oven decor
If these walls could talk…

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.

chandelierScene: Belle Epoque home of friends who don’t live actually there. It’s the ancestral family home, recently inherited, under renovation.

numberedThe 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.

 

Rams heads

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.

tilesMany 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?

 

 

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17 thoughts on “Table Talk

  1. Our French hovel is in no fit state to host dinner parties yet, but I suspect food, wine, houses, renovation and old stuff will be the hot topics.

    And yes, I DO look in people’s windows, given half the chance.

    I don’t mind them reciprocating either. In France we have no windows facing front on the ground floor and a very quiet street, so we can’t be checked out.
    However, in UK we live in what was once a farm cottage, now surrounded, in a little street that ends in a footpath, between a mix of modern and terraced houses.
    Many folk walk by on the way to a small local railway station and peer into our living room windows.
    I like to think they are admiring my latest booty.Plus it’s free advertising for the new business!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Before we had a wall and the oleander grew tall, a little clique of older people, on their daily promenade, would stop on a high point near our house and hang out and chat and examine our place. I guess that as foreigners we were high entertainment.

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  2. I surreptitiously look while pretending to avert. One must be civilized after all! 🙂 Those floor tiles look very similar in pattern to the ones we had in our first apartment in Lyon.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What did you have for dinner? With twenty one people it must have been quite elaborate.
    Do French people have…what we call Pot Luck? I love French dinner parties…so elegant.

    As for looking into Windows….a glance is always given….we all want to know about the other.

    Ali

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    1. Deviled eggs with anchovy for entrée, squid with rice and an amazing sauce for the main course, cheese (duh), mille-feuille and chocolate-pear tarte, brought by two different professional bakers. Potlucks are rare. We recently went to one for the Fête des Voisins (a neighborhood block party). Sometimes a hostess will ask someone to make something, like a dessert, but it isn’t typical. The meal described was very relaxed and informal.

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    1. I’ve been to la Grenouille! Great place. We had New Year’s Eve at a different “French” restaurant, recommended by the office manager at our apartment building. It was AWFUL. I even asked specifically whether the “foie gras” was really foie gras or pâté when I reserved…speaking in French. I was assured it was. Well, it was NOT. The owner and waiters were speaking in French, thinking nobody understood anything, but we did (especially husband, a native French speaker), and we got an earful about how stupid and clueless the clientele was. Again, this was NOT la Grenouille….

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  4. OK…where are the photos of the dish room? I’d like to see that. And more of the house! Opps…i just read your comment about respecting their privacy.
    But that is so funny about the dinner conversation. At least no politics…that can wreck a dinner.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, I took photos of things I thought were special but that wouldn’t be linked back to anyone. To photograph the dishes would be too concrete. But believe me, I was salivating. It would be with great pleasure to help them thin out the antiques. Not to acquire myself (no room at the inn) but to be a matchmaker and find things a happy home.

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    1. The Dish Room. That took me back to a Michael Douglas and Annette Benning (?) film where as POTUS he shows her around the White House and calls one of the highlights of the place The Dish Room.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I certainly miss dinner parties the way they are thrown in France. In Southern California, probably even more than the rest of the US, everything is very, very casual. People often gather around the barbecue in shorts and flip-flops. It has its charm too – it feels like constantly being on vacation – but I miss the delicious home-cooked food and heavenly desserts!

    Beaumiroir

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  7. J’adore. I love every bit of French life, down to the no-so-glamorous. They are conversationalist, their children are taught AT SCHOOL how to eat and comport themselves at table. They are taught to pay mind to their writing, their words, and how can a linguistic lovin’ fool like me resist that?

    How fabulous that you can be in on such authentic conversation. I am limited to the classroom where I teach kids the passion of the language, my passion for verb conjugation and the excitement of one day discovering their own love for the world’s cultures. And, thank you so much for coming to see my post! Anita Castles Crowns and Cottages

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    1. I admire anybody who actually gets French verbs right. I commit conjugaison crimes every time I open my mouth. I manage to get the genre wrong every time. My husband is amazed; he says just chance would give me better results. But I plow ahead anyway. It’s terrible, because I am a stickler for grammar in English.

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  8. I love peeking over your shoulder at the dinner party. I believe the French have no problem talking politics at dinner, which, right now in the U.S., we have to avoid unless we know that everyone is on the same side. What do we talk about? Kids, travel, books, sports, and unfortunately, gun killings.
    Want to join in with Dreaming of France this week? Here’s my Dreaming of France meme

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