Monday, December 26, 2011

Recollection: A New Year party to remember

Christmas has passed and new memories have been made. A good blogging friend, Pondside, wrote about a Christmas memory, a Christmas in 1960. That made me think about a New Year memory, mine was just one year earlier, Christmas 1959 - New Year 1960. I went to London for the Christmas vacations when I was 13 ½ years old in 1953, and had a great time. Every year after that I always went to London to spend the holiday season (was a lot more fun than in Paris.) The English family where I stayed was like my family and I had many friends from having gone to school there in 1957-58. My girl friends in Paris went to the winter resorts in Austria or Italy, but that never tempted me – Christmas and New Year for me was to be in the only town for that merry time, and that was London.

London Fog, photo courtesy Jeff Moore

In 1958 and 1959 I started to really enjoy listening to jazz, modern jazz like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Art Blakey and the Messengers and Gerry Mulligan among others. I belonged to a small group in the Latin Quarter in Paris. We listened to records of our favorite musicians in the little coffee bars around the Sorbonne after school and also went to venues and concerts to watch them.

Gerry Mulligan

We also went to dances, at least twice a week, mostly in the Caveau de la Huchette, a jazz club in a 16th century cellar in the Latin Quarter (off Boulevard St Michel.) There, the jazz was New Orleans style. The band was Maxim Saury’s, a well-known French jazz band (Sydney Bechet had joined him in this club several time earlier. ) I danced a lot but don’t remember drinking alcohol. It was just plain innocent fun. While in England I had started to really like Traditional Jazz and enjoyed going to dance clubs playing that type of music.

Famous American jazzman expatriate Sydney Bechet top right,
Caveau de la Huchette in 1957 at the bottom.

For two years in a row my little French group also went to London at Christmas time. I ‘d stay with my English family for Christmas then would join my French friends for several days around New Year in a bed and breakfast close to theirs. (I scanned the photo at the top of this post – don’t remember where it is in London, but I stayed in a bed and breakfast in that area.)

London in winter (Grand Union Canal)

There were anywhere from 8 to 12 of us. We would go to record stores and listen to jazz for hours, and then would purchase some records to bring back to Paris. It was a lot cheaper to buy the Blue Note record label in London. I still have many 45 rpm records. In France, Maxim Saury signed a couple of them on the back cover, but it can hardly be seen now.

We went several times to listen to jazz at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. It was in a basement in Soho – I think it opened in late 1959 in Gerrard Street.

I liked to be with my group of friends to go to Soho as it was a bit seedy then (and a bit naughty too.) I did not want to meet some rough “Teddy Boys” if alone on the street.

There were many jazz/coffee clubs in Soho at the time, some with even French names and French owned like La Poubelle, La Bastille, etc. One place was called Les Enfants Terribles, another Heaven and Hell and another Le Macabre – the tables were shaped like coffins and the gothic décor included bones, cobwebs and skeletons – they also recited beat poetry there. We would go to little Italian upstairs restaurants for a cheap meal.

I found a clip, from around that time that shows the type of music played in the London basement clubs.

Now that I have given the background atmosphere, let me get back to that particular New Year‘s party. For this holiday time, as usual, I had taken the train, then ferry in Dieppe to Newhaven, then train ride to London. I’d much rather take the ferry than fly. It took 3 hours and the English Channel was rough in December, which I liked. I’d stay on top deck and loved to watch and feel the high waves and the boat rolling back and forth. It was a rough ferry boat, not a cruise liner.

Close to New Year I joined my French friends in London. We had planned to go to a French-English basement club in Soho. The entrance fee included a couple of soda drinks and breakfast after the New Year celebrations. I knew many people at the club and danced a lot – to records – this was a small club - no band there. My favorite band at the time was Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. I still feel like dancing when I hear his music now. Here is “Wild Cat Blues” below (I have it in a 33 rpm record.)

Other favorites were Humphrey Lyttelton Jazz, Ken Colyer Jazzmen and Lonnie Donegan and his Skiffle Group. Everyone I knew loved UK Skiffle music. This lasted until 1960 when rock and roll started to take hold. Skiffle was a rough mixture of folk, gospel, blues and jazz. Below is Lonnie singing “I’m Alabammy Bound.”

