bottoms. All the men had Burt Reynolds-style mustaches and all the women feathered hair. Even in Turkey? Who knew?

Their sound is completely distinctive with Christina and Evrim's voices playing off each other so well and Marlysse's keyboards adding just the right accessibility to the songs while Rey and Tim's rhythm section tie it all together.

After the first song, Christina was talking to the audience when Evrim excused himself and said he'd be right back. "That's my worst nightmare about being onstage," she joked. Or not.

He returned and they carried on with a song "from all the way back in '82!" before saying they were going to do an original song.

That's when the comedy really began. Evrim couldn't find his capo so while Christina sang a song a capella, everyone frantically looked around onstage for it. Afterwards, she made a plea to the audience to lend them a capo if anyone had one.

"This is my second worst nightmare," she said.

With none forthcoming, someone offered Evrim a pen and a rubber band and he McGyvered a capo so they could play the next song. A song later, someone walked up to Evrim's mic stand and clipped a capo on it.

When the song ended, Evrim plucked it off saying, "Oh, look, there's a capo right here," as if it had been there the whole time.

It was when Christina debuted her new song - "It's about loving your enemy" - that two couples began dancing in front of the stage.

Behind me, I overheard two girls discussing the movie and it was clear they'd both seen it before. "What was his other movie?" one asked about the Burt Reynolds lookalike. Turns out the local Turkish community was out in force at the show tonight.

Before the last song, Evrim thanked everyone for putting up with all the mishaps. "Thanks for making us feel at home in the Turkish '60s of our mind."

And, you know, it's exactly that Turkish '60s of their mind that keeps me coming back to hear them play.

During the break, I mingled, hearing cracks about how at future Yeni Nostalji shows the audience will all bring capos just in case. I was introduced to the bass player and talked about movies and music. A guy came and stood beside me, marveling when I showed him he could put his drink on the ledge above rather than risking it underneath a chair on the floor while we were dancing.

It's not my first rodeo, I told him. "Mine, either, but I can still learn new tricks," he said/ That makes him a role model for his sex then.

I'd never seen Afro-Zen Allstars, although I knew the bass player, trombonist and one of the sax players (and recognized the guitarist), hardly surprising given the incestuous nature of the music scene in Richmond. New to me were the other sax player, the drummer and the percussionist.

Honestly, they were barely into the first song, their Ethiopian funk settling into a groove so deep it was startling for its immediacy, when people began dancing. They might have played one or two songs that weren't Ethiopian, but even those followed the groove.

And a mighty groove it was. I loved how sinuous the sound was and while I never made it as far as the main dance floor, my little area of the floor served as my own dance floor. Nearby, a guy was sketching the band, putting his pad and metal Juicy Fruit box of pencils down periodically to go dance, too.

A white-haired man in slacks and a sweater vest danced non-stop, finally stopping to remove his hat and wipe off the sweat streaming down his face. The hat stayed off but his dancing kept on.

The undisputed star of the dance floor was a blond woman in beige church lady pumps and a denim skirt the size of a band-aid (read: way shorter than mine) who had a way of dancing that was part Prancersize and part pole dancing. She was very popular to dance with, I'll say that much.

So while she had partners and I did not, I feel quite sure she didn't have any better a time than I did.

Unless blonds really do have more fun, in which case I'll never know. Too much work, I hear.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nothing Lost in Translation

I shall draw two conclusions from the evening's fun: the Scots are a resilient lot and Brazilians never forget a face.

Yes, of course I'm making blanket generalizations.

Arriving at the Grace Street theater to find only one other person in the auditorium, I briefly wondered if I'd been mistaken about there being a film tonight. Taking my usual seat anyway, I soon heard my name called and was joined by a familiar face who introduced me to his companion.

Talk quickly turned to film and I learned from the newcomer that Richmond has a Bollywood connection. No kidding, this woman who is married to an Indian informed me that new Bollywood films are screened at the VCC theater on the same day as they open in India.

What? How had I not heard of this fascinating offering?

When I expressed regret for having missed out so far, she assured me that I could watch some of the films on YouTube, at which point I had to clarify that I watch movies in public on big screens, the way god and Shiva intended. She immediately understood.

Interestingly enough, she also gave me a source for English translations of Indian reviews of new films. This woman was turning out to be invaluable.

Another familiar face showed up, a guy I run into at all kinds of events, including this one. The three of us who'd seen "Wild Grass" last week as part of VCU Cinematheque got into a big discussion of its protagonist and whether the film's events had been real or imaginary.

It was soon clear that each of the guys had completely opposite takes on the plot. One saw nut case, the other saw sex offender. I saw a lonely woman with bunions who fell for the stranger who found her stolen wallet. Never the twain shall meet.

Tonight the Cinematheque was showing a documentary, an infrequent offering but one the Professor said spoke to their mission to show lots of different things. He also warned us there'd be no Q & A because the film was self-explanatory.

Reminding us that there are four more films in the series before the semester ends, he instructed us to tell our friends (as I do) or even bring them. "It's  a cheap date!"

I hear that, Prof.

