All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Big bud authors

Paris - Musée d'Orsay - Manet's Le déjeuner su...Image by wallyg via Flickr

I was looking for something else but with my usual keyboard incompetence arrived on the Saga site perusing an article downloaded from another website about how to behave if invited to a French house. I really don't know where these articles come from...there must a be a factory somewhere....but they all seem the same. First they tell you that you won't be invited to a French house anyway - so why, I ask, continue further? Undeterred, they then tell you what to do when you are.....don't take chrysanthemums or foreign hooch - causes offence....don't expect a tour of the house....and all you'll get is booze and biscuits, 'les aperos', which you will be expected to hang out for hours before you can make your escape.
Why do the media buy such derivative stuff? I call it big bud theory from the range of old gardening magazines describing the problem that assails blackcurrant bushes, all of which inevitably stated that the bud was as big as a sixpence, as indeed they would as their authors all diligently copied earlier authors and so the legend began. Have any of these big bud authors visited French houses, and if so, what sort? Which French invite you out to a restaurant in lieu of dinner at home and why?
We have been invited to a great many French houses in our time, but only three times for 'les aperos'. The first time it was my tax inspector who invited us, and we had a whale of a time, the second was an antique arms' collector whose wife sent the champagne round pretty briskly and we ended up taking a startled look at his private arsenal before being invited to try it out in the garden, the third one was the ex politician who wished to impress me with my own insignificence by offering as an aperitif the remains of the Bordeaux he had been drinking at lunchtime. We are in court with the ex politician shortly. This is probably because I turned up my nose at his leavings and joined his wife in a bottle of Pouilly fume. Don't know their place, these foreigners. All three of these encounters were the nearest I have come to the sort of inspection visit described in these articles, and only the third was actually that, so I must assume that the big bud authors are dealing with a stratum of society that does not come my way out here in the sticks.
I consulted Madeleine about the French who invite you to restaurants rather than to their homes and she immediately demanded to have the articles translated, then roared uninhibitedly. In her view, this was all about business in the good old days when anything could be charged to expenses, and if Monsieur invited you to meet him and his wife in a restaurant all it meant was that his wife didn't have to cook and they both ate on the firm, as it were, thus saving the household budget for more important things like buying Madame a nice little car. The mere idea that the French were ashamed of their homes and so avoided allowing outsiders to see them - as suggested in the articles - struck her as hilarious, and she had lived in Paris for years before coming down to retire to the country. They weren't ashamed of their homes at all, she explained, it was just that you weren't important enough for Madame to put herself out - especially as thanks to you she had a good night out as well. This explanation rather miffed Mr Fly who had constructed for himself an alternative theory which was that if, presumably, every businessman and politician in Paris was sexually rampant between the hours of five and seven in the evening - the 'cinq a sept' - then he had to be SR with a female equivalent,which meant that none of the ladies involved would have had time to cook. Thus dining out. After seven o'clock.
Big bud authors, feel free to take up and develop this idea.

Looking back after so many years it is difficult to remember how things started up. People would invite us in for a drink, we would do likewise, things would slide into a lunch, to be returned, you'd be invited to a Sunday lunch to meet the family - a bit like entering the village of Asterix given the size of some of those dining tables - you would invite the family, and buy another table or two for the occasion, and then it settled into a sort of routine as if you were an extension of the family. Cousins would invite you with the rest of the horde. You would invite cousins when the rest of the horde came to dine. I liked it very much. I still do.

No one brought flowers, plants or chocolates. They brought something to put on the table - usually their speciality, awaited by everyone - or something only available in their area. A mate of Didier since they did their national service together always brought his neighbour's brioche Vendeen...which meant that lunch had to be held up as the brioche wasn't baked before nine o'clock and then he had to drive hundreds of kilometres to get to Didier's place. I don't greatly like these sweet breads, but this was unforgettable. Feather light, delicately flavoured with rum and orange flower water it was simple but a masterpiece of the baker's art. Worth putting back lunch, especially given the range of Didier's aperitifs.