You could not call this dancing relaxing – it was more like exercise. I was pretty slim then. I don’t have a picture of me in London but found one taken in Paris around that time. I am on the left wearing the light hat.

That evening, after a round of exhausting dancing, I came back to the bar to get a cool soda. The barman or owner, I am not sure who he was, asked me if I could help with making coffee. The girl who was at the machine needed a break, or was sick I can’t recall. I said “sure I’ll do it” without really knowing how to use the expresso machine. I made a couple of cups of coffee but then somehow I did not push the handle properly…. - you can see the large handles in a similar expresso machine below -

The handle sprung back quickly, into my right eye – or so I thought. It hurt and blood came rushing. Actually it just missed my eye and had lodged between my eye and eyebrow. My friends did not know where the closest emergency clinic was in Soho but someone took me to one. It was already 11:30 pm. There was no one in the admitting room. A nurse came, looked at me eye, cleaned it a bit and said I would have to wait because the staff was in the back ready to celebrate New Year 1960 but someone would come after that. I did not like this and told her so – that I might be losing my eye while doctors were having a drink – that this was an outrage and so forth…. She went to the party looking for a doctor then came back followed by a young looking guy with a Champagne flute in his hands. He was handsome, in a British sort of way – in the actor Hugh Grant style (my other eye could still see clearly…)

The young doctor laughed and asked if I wanted to share a drink. I asked him if he could help my eye but also if his hand was steady. He said that it would only take 4 or 5 stitches – "no worries." By then it was 11:45 pm. He went ahead and stitched below my eyebrow. Then after that he poured half his drink into a glass and gave it to me – and said “Happy New Year and Bonne Année Mademoiselle.” It was midnight. I smiled and drank the Champagne. Then he left with the nurse to the noisy party I could hear in the back. They never charged me for this and several years later the scar was gone.

After I left the clinic I went back to the basement club. When I arrived the barman/owner asked me “I say, can you keep making coffee now that you are patched up?” I replied “It is 1960 now and I shan’t make any more coffee on this machine.” I did help with the frying of the eggs for breakfast for a while.

I went to many New Year’s parties since, but I can’t recall one that was more fun or scary.

Here is a Happy New Year vintage card.

It’s an old card but a hundred years later this good old fashioned wish is still true.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas in the Tropics

This year we celebrated Thanksgiving in California.. We came back home to Georgia just for a few days then departed again for the Caribbean, West Indies and Bahamas. I caught a cold in Nassau and upon arriving back in the US last Saturday it had turned into a bad cold. I have been staying in bed for the last four days with my nose stuffed up, eyes running, and sore throat. Reading some Agatha Christie’s mysteries have helped as well as listening to light Operettas like the Der Zigeunerbaron (Gypsy Baron) and Die Fledermaus (The Bat) of Johann Strauss, II. Although with the coughing fits and weakness I sound more like Mimi from Puccini’s opera La Bohème! It’s not a pretty picture, but I found a nice sneezing vintage lady and placed her in a cute holly frame to give her a more holiday flair.

While on our trip I thought I would take as many pictures of holiday decorations as I could find and publish them in a post upon my return. Well, that has been very difficult to almost impossible. The Christmas Season being so important in the US, and the country so large, one comes to believe that other countries celebrate it just as much – it is not so. Growing up in France I loved Papa Noël and the presents he brought. Then as a teenager I enjoyed celebrating Christmas in London a lot more because there was a lot more partying than at home. But I still was very surprised at the extent of the celebrations in the US, where it is celebrated the most in the world. I did find some decorations in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but this is still the US.

I tried to find if there were Christmas Traditions peculiar to the Caribbean. Many Caribbean Islands’ economies come from tourism and since most of the tourists come from North America, there has been an Americanization of Caribbean Christmas celebrations. There are festivals and parades at that time but also great local food, drink and regional music. In our two week trip I saw only two “Christmas Tree” in individual’s front yards – a small palm tree and a green shrub. That is all. I was riding in a van and could not take clear pictures of them. I did find one lamp post decorated in St Martin (the French side of St Maarten Island.)

