Monday, June 12, 2006

The Rules of Having Fun

My husband and I wanted to throw a party—a nice, simple garden party for a few friends. I was rather uncomfortable when he first mentioned the idea. For a while in our “bachelor” days (that is to say our child-free days), we hosted a monthly party. We actually got pretty good at it, but neither of us had ever thrown a party in France, and throwing a party where your guests are experts on a few of the main party ingredients (wine and cheese) was a bit intimidating. Nevertheless, we decided to go for it.

Since I needed to at least please the experts, I knew I needed some experts of my own. I went to the local fromagerie and the woman there kindly helped me decide on a selection of cheeses. I then went to the wine shop where the man helped me select key bottles of wine. After adding olives, crackers, nuts and a few other morsels, my confidence had returned.

Perhaps I got too confident. Perhaps I was making the party too American. Perhaps I forgot I was in France. I was about to be humbled.

Standing in front of my shabby chic garden tables, on a perfect summer evening, I have to admit I felt a sense of accomplishment. The tables looked lovely, inviting and, more importantly, delicious. I was, therefore, dumbfounded and confused when I later realized that none of my guests were eating. When I say “no one” I don’t mean they were just nibbling, I mean there were now 30 people in my garden and NO ONE was going near the food. I couldn’t imagine what I’d forgotten—surely they were hungry. I started reviewing my mental checklist one last time when someone whispered, “You must cut the cheese before they will eat.” I had actually wanted to cut the cheeses, but realized I didn't know how they were to be cut- surely the guests could cut them better than I- but she proceeded to slice each of the ten cheeses. I walked over to the wine table to help myself.

When I turned around, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The guests had descended upon the table like ravaged beasts. They were devouring the cheeses, the breads, the olives—the whole table, in fact, and I couldn’t have been happier. The party was, once again, a success. And so, therefore, was I.

I felt back in control when I later went to serve the cakes. I put them on the table and (now that I knew to pre-cut), began to slice into it when someone grabbed my arm mid-slice (the cheese slicing lady, of course). I was jolted and embarrassed, feeling like a novice and suddenly wishing the party was over. What could I have done, now? A cake, I was informed, was to be cut to the recipient’s preferences. All right, I can do that. Trying to pull my confidence out of my pocket, I turned and asked the most respected man at the party (I did know some level of protocol afterall), my husband’s boss per se, if he would like some cake.

He looked at me as though I had offered cream and sugar for his wine and I desperately wanted to sink into a hole. “But the women are always served first.” Honestly, I should have thought of that- and probably would have if I hadn't have been so flustered. Seriously, though, my self-confidence was on the line here. Couldn’t he give a girl a hand? So I proceeded to ask the most respected woman at the party (take 2, in case you're counting) if she would like some cake. She said, “But you must ask the invited guests first!” This was becoming ridiculous. I wanted to ask her what exactly she was, but thought better of it. Why hadn’t I come up with some kind of excuse when Paul first mentioned the party? Was it too late to feign a headache? I was quickly sinking into my proverbial hole when I reached out to one last woman (who turned out to be Russian—perhaps she didn’t know all the protocol rules, either) and she said yes. I was thrilled—I wanted to give her a hug, but realized I couldn’t even remember her name. Before I knew it, I had a line of about ten people waiting to be served.

I don’t think Emily Post ever covered French protocol, and I haven’t found anyone yet who can actually explain it, so I may never understand all the rules of having fun in this country, but it seems that there is one global party rule—good food and good wine always trump everything else. Bon Appetite!