Image by wallyg via FlickrI 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?