"Touch the Sound: A Sound Journey with Evelyn Glennie"  began with a woman playing snare drum in Grand Central Station and only later do we learn that she is profoundly deaf (and Scottish, but understandable) since a neurological disorder during childhood claimed her hearing.

She adapts by using a sense of touch and bare feet to play mad percussion with all kinds of talented people, including making a wholly improvised record with experimental musician Fred Frith in an abandoned warehouse ("The nature of improvisation is your whole life up to that point.").

In one scene, she improvises on the floor of a restaurant using drumsticks on two plates, a metal ashtray, a glass and a metal box.

A large portion of the film was her playing alone and with others in all kinds of locations, but apparently there weren't enough quick cuts and car chases to entertain the ADD set because a surprising number of students cut out early. A guy near me kept leaning forward as if to stave off sleep.

Some of the stuff that came out of her mouth was profound such as, "Silence is one of the loudest sounds you'll experience," something I discovered trying to sleep in the country after a life in the city. Or, "The absence of sound is the closest thing I can imagine to death."

But what earned her the crown of most resilient was her take on life. "My role on this planet is to bring the power of sound." As we saw, that she did over and over, whether on a farm, a rooftop or Japan.

When the movie ended, I noticed one acquaintance had already cut out. Another asked what I was up to next. When I said more music, he showed little interest. Too much music? No such thing.

Gallery 5 was hosting a Brazilian band that played South by Southwest this past Saturday night and were swinging up the east coast since.

I ran into two friends leaving on the way out ("We were working"), arriving partway through Richmond band Candy Spot's set. I didn't know the band but just the sound of the jangly guitar alone was enough to get me interested even before I rounded the corner.

Hints of psychedelia, definite shoegaze elements and catchy songs. Yup, I liked these guys and hope to hear them again sooner rather than later.

It was after their set ended that I looked up to see a favorite girlfriend busy talking to a group of musicians (you can always tell) before heading my way.

Neither of us had expected to see the other, so we were busy catching up when one of the handsome musicians in the back walked up to me and said, "You were at our last show, weren't you?'

Now let's be clear, yes, I had seen Marcelo Fruet and Os Cozinheiros exactly two years ago this month at a house show on southside at the mid-century modern home of a glamorous friend. How in the world he recognized me is beyond me.

Surprised, I assured him I had been at that show and had fallen in love with their sound and energy. "Thank you so much for coming out tonight," Marcelo said in his Portuguese-accented English.

You know that feeling when you're really happy you decided to go somewhere? That was me.

My girlfriend and I chatted while the band got set up: Marcelo on guitar and vocals plus a drummer, bassist and a percussion master with killer triangle skills (the man could shake and strike anything).

Their set was more raucous than the one I'd seen in my friend's living room in 2013 and the band was even tighter, if that's possible, playing their hybrid of samba, rock and jazz.

By the second song, Marcelo said, "We better play more Brazilian music so you know we're from Brazil tonight." He may have been shredding his guitar, but his hips were swaying sinuously.

In fact, the instrumentation and the way they played came across like indie rock while the lyrics and groove made it clear they were from the southernmost state in Brazil.

Almost everything sung was in Portuguese until Marcelo said, "I don't write as good in English as I do in Portuguese but here's a song I wrote in English when I was 14." The only obvious Latin touches on the rocking "Land of Moons" was Marcelo's elongated and sibilant ending on  "moonssssss."

Leaning in toward me between songs, my friend whispered, "Marcelo is cute as a button, isn't he?" Indeed, and earnest too, a swoon-worthy combination.

If the set they played in Austin was half as powerful as the one they played for the small crowd tonight, the critics must have eaten them up with a spoon. Their Latin roots were the underpinnings for every song, so no matter how hard guitar and bass were wailing or how much of my beloved reverb they were using, you could never lose sight of their heritage.

Which is exactly why I wouldn't have missed another chance to catch them after two years.

"We wish we had a place like Gallery 5 in Brazil," Marcelo said from the stage before the last song. "But we don't."

Here's the thing, Marcelo: We wish we had men who remembered our faces after two years and were thrilled when we showed up. And if they have liquid hips, all the better.

But we don't. Which makes us very happy when guys like you stop by.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Heaven Knows

Taking a cue from the National -

So happy I was invited
Give me a reason to get out of the city

- I accepted an invitation for a road trip out of Richmond today. Shortly after 11 a.m., we were headed west on I-64 toward Nelson County, leaving cloudy skies behind for sunshine over the mountains.

Our  first stop was at Dr. Ho's Humble Pie, fantastically named and improbably located in a giant corner white strip center with a doctor's office, a beautiful goddess spa and a gas station.

You know, for all your country living needs.

Inside, the spacious room was a pastiche of funky signs, posters and photos (a Kodak Film sign was mounted on a column by the lunch counter) and the music was solidly '70s: Spinners, Jackson Brown, Foreigner.

Most importantly, the pizza was right on with a properly chewy crust on our white pizza with housemade hot Italian sausage, spinach and mushrooms. Years ago, a blog reader gave me a hard time because I always order meat on a white pizza, but I will defend to the death my right to go white and eat meat simultaneously.

