12. Fevrier – Le mois des diners – The month of dinner parties

With the snow gone and spring on the horizon, the French mamans were more inclined to linger in the playground at school drop-off and lunch-time. And so it was that our first invitation to dinner appeared. Over the autumn term I had got to know a charming Spanish woman, completely bilingual, and married to a local notaire. She also had four children, whose ages were remarkably similar to those of my own. She and her husband had made a point of introducing their children to many languages and had a similar outlook to my own. Her children were already bilingual, French/Spanish and the two had spent a year at an English boarding school and were  fluent in English too.

The dinner party was to be held at their house in Rouen, close to the school in a chic area of town. Once the initial euphoria of having made it into the French social circle had worn off, I suddenly realised I had no idea as to the etiquette or dress code of the French dinner party! I am not completely clueless about dressing for dinner, but now it came to the crunch dressing for the playground is nothing compared to dressing for dinner when you haven’t actually met the husband, and his wife is always impeccably dressed, but hidden under a winter overcoat! I decided on simple and classic with a slightly more “avant guarde” necklace and heels!

I wasn’t sure about the whole gift idea, but had no-one to ask without looking “gauche”, I knew with certainty that a bunch of chrysanthemums would place the kiss of death on the assembled company, so I opted for some excellent handmade chocolates from our boulangerie, a rather fine Chablis, and my husband threw in a wild-card African red just to challenge to the dinner crowd! I might add that having grown up in Africa, his choice of  bottle was not an uneducated one!

The next dilemma was to arrive at the right time, and we were not entirely sure what the right time would be. I had read that the French are invariably late – sometimes as much as a couple of hours, and that this is entirely fashionable and expected.  Our babysitter arrived early, and being French, but completely bilingual we posed the question to her. Her response was that one arrived generally at the time on the invitation, give or take ten minutes. Hence we set off in good time, arrived far too early and parked around the corner to kill some time.

Whilst sitting in the car, we noticed a police car pull in next to us, cut its lights and four armed officers step out. Scurrying stealthily to the street corner, the officers were joined by some more, and we were intrigued to see two further cars appear, lights already cut, and a group of officers start to congregate on the darkened street corner. The corner they had chosen was the boundary to a particularly beautiful, classic French town house in a sadly neglected state of repair, which was rumoured to be inhabited by immigrants. One by one the officers heaved themselves over the wall and disappeared into the garden. The plot was thickening , and we were watching enthralled when suddenly we remembered we were meant to be going out to dinner! We were now late! Hastily we left the car and made our way to the home of our friends, knowing that to give the true explanation to our lateness would give the game away, that in fact that we had been early and been forced to kill time in the car! There are times when a lack of fluency in a language can be the ideal way to fudge an issue – and we will never know exactly why all those policemen climbed over that wall. We did know that the owners were trying to sell it, and probably needed to clear it of illegal immegrants once and for all, but equally likely was a drugs link – only time will tell.

As is often the case with French town-houses, the exterior belies the true interior. Suffering the wear and tear of the passing traffic, the dusty brick exterior gave way to an interior full of beautiful furniture and furnishings. Original tiled floors, marble fireplaces and huge shuttered windows gave onto a terraced garden. Our hosts, an amiable and effervescent couple had invited us to join a group of ten, and we, the English amongst them, had arrived last! Although I spend all my day speaking French, it is always in short bursts of half an hour to an hour at a time. This was to be my first experience of sustained French conversation, and with the exception of one couple and our hosts, the others were strangers!

Unlike the British, who usually start with a glass of wine, or a gin and tonic, the French commence with an aperitif, and the tray was laden with bottles of Whiskey, Port and a huge variety of bottles I have never come across.  We ealised that the guests were waiting for our arrival before being offered a drink and instantly felt guilty for our tardiness. Negotiating the aperitif tray was my first hurdle, closely followed by a quick question from the host whilst I was concentrating closely on a conversation on the other side of the room. I missed the question entirely, looking quizzically around to my host and a translation from Harry at my side (something I have never done before as I am usually on my own). The disappointment was almost audible as my host became aware that I might be utterly incapable of speaking French, and his relief was tangible as I launched into my reply to the now awaiting crowd. The moment was saved and the general hubbub in the room recommenced!

Dinner went smoothly, being a Friday no meat was served, but fish. A consommé to begin with, followed by a layered bombe of rice, fish and spinach. The third course was salad, followed by cheese, and finally a delicious desert of gooseberry compote.

The conversation around the table was quick and witty, much of the nuance lost to me, but I was able to keep up and respond when needed. We were quick to notice that the wines at the table were exceptionally high quality. In this country where wines can be bought at bargain prices, there are those who are true connaisseurs.  Having started to relax, and with  at thmy husband at the  far end of the table, my host proceeded to pull the rug from under my feet with a question on my views of Sarkozy. Having managed to completely miss the mood of the assembled company  regarding their politics, I decided this was absolutely the kind of time when I would make a huge “faux-pas” , and managed, with what I thought to be an inordinate amount of linguistic skill to reply “a la Francaise”, with a question of my own – therefore completely avoiding his question and forcing my host to reply to his own!

