Le Dîner Français
Facebook reconnected me with a high school friend from over 40 years ago. Betty warmly invited me to stay at her home in southern France for a few days as I work my way towards starting my pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago trail near the Spanish border.
Betty married a French man about 28 years ago and raised her family here. A fluent French-speaking local now, she enjoys sharing this beautiful country with others. I am the lucky recipient of her kindness.
Besides showing me many local sights, Betty and her husband were invited to a dinner party at their friend’s home on one of the nights I visited. I was invited to tag along, with the warning that it will go late (1:00am as an estimate), and that the others attending the party would probably speak no English. I might be isolated in my non-French-speaking world.
I accepted. Staying home for a quiet evening didn’t sound bad either, but what an opportunity to see in an intimate setting how French people live their lives. We drove to their friend’s home, arriving at 8:15. The French, like Italians, eat later than is my custom.
I don’t understand a word of French. French words that we use in English sound quite different when spoken by them in their sliding liquid beautiful speech cadence. Avalanche to my ear sounds something like ah-veh-lansh spoken here. So, in other words, amongst French speakers I remain in an isolated world.
We arrive, and I get introduced to the other 2 couples. Some say a few words of greeting in English to me, and then go back to French among friends. We are situated on an outdoor patio, which is lovely and enjoys a very huge view of the French countryside – no buildings, only forest and rolling hills. Just stunning. The entire evening took place outdoors.
My cultural experience this evening was somewhat akin to being a fly on the wall, watching, observing, enjoying a dinner party in a whole new way, and getting to try some new French foods.
(Pastoral field we passed earlier in the day.)
The evening goes like this:
“Do you want a glass of wine?”
“Ok, sure, I’ll have small glass, thank you.”
They generally use smallish wine glasses anyway, and it is filled half way for me. This is very civilized, but beware. They will refill it again and again! I sip my rosè very slowly and watch the group.
After a little chit chat (me observing) while standing, we move to a side patio table for aperitif (pre-digestive foods, apparently). Guests sitting on little lounge chairs, champagne is de-corked and carefully poured into tall, beautiful, very skinny red fluted glasses. I decline, as I already have wine (which is no excuse I realize later, several of the others simply had both!).
Hors d’oeuvres are passed – good ole American-style potato chips and a tray of toasted bagette bread with cod-eggs pate on them. Life is about experiences, right? I tried one of the little toast breads, about 1.5″ in diameter, even though I don’t normally eat bread or cod eggs. The pate is light-brown colored, considered a delicacy, and very salty. I wasn’t craving another!
After a half hour of animated talking (which is completely beyond me), and others sipping their champagne, we move next to a nicely appointed patio dining table. It has a lovely table cloth, floral napkins, three more wine glasses (each smaller in size, and decorated beautifully), two plates, and cutlery. Very pretty!
We sit again, this time with a lovely salad on the small plate at each place. The salad has small whole pieces of lettuce that have been removed from a very small head of lettuce, delicate but yet firm. Around the lettuce leaves are slices of tomato, one slice of very tasty grilled eggplant with what I assume are Herbs de Provence, sliced cucumber, and a tiny little plastic cup that is about 1.5″ (4cm) tall and looks like a mini shot glass. Betty tells me the little cup contains on the bottom sour cream, followed on top with a creamy pink fish pate….this little thing contains about 2 tablespoons total, is creamy throughout, and attractive like parfait. It had some delicate seasoning, I have no idea what…subtle and amazing. An oil and vinegar dressing is passed to add.
Salad is finished, plates are removed. Talk continues.
Realize that now it’s been nearly two hours since the party began and my half glass of rosè is finally finished.
“Ok, thank you,” I reply. The host pours me some red wine this time into a new tiny delicate and pretty wine glass.
Talk. Talk some more. Here’s the time where one should be cautious about that wine glass getting empty because it will get topped up if it does.
The people around the table continue their conversations in animated French with wonderful body language and hand gestures. One man is delightful in his use of pop sounds and little whistles that puncture his stories. The listeners echo back the occasional pop and whistle to agree with his impassioned sentiments. I study their faces and quietly enjoy their expressions and ways of speaking. Not understanding the words, I watch for other communication means – eyes, animations, hands, body language. It was endless fun, I must have had a smile on my face just watching. And occasionally my friend Betty would catch me up with a Reader’s Digest version of the last 30 or 40 minutes of conversation.
The talk continued and at perhaps 10:30pm the main course is served. It is a large bowl with very large chunks of chicken in a thick sauce like you might find with a beef stew, along with chantrell mushrooms, served over spiral noodles served in a different bowl. Betty brought some leftover salmon from her home for me to have instead of chicken, which I don’t eat.
More talk. More wine all around, but I’ve managed to make my last half glass last. Two more bottles of red wine are opened; nobody seems affected by it.
Another while later a platter of three kinds of French cheese is served. The plaster sits for at least a half hour before it starts around the table. I think it was slow to start because the whole French meal is very relaxed, and because people were not so hungry anymore after eating continuously in several stages. I try all three kinds of cheese and enjoy them with a small heel of bread. Yum. Amazing. Hard to describe what these unusual cheeses taste are like.
In fact, Betty serves a cheese platter every night at her home after the main meal is finished. Save your appetite for that which is yet to come! It’s a nice tradition I hope to remember when I return home.
(A small village built along a canyon wall we visited earlier.)
Talk, talk, more talk. Two of the men are almost chain smokers; good thing we are sitting outside. Fortunately in this regard they are at the other end of the table from me.
Now it is 11:30pm and dessert is served, two kinds. Betty and I picked these cakes up in the main city of Rodez earlier in the day at a really lovely Parisian type Patisserie, and all the guests marvel that she purchased these extraordinary desserts there. We each had a small piece of each, light and fluffy whip cream in amazing attractive layers, like a cake made of flour might be but they are mostly creamy, fruity, or fudgy layers. Delicate, refined, not too sweet and with refined beautiful presentations.
Now it’s midnight. More wine, more talking. A woman across the table from me turns to me and abruptly asks, “What kind of work do you do?” Since I’ve been in my own world the entire evening, with occasional bursts of English translations from Betty, the question startled me. I’ve not heard this woman speak English all evening so I’m unsure how to answer. With descriptive details, or with a two-word stumpy answer? In fact, a 15 minute conversation follows, all centered around me, my (former) work, where I live, and questions about the cooperative spiritual community in which I live. Everyone except one man follows everything I say. Amazing! I can well imagine the look on my face to discover that they all, with the exception of one, speak pretty acceptable English, and nobody had let on all evening!
Suddenly, as quickly as it had changed to English, the conversation went back to being in animated French and I was once again in my mute world. I was (happily) a fly on a wall and absorbed in the study of what life is like in a real French home for a 5 hour dinner party.
I didn’t understand 90% of the evening’s conversation, but I still very much enjoyed myself, an evening I won’t forget! At 12:45am we all begin to make motions for the night to end. Now that I had become a “familiar” guest I got the traditional French 3-kisses from everyone to say goodbye. Another 30 minutes of standing and talking ensues before we depart for our cars and we arrived back home at 1:45am.
Disappointed? Feeling left out? No way. I was given a rare opportunity to be welcomed as a friend in a French home for the evening. I’m glad they continued their evening in a relaxed and comfortable manner. If one chooses to only stay in hotels and is concerned with one’s own comforts then so many of the simple joys in life, cultural experiences, and experiencing new things is lost. Carpe Diem!