After enduring an Eagles song and stuffing ourselves silly with spinach salad and pie, we did the only logical thing and went for a hike.

Our destination was Delfosse winery, which was closed, because it's there that you pick up the the Delfosse Trail, part of Nelson County's department of conservation and recreation but located on the winery's land.

And may I just say, kudos to Delfosse for sharing their largess with the little people.

Parking behind the charming log cabin they rent out for parties, we started up a steep gravel hill to pick up the trail head. One thing immediately became clear: this was not a hill for the out of shape. Luckily, I'm not.

Making our way along the trail, a series of hills and ravines, we had a terrific view of the forest (a popular hunting ground November through January), something we won't have if we hike it again come Summer when the trees have leafed out.

But for now, we could see for great distances.

Before long, we had to go through a weighted gate in the fencing that prevents deer from snacking on the grape vines. Along the way were more than a few rock piles where people had artfully stacked rocks of descending size in the Japanese manner (naturally I added one of my own).

After an hour of fairly strenuous hiking, we were back at the log cabin snooping through the windows at the space and relaxing on the swing on the porch.

You walk the walk, then you drink the wine.

Just a few miles down the road was Democracy Vineyards where we spotted three people working in the fields and no one in the winery. Before long, though, the owner abandoned his fence-mending on the hill and came down to greet us in the tasting room lined with campaign posters and political artwork.

When he heard we'd been on the Delfosse Trail, he grinned. "You know they've been spotting bears on that trail. We're not near any wood line, so they're not a problem for us."

Let's just say I was glad to hear the bear news after the hike rather than before.

The glass garage door was rolled up so we could get out to the patio where we sat on wicker chairs with cushions and sipped a bottle of Declaration, their signature white blend while watching the activity in the vineyard and buzzards scouring the fields. Men and birds were hard at work.

Us, not so much.

I mentioned that it was a shame there was no music so I could get up on the table and dance and lo and behold, music was put on. For the record, I did not dance at Democracy.

After a bit, the owner joined us on the patio and shared stories of his days as a lobbyist. He laughed about how strict the General Assembly has gotten about accepting gifts ("It was a little bag of chocolate-covered peanuts!") and bemoaned the challenges he'd faced in getting his ABC licensing because he'd done business with so many of the agents in the past.

When we got off on a prolonged tangent about gerrymandered districts and local politicians, I expressed concern that we were keeping him from his fence fixing. "I'm done for today!" he said emphatically, no doubt one of the benefits of being the boss.

After a sunny drive to Charlottesville, we decided on Mas for dinner, taking a new route to the Belmont neighborhood to get there. We arrived early enough to be the first people at the bar for dinner, but hardly the last.

Since a road trip is as fine an occasion for celebration as any, we chose Castell d'Age Anne Marie Comtesse Brut Nature Reserva, arriving in the loveliest bottle adorned with what looked like an etched white floral pattern and tasting of ripe fruit. Cheers.

Then it was on to eye candy. No one had ever told me that the large-format black and white photographs on the wall were of the staff, so with that knowledge, I couldn't resist trying to match up faces.

In the case of the photo hanging over the bar of a guy in a toreador suit with the, ahem, obscenely large package, unfortunately I didn't see him, despite looking. Hard. 

Must have been his night off, drat the luck.

Mas' bar is such a pleasant place to eat, observe and linger, assuming you can ignore the line of waiting guests. It's wide with fresh flowers - tonight's were tulips - while a silver compote dish held blood oranges, a thoroughly pleasing tableau. Plus there's a great view of the kitchen as food is prepared.

The only downside of bar seating occurs when the sun drops just low enough in the sky that it beams directly through the west-facing front door into the eyes of bar sitters. That was us.

We managed as best we could until the sun made it below the roof lines mainly by focusing on plate after plate of food.

Thin slices of Jamon Serrano and aged Manchego we ate with our fingers while a  salad of baby lettuces and dandelion greens, fava leaves, kumquat (for the second time in 24 hours), beets and more Manchego (well, it is a Spanish place) required utensils.

Delivering some serious chili pepper heat was Pulpo, a deep bowl of local pork belly, Spanish octopus, salsa espelette, San Marzano tomatoes, mint, basil and semolina noodles cooked to toothsome perfection. I'm usually not much of a pasta person, but the coarser semolina speaks to me.

Sitting next to us was a Charles Manson lookalike and a hippie chick wearing knitted forearm warmers (very Stevie Nicks-like).

She kept looking over until finally asking our opinion of the octopus dish. I highly recommended it with the caveat that it was spicy. "I love spicy!" she enthused, lifting her arm with its unshaven arm pit, so '70s.

Go for it, honey. They did and they loved it. I'm always happy to be of service to the patchouli crowd.

The undisputed stars of the meal were two orders of huge wild-caught Gulf shrimp grilled and served with a buttery green garlic aioli. The meaty shrimp tasted more like lobster, even more so after a swipe in the rich aioli which also adorned every bite of bread I put in my mouth.

