Do you listen to other people’s conversations? Do you look in open windows as you walk down the street or do you avert your gaze?
I definitely look. One thing I enjoy in the fall is that people leave their windows open for the warm air, but have to turn on the lights, giving us a “Rear Window” style stage for the dramas within.
Americans are fascinated with French entertaining and dinner parties, and the French are admittedly different. So here’s a peek into one we went to recently.
Scene: Belle Epoque home of friends who don’t live actually there. It’s the ancestral family home, recently inherited, under renovation.
The hosts currently live in another village, about half an hour away, and the guests all live there, too. It’s funny that people who are a short walk from each others’ homes have driven through the sunny countryside to gather.
We get a tour of the house. The old, dark, striped wallpaper has been stripped, the walls smoothed and left white. It is bright, with the sun streaming through the tall windows. The living room furniture is modern and spare, but the rest of the house uses the bounty of antiques that have built up, along with layers of wallpaper, over generations of the same family in one stately village house. This layering of history is rare in the U.S., but I’ve seen it numerous times in France, including with the apartment we bought.
The hostess points out details, like the Roman numerals on each spoke of the forged iron ramp swirling up the three-story staircase. The spokes aren’t identical and had to be placed in order. See the rams’ heads and the woman’s profile that adorn the bottom of each spoke? Little works of art everywhere.
She led us up to the attic. Our friends spied things I didn’t even recognize, like the kneelers (THREE!!!!) for praying (we have one at our apartment in Carcassonne but I wasn’t familiar with them in so many forms), or the different kinds of school desks, or the ancient wheelchair.
There was an entire room of dishes.
Back downstairs, we got to the main event: the meal. Delicious, as always. Plus, these guys know how to feed a crowd. This house is being renovated with the idea of having lots of friends around. The dining room easily seated 21.
A recently acquired habit among our crowd is for the women to congregate at one end and the men at the other. This is partly the result of certain men losing their hearing and yelling instead of talking, plus yelling about stuff nobody with an X chromosome cares about (rugby, for example).
However, Guest 21, who, by dint of being the youngest person present by decades, migrated back and forth between the two ends and testified that the conversations were almost identical, just off by a few beats (“décalé”).
Topics of conversation for a French dinner party:
At one end: Recipes, weather, sauces, Eurovision, antiques, renovation, food, seasonings.
At the other end: Recipes, weather, sauces, the difference between crème fraîche and crème chantilly, rugby, renovation, food, seasonings.
Many years ago, I went on a hiking trip in Morocco with Nouvelles Frontières–I was the only non-French trekker. Every meal would begin with soup. We sat in a circle, and the cook would dish up the bowls, and hand them to the closest person, who passed them around. The first person to receive a bowl would sniff it appreciatively while waiting for everyone to be served, and without fail would make a comment about how wonderfully it had been seasoned. One day, I was at the far end of the circle and got my bowl first. I sniffed it appreciatively (it did smell amazingly delicious), and I said, partly sincerely but mostly mocking my fellow hikers, “Quelles épices?” It took them a while to realize I was joking with them. But then the conversation devolved into its usual topics: which region of France had the best butter, whether you really can eat moules in months that don’t end in -re, and similar heated disputes.
When in France, you can’t go wrong talking about food.
What do you talk about at dinner parties?