21 May French Protocol
“Come over on Sunday for apero!” my new friend says to me. “What time should I arrive?” “Oh anytime after 4.30” Right. Being new to living in France, my mind begins to boggle trying to figure out what that actually means. Do I arrive at 4.30 or 5pm? Do I take wine? Do I take food? You see, things are never as they seem here and it takes some time to understand the ways of the French. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy the mystery and the challenge of figuring out what an invite actually means. Instead of turning up at the wrong time with the wrong thing, I ask a friend who has lived here for many years – what is the correct protocol when given such an invitation? “Is it just for an apero or aperitif, or is it for dinner also?” he asks. I tell him that dinner was not mentioned so he suggests taking a bottle of wine and perhaps some pastries from the boulongerie or a box of chocolates. And arrive 15 minutes late. Well that’s clear. I buy the wine, and the pastries and arrive just after 4.45pm.
I am greeted by my new friend and introduced to a dozen of his close friends. They all have a glass of wine in hand and are laughing and chatting with each other. In French. No, this isn’t uncomfortable at alI! I am trying to learn French and so I just jump in and start speaking my worse than schoolgirl French to these strangers who I want to befriend. Wishful thinking perhaps but you have to start somewhere. After my first glass of wine I actually think I am progressing and that’s when they all start speaking English to me, which I’m trying not to take as an insult as I’ve probably been abusing their language so badly for the past hour, and they simply can’t take any more of it! Or perhaps, as I prefer to believe, they are appreciative of me at least trying to speak French, and once this has been established, decide to give me a break. I actually think it is the later and it’s something that I find somewhat endearing. As the wine flows, the conversation becomes a hash of English and French with words and sentences being thrown around like used rag dolls. Now this is when you really learn to speak French!
I’m enjoying being on the terrace, overlooking a sea of vines. It’s a beautiful warm afternoon. Life is good. It’s then I smell something burning and look down over the terrace to see two of the male guests starting a fire in a small pit that has been dug into the ground. Within no time, there is a fire burning and grates are placed over the fire. From what seems out of nowhere, a slab of steaks appear and are put on the grates. And so the cooking begins. This is throwing me as no one has mentioned dinner! Have I stayed too long? Should I leave now? I approach my new friend and begin to say my farewells. “No no no you must stay! We are cooking the meat!” So I stay. The table is set with plates, salads, bread and a selection of wonderful cheeses. I am relieved to see that my pastries have also made it to the table. It is a wonderful feast and I feel grateful to have been included.
As I say farewell to my new found friends, numbers are exchanged and promises made that we will get together again soon. And I actually believe them. I leave encouraged that with time, many glasses of wine, and some patient French friends, I will actually feel like I belong.