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My French Life: Dinner chez the neighbours

Life in France

Our friends P and J (I am going to have to keep this anonymous) are French and very nice people and we’ve known them pretty much since we arrived here. They invited us to dinner last year for the first time. We’d been to a local fete and they were there and P (the husband) had had a bit to drink and was very effusive and insisted we come for dinner the next Saturday at 7.00 pm.

So, we walked to their home and made sure we got there on the dot of 7.00 pm. We’d been told you apparently shouldn’t take wine when you’re invited for dinner with French people – it seems the implication is that you don’t trust your hosts to pick the wine. Either chocolate or flowers are acceptable and the OH had dropped flowers off earlier in the day for J. They are a lovely couple in their sixties, very friendly though neither speak any English. The OH is not brilliant at speaking French so I become “Interpreter Woman” in such circumstances.

So we arrive bang on time and we go into their house. Like most old houses in these parts, you are straight into the main living room through the front door. There is usually one room where people spend most of their time – often it’s the kitchen or hall or the first room of the house, and it’s the room that in winter is heated daily, usually by wood fire.

P  and J were very welcoming and as it was the first time we’d been to their house so, I had a sneaky look round at everything. French people here aren’t like Brits, they don’t show you round their house and they absolutely don’t expect you to ask to see round. We show everyone round at the drop of a hat! The walls of their small room were covered with stuffed animals of all kinds (hunting is big here), pictures, dried flowers, religious artefacts, photographs, tapestries – in fact you could hardly see the walls. There was pretty much wall to wall furniture, sideboards, display cabinets, two sofas, a coffee table, dining table and 4 chairs, TV cabinet and on one wall an enormous wood fire place which was burning merrily away, it was September and not that cold. It was claustrophobic and very hot.

We sat at the dining table which was laid for 5 people. J appeared from the tiny kitchen with a bottle of wine and 4 glasses and we all had a glass and we talked, me interpreting for the OH when needed.

After 30 minutes, the bottle of wine was drunk. J went to the kitchen and appeared with another bottle and a bowl of nuts. We carried on making small talk, the wine and nuts went.

By now, I was hot, very hot. The fire was giving out a massive amount of heat. The wine was making me hotter. Each time J went to the kitchen I’d think ‘Thank God, the dinner must be ready’. I tried to avoid looking at the OH who had sweat running down his face as did P who looked pretty uncomfortable at this stage.

J came back, with another bottle of wine. She said “I’ve just phoned D and he says he’ll be here soon”. “D?” I queried. J looked at P and said “Didn’t you tell them D was coming?” – P gave a Gallic shrug. D it turned out was a friend of the family who was supposed to be joining us for dinner.

By the time we had drunk the 4th bottle of wine it was just after 10.00. Stomach rumbling noises were going on around the table. Everyone by now was openly sweating and lolling on the chairs. The small talk had dried up – I think the fire had put it out. P was staring at the blank TV screen. J went for another bottle of wine and the OH was frantically eyeballing me signals for “let’s run”. A car swerved to a screech outside, we all heard it, we all sat up in anticipation, hoping against hope it was D. Footsteps crunched on the gravel in the front garden. J walked to the door.

D entered and we all kissed and then carried on as if everything was normal, no excuses offered, no apologies given. J bought out the first course – and another bottle of wine. By the time we got to desert it was 1.00 in the morning.

We finally left at 1.30 having declined a whisky to end the meal. We walked home, or rather staggered home in fits of laughter. It was pitch black, we’d forgotten a torch, there are no street lamps or pavements but then again, no cars went past. I fell into a ditch at the side of the road which had us both lying on the floor screeching with laughter and unable to control ourselves – a truly fitting end to the night.

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