One of tonight's many topics was "change you can believe in," a compelling premise since it can be argued that it's impossible to determine the point at which you accept that change is real. And what if the change you thought you wanted ends up disappointing you? What if one change by rights deserves another and it isn't forthcoming?

That conversation got tabled in favor of finishing the bubbles in our glasses and hitting the road for home. In the few seconds it took us to stand up, a guy scooted over from his waiting position in the doorway to claim our stools, already warmed up for him.

All yours, friend. I'd gotten out of the city and I was ready to go back now, changes and all.

So happy I was invited.

Days of Wine and Roses

How better to impress out-of-towners than with flower power?

The garden and art-loving visitors arrived from points north only to be bundled back into the car so we could go to the VMFA. Destination: "Art of the Flower: Van Gogh, Manet and Matisse."

Detour: Amuse for brunch. They were mobbed on arrival, so we waited for a table in the groovy green chairs in the corner where the hospitable barkeep delivered the absinthe drip and four glasses.

After positioning sugar cubes on absinthe spoons and lighting them, she left us to monitor our own drips. Considering it was the visitors' first foray into absinthe, they were surprisingly quick to master the technique.

We'd barely begun sipping from the green fairy when we were told our table was ready. She accompanied us there.

Beginning with carb loading - breakfast bread with mixed berries, buttermilk biscuits with pimento cheese, sweet pickles and butter - we passed the time until our orders arrived telling jokes, including a mother's favorite. One of us even deigned to share a knock knock joke.

After getting our enthusiastic server's thumbs up on the Dutch Baby ("my favorite!"), a puffed pancake-like concoction of bacon, scallions, goat cheese and arugula, I had to admit he was right on. Light yet filling, the meaty chunks of bacon made the dish.

After my companions had polished off rave-worthy corned beef hash and eggs, a salad Nicoise and today's quiche, we headed downstairs to visually feast on floral still lifes.

For a sunny Sunday afternoon, the show was quite well attended, no doubt due to just having opened Friday. And it's a stunner, too, as much for the gorgeous paintings as for an art history lesson in the progression of French floral painting it delivers.

Since it's only my first time seeing the exhibit, I'm sure my favorites will change, but for today, I chose three.

It's hard to imagine something more romantic an artist could offer his love than Henri Fantin-Latour's "The Engagement Still Life," given to fiance Victoria Dubourg to seal the deal. I particularly liked the glass of wine in the composition, a promise, perhaps, of good times ahead.

Making my way through the next gallery, a loud-voiced young man said to his companion, " Hey! Have you read these signs on the wall? They're more interesting than the paintings." He then proceeded to read several of them to her loudly.

I decided it must be his first time in a museum and tunes him out.

Mary Cassatt's "Lilacs in a Window" was bound to catch my eye because lilacs are my favorite flower. There'd also been a Manet of "Vase of White Lilacs and Roses" which I also lingered on, but decided I preferred Cassatt's because her vase sat in a greenhouse or conservatory next to an open window where you could almost smell the warm air.

And the very last painting in the show, Matisse's "Still Life with Pascal's 'Pensees,'" spoke to me because of its appealing components: a cup and saucer, a book and a vase of anemones, a flower I love, all sitting next to a lace-curtained window. It's the kind of tableau that would give me pleasure every time I looked at it.

Just don't hold me to those favorites because I have no doubt that on my next visit to see the exhibition, I'll exercise my female prerogative to change my mind and fall in love with something else.

In the next-to-last gallery, I overheard a couple sitting on a bench talking. When he mentioned Iceland and and film, I knew he had to be talking about "Land Ho," the movie I'd just seen because it was showing again tonight.

So I asked.

Sure enough, he'd been looking online for opinions to decide if they should see it. Go, I told him, if only to see the beauty of Iceland. But if you're over 60 (and they looked like they were), you'll love the story, too.  "Thank you so much for telling us that," he said. "I was going to pass it on it after reading some online reviews but I'd much rather have a real person tell me to go."

There was my good deed for the day and I went back to looking at the last gallery.

Unused to absinthe in the afternoon, my companions demanded naps afterwards, leaving me to enjoy my Washington Post on the balcony outside in the late afternoon sunshine while they dozed.

When we reconvened, they were still wiping sleep out of their eyes ("That absinthe kicked my butt!" the professor acknowledged) and I was rarin' to go. This time, it was eastward ho to Metzger because two of the group had once lived in Germany.

Given the dearth of restaurants open on Sunday night, we shouldn't have been surprised to find a full dining room when we got there. Luckily, three bar stools soon opened up and one of us was willing to stand until a fourth came available.

Vintage soul serenaded us, a bottle of Hugl Rose was delivered and we got into a discussion of what everybody was currently reading.

Three of us listened fascinated to a description of Jose Saramago's "The History of the Siege of Lisbon," a book about a proofreader who decides to add the word "not" to a sentence which causes repercussions for himself and historians.

Fascinating as I'm finding it, my current book, "1965: The Year That Revolutionized Music," seemed shallow in comparison.

From there, we devoured smoked trout rillettes and chicken liver mousse with carrot jam (which came across more like marmalade), two excellent starters and the latter one I seem to get every time I go.