I suspect that the big bud authors are not thinking of country folk, but I can assure them that what might be called higher up the social scale it is not so very different. A lady whose acquaintance we made through a friend invited us - without the friend - as she wished to enlarge her circle. We arrived at a most imposing mansion to find that Madame was butler, wine waiter, cook and bottle washer and had not the least objection to handing over some part of her duties. We had an uproarious lunch, repeated several times before her untimely death, and she always insisted on a treacle tart being produced. While the men drooped over an aged eau de vie I would wash up with her the priceless china which she produced carelessly from a cupboard, luckily having just enough drink taken to be confident but not over confident handing these relics of the ancien regime.
She washed up at our place likewise....but our china was never of the same quality.
Those of you who live in France, or are expatriates elsewhere, you must be equally fed up with the big bud syndrome in people writing about your area. What about sharing your experiences so people can see what it is really like?

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  1. Yes it is very irritating isn't it Fly? To read the myths that spring up here and there about the country of your choice.

    I do already try, as you know, to tell it like it really is as far as Turkey is concerned.

    Good post xxx

  2. Ayak, yes, that's why I enjoy your blog so much

  3. We'll be staying with two French families. How did we get those invitations? Their kids have spent weeks with us. And meeting them will probably result in more visits back and forth. My theory is that some French people are just shy about language difficulties. But the kids are studying English and I'm working on my French so we'll get along.
    Though yesterday my husband was having I'm not going fits. Too much work, garden needs weeding, etc etc. OK, I said, I'll go on my own.
    Will let you know how it turned out.

  4. Zuleme, how familiar does that sound...the garden needs weeding, the this needs doing and that needs doing. We have it every time the date of departure draws near.Good luck.

  5. Just having passed our first year here at la Maison M-J, we had finally progressed to the full-on dinner invite with our neighbours (& growing friends), the young dairy farmers, down the road. Not only did we have a COMPLETELY scrumptious, and home-grown, home-made meal--we were given a full tour of the house (yes, I was somewhat surprised I shall admit), including their bathroom! We discovered what is a regional apero special, and now our new summer favourite, and after 4hrs (what we had thought would max be 2) we all surprisingly looked at our watches & gasped at the time. They even offered to drive us home, as sacré-bleu-it was dark! We declined, as the walk from them to us is now second nature, we walk Freya (the pup) past them almost daily. We are nothing but happy at the welcomes/invites we've received...and this Sunday shall mark their full-on dinner invite chez nous! We are introducing them to a good 'ol American bbq! The last invite chez nous was for a Norwegian waffle/ steps which are hard for anglos, but the sincerity when you do become friends, is so sure. :)

  6. L.R. M-J, that's what I say...these absurd articles have nothing to do with the reality, but yet editors use this waffle to fill space and mislead their readers.
    What's the apero special in your neck of the woods? Reveal all on the blog!

  7. Hi Fly, Funny you've blogged on this. I read Jane Alexander (Exmoor Jane)'s article on Exmoor and Liz Jones this weekend (Telegraph). I'll blog about N'land/Cumbria but "aperos" are sadly non-existent!

  8. HT, I just dropped on this wretched article and I thought what a waste of space to put out this regurgitated bunch of just strikes me that there are parallel worlds - the one magazines and newspapers project and the one we're living in. The two worlds never interact.

  9. I don't often get to read (or try to read, for that matter), these kinds of articles about Spain. Most stuff published is aimed at the huge expat community in the south, to which I do not belong, and deals with tax advoidance and house prices, which is of little interest to me.

    However, your quote about chrysanthemums reminded me of a little anecdote. Around All Saints Day the markets here, as in France, are full of beautiful potted chrysanthemums. My mother, over on a holiday, bought one, and told the stall holder in her broken Spanish, that they were for her daughter (me). She was really puzzled by the response (a squeeze to the shoulder and a clearly sad look, plus a burst of words she didn't understand), which is why she told me what had happened.

    Unrelated to chrysanthemums, hope Mr Fly is getting better.

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  11. Pueblo girl,he won't be needing any chrysanthemums! Lovely story you tell.
    He's out,and is really doing well. A change of hospital has produced a very different result from the usual following these attacks. I cannot believe how recently he was in a coma and totally paralysed.
    I'm letting joy be least until he summons me upstairs with that dratted school bell just as I've fired the computer up! I am just so delighted to have him home in good shape.

    SRK Herry, thank you for your kind comments...I've started to look at your blog and, school bell permitting, will carry on later.