Fête du Couscous 21/04/2010Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris.
Tags: bisous, dinner parties, france, paris, saint-mandé, socializing
Before Kevin moved back to the States there were plans for dinner which I flaked on for reasons of work, or work-related scheduling problems, or overwhelming troglodytic behavior. It didn’t take long for Kevin to realize that America was a horrible idea so when he returned a month later I forced him to reschedule dinner plans so that I could attend.
He and Juliette were living outside the city limits in a bourgeoise enclave called Saint-Mandé, just quiet streets and the spiffiest looking Monoprix I’ve ever seen. Robin and I poked around their ice-cream aisle debating the merits of various flavors because it happened to be Juliette’s birthday.
I was not allowed to select the beer because my economics were deemed too impolite.
The prospect of a dinner party was slightly daunting. Sometimes I have trouble sitting through an entire meal, I feel uncomfortable eating more than I’m initially offered, and these sort of events tend towards conversation. I like conversation as much as I like the company I’m sharing but no one had filled me in on the guest list.
More specifically the prospect of being lost in concentration running several lines behind while French floated across the table was daunting. The fact that I had, just the previous night, been surrounded by bottles of wine and several languages and was feeling more than a little tired was not encouraging. Robin asked if I had let our hosts know I’m vegetarian. No, actually I had not.
The little non-kiss cheek kisses are called bisous. When visiting last year my manner of dealing with girls thrusting their faces at me was primal reaction. I would hold hips, I would actually kiss cheeks. No recipient ever corrected my errant behavior but eventually it was suggested by observers that everyone was going to think poorly of me. Now that I know better and am more inured to the face thrust I have the opportunity to be amused by the process. Girls stand en masse, shuffle forward, queue up for bisous, sit back down.
Three girls sat speaking French in the living room, one of whom I knew and two I’d never met. Overtures towards welcoming inclusion were immediately curtailed by my embarrassed silence and helpless gestures. Ah. I had a beer.
Periods of awkward silence. I tried to offer people beer but Eléonore was abstaining while Juliette and the third girl drank wine. Some sympathetic soul decided to try speaking to me in English to see if it would help. Juliette asked to know how much French I had learned in the year since seeing her. I have found nothing will freeze your brain faster than being asked to say something in French. Damien showed up and increased the bilingual confusion.
Smoke or steam was billowing out from the kitchen. I knew couscous was coming but wasn’t certain if it would be molested by meat prior to reaching the table. Sure, I could have made mention of my dietary restrictions upon arrival, but I feel it a little rude to walk into a house and demand concessions be made in order to accommodate my admittedly righteous politics. If the couscous was drenched in crispy bits and auju then it was beer for dinner, with perhaps some wine for variety.
Juliette brought a pot of vegetable stew from the kitchen and told me it was safe to eat. At first I assumed her remarkable memory had grasped some stray line of chatter and applied it to the evening’s proceedings before it occurred to me that Robin had probably said something in the kitchen. Sausages followed, wine was poured, I moved some chairs around, everyone sat.
An enviable aspect of French culture is the adoration of lengthy and leisurely meals. This clashes with my persistent need to get away from people and bolt food in the corner, but I still respect anyone who fucks off work for two hours while expecting the highest quality fare. This gathering was not particularly French, which at least meant I wasn’t constantly trying to pace myself.
Eléonore and I talked about work. She is a freelance video reporter who splits her time between Paris and somewhere not in Paris, handles her own post-production and loves her job. Robin and Thomas constantly gripe about their jobs and everyone else here, like me, doesn’t really work. Everyone back in the States seems trapped in some menial, meaningless position. Eléonore not only loves her job but she’s doing something incredibly cool and meaningful.
Juliette talked about working for a jazz club on the outskirts of Paris, how much she loves being involved running the place, how she should have stuck with piano. She patiently listened to my struggling French as I asked questions or made simple statements.
The third girl was in the not working camp but instead of being an art student she had been traveling for the past nine months, wandering through Pakistan and India. She and Eléonore were in the middle of editing her photos together for a friendly slideshow, which explained their frequent disappearances before dinner.
Lights went out, Happy Birthday was sung in English, ice cream and cake. The third girl pulled out a bottle of herb-infused rhum that resembled Chinese whiskey and went down about as smoothly. Kevin explained that they’d found a new apartment in Paris and didn’t like asking for help, and maybe they have enough people and everything, so I told him I’d be happy to. Juliette showed me sketches of the floor plan and pointing out where everything was going to go. Like the washer/dryer that had to get down some stairs and up more stairs.
Offers to help with dishes were refused, or at least I think I might have offered to help with the dishes. We had to get back to the city before the métro turned into a pumpkin.