Conversation concerned birth order and how parents take fewer pictures of each successive child. My parents have albums aplenty with photos of me, the oldest, and hardly any of my youngest sister (the sixth). The exception that proves the rule was the middle son who said there were fewer pictures of him than his younger brother.

I mentioned some t-shirts I'd seen recently that perfectly summed up birth order differences:

I'm the oldest. I'm the reason they made the rules
I'm the middle child. I'm the reason they needed the rules.
I'm the youngest. What rules?

All I know is, the best thing about being the oldest of six girls was that I never had to wear a hand-me-down dress. What I did have, though, was the strictest upbringing in the family. I still haven't decided whether that was a good thing or not.

For dinner, I chose mette - hand-cut sirloin tartare with a tiny farm egg and grilled bread - enjoying perfectly seasoned meat made richer once I broke the yolk atop it ("Are you going to have all your courses on bread?" I was asked). The beer-brined pork chop the youngest son let me taste was delicious, too, although not quite fatty enough for my taste.

People continued to arrive as we ate and I spotted a friend come in with three strangers. When he came over to say hello, I learned that he was on a business dinner entertaining travel writers so he'd been on an all-day eating marathon at restaurants throughout the city.

The funniest thing he said was that he'd just come from a restaurant that had a Richard Gere menu and that I absolutely had to check it out. It gets odder because someone had noticed earlier that there was a picture of Richard Gere hanging in Metzger's kitchen.

Why Richard? Inquiring minds want to know.

He went off to eat with the travel writers (there's a job I could get used to) and I ate a dessert of three housemade gelatos: tequila/kumquat (which had a very long finish), a decadent chocolate and the most ethereal of all, creme fraiche, its flavor heightened with lemon. Each had an incredibly creamy mouthfeel.

And while it would have been great at that point to push the tables aside, dim the lights, crank the soul music and dance 'till dawn, my posse was ready for bed. That's right, the three people who'd napped were pooped while the one who'd walked four miles this morning was looking for some action.

Must be that oldest child stamina.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Listen 'Til the End

Ask me and I'm yours.

A friend had tickets for Ira Glass, part of the UR Modlin series at Centerstage, and needed a date. Always happy to substitute for a husband, I walked over in the last of the evening sunlight so she wouldn't have to pick me up.

I was greeted by a couple of friends loitering near the entrance, promising to meet up with one for dinner and discussing mac and cheese devotion with the other. Behind them was my date, waiting for me.

Turns out we had terrific seats in the sixth row of a sold out theater, hardly a surprise since she'd gotten the tickets months ago. We got busy catching up about her toddler who has developed a devotion to Taylor Swift's videos, although she noted that he prefers her early work.

I thought that was hilarious.

Not Ira Glass hilarious, but then I readily admit to being partial to a handsome middle-aged man with a big brain and outstanding sense of humor.

Our beloved Ira took the stage in darkness saying, "The thing you have to understand is it's radio." Major laughter.

He kept on talking on a darkened stage, admitting that he'd wanted to do the entire show in darkness but UR wouldn't let him. "Seeing people in the stories is overrated."

Once the lights were up, he began a brief history of "This American Life," saying that it was the first NPR show that you didn't listen to because it made you a better person.

He talked a lot about the power of humor (something he had in abundance) using some of his past broadcasts, such as the a story about the war in Afghanistan.that began with an interview with the woman whose job it was to refill the vending machines aboard an aircraft carrier. All day.

Cracking himself up, he shared a story about a high school student who bought weed for the new girl at school only to have her turn out to be a cop. The punchline of that story was that Ira had had it turned into a musical, parts of which we heard. The lyrics came straight from the student's dialog.

That Ira is brilliant.

A fair amount of time and discussion was spent on "vocal fry," a manner of speaking common to young women these days. The problem is how offensive older listeners find it with NPR receiving scads of complaints after using younger journalists with the distinctive register.

The story concludes with a respected linguist alluding to the evolution of language and saying, "It only bothers old people." Funny, but complaints to NPR about vocal fry dried up as soon as that story ran.

That said, my friend found their voices lacking authority and professionalism and I thought they sounded like teen-aged twits, which makes us both old.

Roaming the stage as he talked, Ira explained structuring a story (much like a good detective novel), using a broadcast about a New Zealand girl who'd been bitten by a shark as an example of knowing the outcome of the story but not the good part of the story (cue narrative suspense).

Wanna know Ira's goal? It's that if you tune into his show, you won't be able to turn it off until the end.

I about lost it when he talked about how his parents didn't want him to go into public radio. "They wanted me to be a doctor. Why? Because we're Jews."

Demonstrating his parents' sense of humor, he said they took out a classified ad in the Baltimore Sun advertising a job for him. Leaning toward the audience, he said, "Classified ads, they were like Craig's List printed on paper and delivered to your house." Not sure if the UR students got it or not.

He posited that the "topic sentence industrial complex" was responsible for story structure not being taught in schools. To a language nerd, that kind of comment makes a girl swoon.