In some grocery stores one could find imported Christmas candies, mostly from England and the US. Santa Claus, not indigenous in origin from the Caribbean was only present in the tourist malls. Because of the influx of tourists during the Holiday Season Christmas is celebrated there by Christians and non-Christians alike as a special holiday with non-religious aspects - well, many tourists are not religious… I was told, in Nassau, that there are many branches in the Rastafarian religion there – some even celebrate Christmas – but on January 7th as other members of the Christian Orthodox religion. In a bakery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, I did find some holiday decorations, behind the counter.

The weather was quite warm. Walking in 90 degree temperature (32 C) it was easy to forget the Holiday Season as depicted in Western countries with Santa and the snow. Even luxury malls devoted to tourists had very little decorations. On purpose I walked in the main street of Philipsburg, the Dutch side of St Maarten, which is a shopping Mecca. But it was slim picking.

But then, in an alley – success – there it was – a Christmas tree!

If we had been in luxury hotels or restaurants I think I would have found more Christmas decorations, but we did not. So, in conclusion, if someone wants to get away from the heavy commercialization of Christmas, coming to the West Indies, the Caribbean Islands or the Bahamas close to that time is a good idea. It’s always a surprise to see a Christmas theme decoration under a vibrant sun – even in Florida for that matter (like the photo at the top of this post.)

Here in the US, it is easy to forget that not everyone celebrates Christmas in the same way. Just typing “True origins of Christmas” or “Real History of Christmas” in Google or Yahoo bring thousands of answers, like in the link here .

Some Christian groups are offended by the secular nature that Christmas is now taking and say that its religious meaning should be brought back. Other groups states that the roots of Christmas came from ancient pagan festivals, thousands of years old, and not Christianity. These festivals were celebrated on December 25 as the birthday of the invincible sun. They claim that in 320 AD when Roman Catholic Pope Julius I declared that the 25th of December would be the official date of the birth of Jesus Christ - to absorb and Christianize the Yule celebrations - he took over their ancient holiday but they still have the right to celebrate it. Then there are other Christian churches like the 7th Day Adventist, and some branches of the Mennonite and Amish churches that forbid the celebration as not being Christian, just a pagan cross-over. Whether religious, secular, pagan or simply non-religious I think Christmas is a great time for joy and a spirit of giving, sharing, and peace.

I could not find in my postcard collection a “tropical” type Christmas card, but here is a vintage card without the snow.

Joyeux Noël to all!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Blog Intermission no. 18 (entr’acte) Dim Sum in Gardena, California

On our way to the Los Angeles Airport we stopped for lunch at a “Dim Sum” restaurant. This restaurant is located in Gardena, not far from the airport and was recommended by my daughter.

The Sea Empress Seafood Restaurant is known as an authentic Chinese restaurant serving high quality dim sum.

When I lived in San Francisco I used to love to go to Chinatown to eat – a dim sum meal was a favorite. Dim sum, a Cantonese specialty, started as a snack rather than a full size meal. The dishes are prepared as small-bite size or individual portions of food. They are served on small plates or small steamer baskets.

Service is fast because as soon as you sit down the servers come to your table with rolling carts containing tantalizing food.

Some of the food is cooked in front of you, like the tasty greens below. They are delicious with the sauce provided.

I especially liked the tiny fried fish below.

As the server passes by with the cart, you select the small plates. A card is stamped each time so that at the end of the meal all the dishes will be added for the bill. Once the dishes are on the table each person selects what they wish to eat, such as har gow, sui maj, turnip cakes, dumplings and a large variety of delicious things whose names I don’t know.

Sometimes I am not sure what the dish is, but it is fun to find out (and sometimes I ‘d rather not know …)

The little buns below – don’t know their names – made of bean paste with sesame seeds are a good dessert. I had one, then took another.

The meal was quickly finished which was good since we had a plane to catch. The children were sleepy but enjoyed the meals apart from the baby who wondered what all this was about.

It was time to leave, but not before I took some additional pictures of the restaurant décor.

It was clear when our plane took off and I could see Los Angeles from the air.

The sun was rapidly setting though and colors were changing to golden hues.

Au revoir, Los Angeles!

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