As we retired for coffee to the fireside the conversation turned to the art of the French language and the ability, or lack of, for the average Frenchman to master the hardest of tenses – the subjunctive. My head was fast becoming befuddled and exhausted and as midnight approached, my husband threw in a perfect example of the subjunctive as we made our bid for the door and to relieve our babysitter. Interestingly, as we rose to leave, so too did the entire party, and we have noticed that at all ensuing dinner parties, this is the French form of behaviour. A charming end to a charming meal!

Our second invitation followed swiftly on the heels of our first. A rather striking ,tall woman approached me and introduced herself. Having never really talked to her before, although she was generally part of the crowd of mamans I chatted with, I was intrigued by this invitation, but completely unable to give my husband any information about it. It occurred to me that this dinner party was also to be held on a Friday and that fish was going to be on the menu. We had been fortunate at the last dinner party to avoid the prawn issue, as my husband is allergic to them. However this time I decided that I had better warn our hostess. Making phone calls is probably the most difficult part of French life for me at present, and after some very strong personal resistance to the idea, I finally picked up the phone and relayed the allergy issue to our hostess. And a good thing I did!  She went on to reinvent her menu!

I decided this time to experiment with our gift-giving. In the local florist I had spotted some wonderful distressed boxes planted up with hyacinths and bought some, as well as a rather more expensive bottle of wine. The clothes issue had been successful, and hoping that there would be a different crowd of people I donned a variation on the same theme. This time we turned up on time, and were neither first nor last, and duly complemented ourselves on our ability to unravel the French social dining code!

Interestingly, the gifts were rather hastily received and whistled away, and I noted that the following guests arrived empty-handed. Were Hyacinths close to Chrysanthemums in their connotations or were gifts unnecessary, or potentially embarrassing to the hostess? The host pressed upon me a small glass of “eau de vie” which the women of the group then advised me not to drink and the conversation commenced! This time my husband was fortunate that all the men spoke pretty reasonable English, most of them travelling far afield with their work. Not so the women, but they were a lively crowd, all of whom had careers of one sort or another.

The meal was a gregarious affair with much banter and good humour, and less formal than the last, but equally enjoyable. It commenced with a marinaded raw salmon, followed by a crab mousse and sautéed vegetables, a cheese course and a delicious pecan patisserie for desert. After languishing over coffee, the assembled crowd rose to leave at the same time, in time to meet the hostesses older daughters returning from a night in Rouen! As we ambled through the chill air back to the car, we pondered on the ability to entertain in  our rented house, the layout being such that the children’s bedrooms were only a stone’s throw from the dining table, and decided that our entertaining would have to take another form!

I took the plunge with an “afternoon tea” English style. Having invited ten or so mamans from the school playground, I spent an afternoon baking scones and a chocolate roulade ready for my guests. Having whipped the cream, lit the fire and warmed the teapot, I was ready for the first to arrive. Truthfully I was more than a little nervous about their arrival and hoped that there would be more than two to arrive first. I am still not keen on prolonged one to one conversation, and still not confident that people would arrive on time.

The first to arrive was the Spanish maman, and probably she was as anxious as me, but the “now-deceased” guinea pigs gave a good initial topic of conversation, even if she was a little bemused by my declaration that they had all been eaten by wolves. I realised a lot later that I had mistranslated the word for foxes, and had inadvertently added a new more deadly dimension to the forest outside my door! The other mamans arrived shortly after, and after a bit of confusion when I instructed them to “aidez-vous” to the scones (which they thought meant they might need some sort of rescue package during or after eating them) they educated me to the word “servez-vous” and proceeded to tuck in! The speed to which the scones were demolished put an end to the myth that French women don’t eat. However it was interesting that they didn’t touch the chocolate roulade. My learned friend from England reckons they can eat roulade all over France and that it isn’t nearly as interesting as the humble scone. The afternoon passed with genial good humour and demands for scone baking lessons and recipes. Who says that the English can’t cook!!!

Shortly afterwards we received our third dinner invitation. By now I reckoned we were in the know when it came to gift giving and dress code! This time I had come across some great little biscuits (if such a name can be given to them) called Pappilles. They are a smaller version of the French macaroon, but without the filling and slightly drier. They come in an assortment of parfums, to accompany tea, or coffee, or scented with vanilla, passion fruit or red fruits. We chose a good wine and set of for the opposite side of Rouen for the evening.

The French have a particularly un-amusing habit of numbering houses, which vary from three, four or five with the same number, to missing out a couple of hundred. For example our house number is 1455, and our neighbour is 1565. I have since learnt that it depends upon the meterage of the frontage of the house to the road. If an old house has sold off part of its plot for new development, the new houses will all have the same house number, despite the fact that the next neighbour is numbered several hundreds higher, and therefore with plenty of free numbers available to choose from!

As we drove along the road looking for the address we kept passing from the 300’s to the 100’s, until we realised that there was only one house between those numbers, and we hazarded a guess that it might be pretty large! It was in fact wonderful: a truly classic Maison de Maitre standing in outstanding grounds with curling steps up to the front door.

We passed another wonderful evening in great company. My comprehension of the conversation was satisfying and the conversation was a lively banter over the differences of the French and English ways of life!

The challenge is on now to prove that the English can cook more than just the humble scone – it is time to show how good, good English food can be!