We got a lesson in the FCC and obscenity - you can call someone a dick once, but not four times in a story- and in Ira's opinion, a child hearing an obscene word "doesn't turn him into a criminal or a UR student," although he offered no proof of this.

His point that radio is an empathy machine that shows "us" what it's like to be "them" was well argued.

During the Q & A, a wanna-be journalism student asked him what she should do and he suggested she make work whether she gets paid for it or not (I see this as unlikely but it's true) and to keep plugging even when she's no good.

As an example, he played a clip from his seventh year in radio when he was 27. "This is to show you that I sucked," he said and he did. His story was boring and went nowhere, but he then proceeded to retell it to us in a livelier, more interesting manner, more like the Ira we know today.

Proof positive that even the mighty handsome Ira had to develop his talent and voice. But them don't we all?

After over two hours, Ira said goodnight and my date and I headed to Lucy's to talk.

When the bartender spread out menus - wine, cocktails, food - in front of us, the owner came up behind him. "Are you thinking of ordering food?" she asked. Um, no?

"Good, because if you did, I think the kitchen guys might start crying." Well they certainly didn't need that after a busy night.

Instead we sipped the crisp and lovely Famille Perrin Rose while rehashing our love fest with Ira. She showed me some of her favorite podcasts.

A guy came up to the bar to ask a question about cider, looked at me and thought he knew me. I'd thought the same about him but couldn't place him. Aha, Valentine's Day, that was it. His memory got more points than mine.

My date and I outlasted all the other tables before she announced, "I'm going to sleep good tonight."

Spoken like a true vocal fry hater.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Stop and Start

Today was a fine day to walk to the Bowtie for a movie.

Along the way, I spotted dandelions along Leigh Street. Spring must be further along than I realized because that seemed a little early to me.

At the ticket counter, I asked for one for "The Apartment" and somewhere between taking my money and handing me my ticket, the ticket seller said, "Hello, beautiful." It was so unexpected, I made him repeat it.

Honestly, I think I'm a magnet for non sequitors from strangers

Inside the theater, the projectionist appeared to be asleep since the movie was started while the corny pop music was still playing. Only when someone went out to notify management did the bad music fade and the dialog come up.

I'd never seen Billy Wilder's Oscar-winning film "The Apartment" but it didn't take long to find myself firmly in 1960s New York, a world of tiki bars, elevator girls, blotters and Rolodexes, instant coffee and men wearing bowler hats in bars.

Very topical, too, given that it was a year after the Revolution and a woman asks Jack Lemmon, "How do you feel about Castro?"

Or when his neighbor asks him, a bachelor, if he has napkins and he says he has paper towels. "Beatnik!" she says in disgust.

After he gets a promotion at the insurance company where he works, a sign painter comes to paint his name on the door of his office. Hand painted doors, now there's an almost lost art. That's some serious old school right there.

No more so than all the extra-marital flings the office executives are having, the women accepting those kind of relationships without a thought to their own needs.

Thank goodness for womanhood that the sexual revolution followed shortly thereafter.

Naturally, being a Billy wilder film, there was romance and wit as well. As he makes dinner for the two of them, she tries to help

Shall I light the candles?
It's a must, gracious-living-wise.

Almost two hours into the movie, the screen went blank. A handful of people got up and walked out, disgusted at yet another glitch in watching today's film. The woman next to me went and told management and got the film back on, albeit later than where it had stopped.

Considering that the reason I don't watch movies at home is because I want a full-on screen experience, I was not happy with Bowtie's problems delivering a start to finish movie.

Here I am seeing this film for the first time and I missed the voice-over and music that began it and lost a few minutes near the end. Boo hiss, Bowtie. Unlimited butter on my popcorn is not enough to make me overlook such shoddy projection skills.

I might have left myself except that the woman near me advised me to stay for the surprise ending and she was right.

The scene where Shirley MacLaine shows up at his apartment and says she wants to play gin rummy with him on New Year's Eve delivered a classic last line.

You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.
Shut up and deal...

Sounds like the makings of a successful relationship to me.

Is That So Difficult?

Life is too short to sit still.

The Library of Virginia was hosting Calvin Schermerhorn discussing "Solomon Northup and the Tragic Voyage of the Orleans." Yes, the same Solomon Northup as depicted in "12 Years A Slave."

After parking in the garage, I rode upstairs in the elevator with an attractive man who looked at me quizzically and asked, "There is a lecture here tonight, right?" Reassuring him, I shared that I'd asked the parking lot attendant the same question.

The proof was upstairs where the room was just about full for a Friday night lecture.

Using maps, vintage pictures of Richmond and plenty of photos from the movie, Schermerhorn took us from Spring 1841 in Richmond through Northup's boat ride to New Orleans.

His point was showing that human trafficking then was not so different than now, except prices have risen (Solomon was sold for a mere $650).

Showing bills of lading with slaves listed as chattel, noting their aliases (because free men were being sold as slaves), height and color (Northup was listed as "yellow" because of his European and African ancestry), he wove a tale of how men were systematically broken down and resigned to being enslaved.

