When I first moved to France, I stayed with a dear friend’s family for several months and remained a permanent dinner fixture for several years after that. In the beginning the family dining ritual was so hard-core that I almost stoped going all together… almost.
Losing my “French dinner virginity” was so memorable that I decided to write a short play-by-play of my first experience to give you an idea of what jumping in headfirst really means. Keep in mind, this is through the eyes of a “Fresh Off the Boat” American who doesn't speak any French, and who grew up in a typical southern home where table manners were put in place with a wooden spoon and general order was rule number one.
The events as they took plac:,
It all started at 7:30pm. The family of nine gathered around the living room coffee table for the Aperitif. On the table there was an assortment of charcuteries (meat products such as dried sausage, and thin slices of ham), grape-tomatoes, shrimp and bread with salted butter. The champagne, whisky and martinis were served… the fun began.
While we sat at that tiny coffee table and ate the buffet style finger foods, there were enough jokes, drinks and laughter for a small wedding. The English speakers made an effort to converse with me, and I laughed at their “National Lampoons” style American vacation stories. This lasted three f*cking hours… and by that time I was already full, drunk and tired.
Little did I know, that was just the beginning.
After grandma had yelled loud enough, we all left the living room and migrated towards the dining room. The table was already set (I did it myself half way through the aperitif to wake up my legs and ease the mixture of whiskey, sausage and shrimp that was not-so-nicely settling in my stomach), and the seating battle began.
The strategic placement of family members couldn't have been more complicated. From what I gathered, Dad wanted to be at the head of the table but Mom needed to be closest to the kitchen. Grandma wanted to be next to her Grandson but Grandpa needed to be closest to the wine… My friend wanted to be next to me but her sister wanted to practice her English. After literally ten minutes of what sounded like heated discussions, we all found our places and settled in. I didn't care where I was, just so long as I could sit down.
However, being the southern gentleman that I am, I waited for the ladies… BIG MISTAKE. I was left standing for 20 minutes waiting on grandma to find her glass of champagne and the sisters to stop talking (what sounded to me like an argument but ended up being wardrobe advice) and sit down. Naturally, the others had already started drinking their red wine.
Once seated, Mom brought in the food that she had been preparing ALL DAY. In this case, it was two whole chickens (that were as big as turkeys) marinated in a creamy mustard sauce with ratatouille (a variation of steamed vegies) and French bread with salted butter and white rice. The second the food hit the table, everyone dug into whatever was closest without even hesitating.
I was completely frozen, waiting on something to be passed to me… something… anything…. it never came. My initial reaction: EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF!!
At that exact instant, the conversations began flying. I felt like I should have been wearing a battle helmet and sitting in a trench just to dodge the slurry of verbal machine gun bullets.
Personally, language issues aside, I think that French conversational etiquette is fascinating. When the first person presents an idea, the responder immediately jumps in with whatever thought is floating around in their head. This person almost always interrupts the initiator before he/she can finish their sentence. However, an interruption does not, in any way, hinder the initiator from finishing their original thought. They simply continue speaking on top of the interrupter.
In my home, an idea was presented, discussed and generally agreed upon by everyone, one at a time. Then we moved on to the next topic. Well, NOT in France.
At the French dinner table there are many separate conversations flying around at any given moment. These verbal debates run over each other, into each other, and alternate constantly. A person would be completely engaged in a conversation and then change discussion partner abruptly, only to interrupt someone else, bluntly ignoring the original engagement.
The subjects seemed to change as fast as someone finished chewing, and the only time a person stopped speaking was to drink their wine (which was amazing). This may sound horribly confusing and obnoxious to an outsider, but throughout the evening there was much laughter and smiles. The heated discussions weren't taken personally, and the interruptions were simply ignored. Being that I was only an observer (mainly because I spoke zero French), I concentrated all of my attention on eating the amazing food and drinking the exceptional wine.
At this point in the evening (11:30pm), I felt like a stuffed pig that had fallen into a barrel of moonshine. I had a splitting headache (either from the mixture of every type of alcohol imaginable, or the fact that I didn't understand anything being said), and to top things off, we hadn't even had dessert or the after meal digestif (very hard liquor meant to settle the stomach, but really just brings it back up)… yet. The festivities finished around 12:45am, at which time I could no longer stand up, and the thought of another bite of food literally sent me running to the bathroom… literally.
That was on a Wednesday and we were having guests over Friday, for a real dinner...