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Years ago, when readying for an exchange program in France, my professors cautioned about the unlikely chances of hob-nobbing with the French. “They stick to themselves,” I was told, “so forget being invited to dine ‘chez eux’.”
This comment challenged any hopes of eventual fluency and so, confident other avenues towards fluency would surface, I recall saying to myself, “What’s the big deal going ‘chez eux’ anyway?”
Well, it was a big deal then, and is a big deal now. Contrary to the more Anglo style of inviting people home as a matter of course, especially when one lives in suburbia or when raising young children so as to limit late-night city escapades anyway, the French indeed pause before inviting you home. As far as I have been able to conclude, however, this has more to do with their interest in being prepared to invite you (food, décor, dress, frame of mind) than actually being snobs. The French care enough about food, themselves and, of course, you to insure that an evening ‘chez eux’ is memorable all around. I find this cultural detour endearing and now try to mimic the same attention to details as they do, having indeed retained more vivid memories of soirées at French homes than even ones I’ve organized myself ‘chez moi’ stateside.
All this to say that last Sunday, along with fifty or so others, I was fortunate to be part of a ‘bonjourparis’ soirée chez Karen Fawcett. Most of us were from all over the U. S. and others from elsewhere in the world, including at least one French native born. Our glasses tipped with fantastic bubbly and hors d’oeuvres kept the conversations digressing and weaving around our respective adventures in Paris and throughout the country.
Karen, beautiful in black, filled the magnificent space she calls home with humor and the necessary occasional interventions to insure we ‘turned to the left to introduce ourselves’ or ‘take one minute and tell us about yourself’ which succeeded in breaking the ice early and allowing for a rise of good humor to prevail. The evening flew by and, as I walked to the cross-town bus stop with new-found (and French!) friend Véronique, I realized that Karen, a longtime resident of Paris, had invited me to her home, to feel special, to eat well, to cut through the draft of city living and warm to the recollection that citizens and visitors alike can indeed seem remote and discerning unless one or the other party makes the effort. With each stride towards transgressing our own home-brewed hang-ups, we better learn to integrate and to thus bring the cultures together in ways that speak to why we choose to be here in the first place.
Karen, thanks for inviting me ‘chez vous’! A bientôt!
See related article on the BonjourParis party.
‘Vieilles Filles’ and Other Tales from France by Kathleen Comstock
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