But it was during the Q & A that things got good. Several black audience members made the point that enslavement was kidnapping, a point that Schermerhorn agreed with. He admitted that he'd been contacted by Northup's relatives but hadn't been in touch.

And, lo and behold, the next woman who stands up says she's a third generation descendant of Solomon Northup and part of the effort to establish a foundation to honor his legacy.

You can imagine how surprised our lecturer was at this surprise guest. Several black audience members challenged her on whether she felt herself to be black or white given how white she looked.

Admirably, she acknowledged being raised with a strong sense of Solomon's legacy but self-identified as white.

So that was a totally unexpected part of tonight's history lesson. Having seen "12 Years a Slave" and been moved by its tragic story, it was equally as moving to hear from a descendant of the man depicted.

Pays to go to history lectures, kids. Keep that in mind.

But it's Friday night and we can't be serious all the time, so my next stop was UR for their International Film series, tonight showing "Land Ho!"

A man I'd never seen before stood in front of the audience and said, "Paul's not here, so this is a comedy and it actually has some funny stuff in it. Enjoy!"

With people calling out, "Speech, speech!" sarcastically, he started the film.

An Icelandic-American film that premiered at Sundance, the charming story was nothing more than two 60-something men on an extended vacation in Iceland. As a bonus for me, there were plenty of scenes in Reykjavik restaurants featuring beautiful food and winking at the top tier food scene that exists there.

Oddly enough, the film had subtitles despite all the characters speaking in English.

The extrovert was divorced, recently retired as a doctor and bored for company and the introvert widowed, then divorced and retired from banking with no money. Strange bedfellows, indeed.

The former doctor, with his thick southern accent, penchant for pot (when he offers it to his friend, he declines, saying, "I haven't smoked pot since the '70s." Incredulously doc responds, "The 1970s?") and lusty nature was hilarious ("This is so good it's like angels pissing on your tongue"). His ex-brother-in-law was more cautious and tentative about everything.

As they make their way around Iceland, enjoying a disco ("We're the oldest people here. By a lot!"), being drenched by a double cascade waterfall (truly beautiful), seeing a geyser explode twice (I jumped the first time) and talking about life's letdowns (hey, shit happens), they both find themselves happier.

When they pop Jiffy Pop together over an open fire while camping, it got a big laugh from the mostly older audience.

The former banker would like another relationship and defines it as wanting someone "to talk about the news with, have a cup of tea with, eat breakfast with and sleep with. Is that so difficult?"

You want my opinion on that? Harder than you'd think, my friend.

But it's the pot-smoking ex-doctor who continually pushes the limits of his friend's patience, suggesting walks at night (they wind up lost in the darkness), driving through ponds (because they can), quizzing a honeymooning couple ("How many times have you hit the mat so far?") and generally being goofy ("I think I need a doobie-nator right now"). His friend finally loses his patience with him, asking why he always has to be doing something.

Because life is too short, he insists, to sit still.

After the movie, I met Holmes and Lovey for a short walk to Belmont Food Shop to quell our grumbling stomachs. I'd been craving the late night cook's plate and they'd never even heard of it.

Sometimes it's my duty to educate.

We began with a bottle of Sainte Eulalie 2013 Rose while Satchmo played overhead. The other tables were mostly winding down, so one by one they wandered out into the night while our evening was just beginning.

After hearing my order, Holmes took my advice and got a cook's plate for the two of them as well, none of us knowing what might be on it. In the meantime, he ordered Espolon, which arrived looking sophisticated in a champagne coupe.

Have one, he suggested. While I admired the presentation, I required food before tequila. Like magic, our cook's plates arrived.

The pieces of slate held lamb belly confit, fresh tuna poached in olive oil and duck gizzards, along with frisee salad, pickled veggies, crusty bread, buttered radishes and celery salad, the makings of a rich and wonderful meal.

I have been devoted to this cook's plate since Belmont Food Shop first opened. You never know what's going to be on it and you're never disappointed with what shows up. Lovey swore she'd never eat gizzards and ate several. Such is the power of the cook's plate.

Next came a cheese course: Pecorino, Maytag Bleu and triple cream Delice de Bourgogne with Marcona almonds and dried fruit, honey, bread and crackers, accompanied by J. Mourat Collection Rose in a unique bottle that resembled an old-time medicine bottle.

Meanwhile, I heard about a wake the couple had recently attended at a home with a fabulous art collection. Besides a Picasso and Dali, they had a painting of Pat and Julie Nixon, their faces expertly depicted and both with their naked breasts showing. It sounded like the highlight of a home filled with art.

Everyone talked at once. We heard about Belmont finally getting the permits to start hosting events, such as a recent Petersburg restaurant clan party, in their other room. Discussion ensued about how to get people to try things like heart, cheeks and tail. It sounds like their patio opening is just around the corner.

Ah, patio season, I await your arrival.

Despite Lovey's purported disdain for butterscotch, I insisted we try butterscotch pot de creme along with the expected chocolate silk pie and darned if she didn't become a convert right in front of our eyes. First gizzards, now butterscotch. It was a big night for our girl.

