This year I received what I've been told is an inordinate honor — an invitation to spend New Year's Eve at the home of a French family over dinner. Even to be invited for simple aperitifs on any given day is an honor if you're a foreigner (or ex-pat, as the Brits prefer to refer to themselves) but a formal holiday?
The French reserve Christmas for children and New Year's Eve for adults, so it's quite the big thing. I had been at a dinner organized in a restaurant weeks earlier for a group of us who had helped friends, Rosemary and Wallace, move out of their maison secondaire in Cussay, which had just been sold, and into another home in nearby Descartes. Rosemary insisted on a charming practice during that four-course meal where she'd seated everyone (as much as possible) boy-girl-boy-girl, where, at the end of every course, the men stood up, grabbed their knife and fork and glass and moved to the recently vacated spot nearest to their right. In this way, at every course, we had a new dinner partner. I confess I was a bit nervous because two of the four men were French, one who spoke a little English and one none at all. I always get nervous in these situations but I've been assured I can hold my own fairly well as long as the other speaks slowly and distinctly and doesn't mind my fudging my conjugations a bit. Actually, it turned out to be quite energizing and enjoyable.
In any case, one couple, Corine and Patrick, who also live in Cussay, invited me for New Year's Eve dinner when they found out I had no plans. My friend, Innis, who was seated at the far side of our huge square table, was also invited when I mentioned we were going to spend Christmas together. I was so pleased she accepted because, in truth, I was a little nervous at the idea of possibly being immersed in a sea of French people without much in the way of small talk vocabulary.
Turned out I hadn't a thing to worry about. What we thought was going to be a party of French people turned out to be a delightful family dinner instead. Patrick, who does speak a little English, got the short shrift because Corine's English is so good that both Innis (fairly fluent) and I lapsed into English for most of the night. Innis took pity on what she knew would be Patrick's tired ear and did converse with him for some time in French. By that hour I was too tired to translate much of what they said.
One of the funnier moments of the evening involved Corine telling a story to Innis — I can't even remember about what — who was seated opposite me, on her right. At one point Corine rolled her eyes and exclaimed, "Merde!" (Which, for those of you who aren't aware, is French for "shit.") She immediately turned to me in horror, fearing I'd be offended, clapped her hand over her mouth and said, quite inadvertently in English, "Oh, shit, sorry!" We were rolling in laughter. It took Corine a moment to realize how she'd managed to compound her error before she joined the laughter.
In true French style, we were invited for 8:30pm. The first course was served promptly at 11pm and when the main course came out, I just happened to glance at my watch to see it was two minutes to midnight. So of course we had to put our knives and forks down, stand, toast each other and heap kisses on the cheeks of every person there. (Corine's 9-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son were there and, frankly, held up better, considering the late hour, than we did.) By the time we'd finished, waved off the cheese course and went right to dessert, it was 2am. By then my eyes were closing and I was so grateful I wasn't driving. Actually, that was a tame night by French standards as on their normal 'fête' nights, they're often up until 5am or later, even the kids and the elderly. Their stamina is amazing, but might have something to do with the fact that they show considerably more restraint in the wine consumption department than the rest of us!
Overall, it was a wonderful evening and I felt immeasurably touched by the fact that this French couple had invited us into their home to share a holiday meal at their table with two veritable strangers. No longer strangers, however. It really was a wonderful way to usher in the New Year.