Holmes couldn't resist a chuckle when he asked where I'd been before dinner. He seemed to think it was funny that I'd begun with a slavery lecture before moving on to an Icelandic aging comedy. That I'd wound up sipping pink and eating belly surprised him not at all.

Stop moving and you die. It's not just me. Look at sharks.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Prove It All Night

Never believe a man who tells you his fish is this big. Unless, of course, he shows you a picture to prove it.

I saw not one but three funeral processions on my walk this morning. I spent all afternoon inside my head and on the computer first making story pitches to my editor and then writing a snappy piece about a tenth anniversary. Enough already.

By early evening, I was more than ready to go on a date with myself. First stop, the Magpie since it had been a while.

The bar was all mine and as far as the two tables of young couples were concerned, I was invisible drinking Tenuta di Tavignano Verdicchio, spooning up my potato, cauliflower and Manchego soup and reading my Washington Post. Fine by me.

The sweetest story I read concerned a documentary about Lady Bird Johnson's beautification efforts (which I'm sure we'll never see in Richmond).

When Congress was stalling on LBJ's highway beautification bill, he's shown telling his Cabinet, "You know that I love that woman. And she wants that highway beautification bill and by god, we're going to get it for her!"

I don't know about you, but I have only admiration for a man who not only has beagles but is up front about telling his coworkers on camera he loves his wife. Very nicely done, LBJ.

With the radio set to the Old 97s, the bartender and I discussed the ordering of music genres at a restaurant. He was telling me that this station would soon be replaced by something louder and more raucous, say T Rex or Bowie, as the evening progressed. He was impressed that I'd seen the Old 97s while he'd just recently been unable to get off work to catch them at the Jefferson.

I ordered a special of beef tri-tip carpaccio topped by white bean and onion salad, housemade Bloody Mary mix and olive oil, enjoying the savory salad almost as much as the tri-tip. What I wasn't enjoying was an article about Meerkat, the breakout app at SXSW.

Tell me we don't really need a live streaming app that lets iPhone users share real-time video directly to their Twitter feed. People talk about how tangible it feels, as if they were really there. The awful part, as the article points out, is that we're redefining "experience" from something you actually do to something you witness digitally.

I don't know that I want to be part of a world where seeing something on a tiny screen replaces experiencing it in real life, but I fear that ship has already sailed.

Setting the paper aside, I decided to focus on my reality and indulge in another of the evening's specials. The chef had been showing off a photograph of the four-foot rockfish he'd gotten in today, a truly impressive specimen, its head as long as his chef's knife.

What spoke to me was rockfish collar, also on special tonight. First rule of fish eating: never pass up a chance for collar.

Basted in lime, honey and tequila before being pan fried and served with pistachios and peppers, it looked as fabulous as it tasted. Flipping it over to get at the hunks of white meat, I was soon eating with my fingers as if it were a whole fish.

All I can say is, no live stream could possibly convey the succulence of this rockfish collar.

When I looked up from my fish feast, I realized the two young couples had been replaced by four middle-aged couples. The times they were a -changin' and if the grown-ups had arrived, it was time for me to leave.

I'd taken so long digging out every morsel of collar that I was almost late to the Noir Cinema series, this month at Ghostprint Gallery. After finding a seat, a handsome man with braids sat down in my row only to check his phone and look at me sadly. "VCU just lost in overtime," he informed me in his deep voice.

What a shame. Let's talk.

Tonight's film was "Jump" by filmmaker Anthony Harper who'd made it as his senior thesis at Howard University. The short film was set in rural Virginia and focused on a disabled mother and her college-bound son.

I saw it as a power struggle between generations as a parent refuses to let go of a child, a universal theme told in a succinct and beautifully-filmed way. During the Q & A, I was fascinated as people brought up points I hadn't even noticed.

One person was impressed that the main character, a high school student, had been shown as part of an intact black family. Another was struck by how matter of factly it was presented that all the black high school kids shown had college plans.

All I could think was how the media must constantly rely on black cultural stereotypes in mass media for things like these to stand out to people. They hadn't even occurred to me, perhaps because I'm not black.

That's one of the reasons I enjoy the Noir Cinema series so much. Getting to hear how others interpret black-made films about black characters is reliably a reality check on the state of our supposedly post-race society.

When the evening ended, I wandered up to Bistro 27 for dessert. Walking in, a smiling woman asked me if I was a nurse. Do I look capable enough to be a nurse?

She asked because there was an event for nurses happening, but I sidled by them and made my way to the bar for dessert. Chocolate pate with fresh whipped cream and blackberries may not have been what I needed, but it definitely qualified for what I wanted.

As luck would have it, a friend showed up and we wiled away a little time chatting about upcoming trips, the best place for a quick breakfast and sliced versus chunks of pastrami on a sandwich (I'll take either).

Before we knew it, a light rain was starting and since I'd walked over, it seemed like a good time to begin heading home.

Which means I got a little wet because I wasn't watching a live stream of a woman walking in the rain after eating rockfish collar and discussing race, I was actually walking in the rain.

And by god, that's the way I want it.