To smile or not to smile?

To smile or not to smile?

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François and I have been dating a month. We see each other
about twice a week…taking it slow. I had to wait until the fourth
date for him to kiss me. I wish he had kissed me on our third date when
we strolled across the Pont des Arts at sunset, but the two shirtless
men in matching overalls standing next to us involved François in a
beer debate–Guinness v. Beck’s and we lost the romantic moment.
Instead, the kiss was on our fourth date, on his couch, while watching
an illegally down-loaded version of Shrek 2 in French. Not quite
something out of a Fairy Tale but at least it was while watching one.
On
the fifth date, François gave me a gift. Or rather, his grandmother
gave me a gift—a little Russian doll with blond hair and blue eyes.
Francois had told his grandparents that he met “a cute American girl.”
I asked for his grandparents’ address so that I could send them a
“thank you” note. François told me it wouldn’t be necessary. That I
could thank them in person. At dinner with his family. Saturday night…
I
should have paid attention to Madame Goff-Tuttle in 10th grade French
class. As she paced the room in her lopsided heels, bragging about
Printemps, France’s contribution to department stores, or when she
forced us to listen to the entire soundtrack of Notre-Dame de Paris
while she lip-synced; and especially when she made us eat cold potato
soup and participate in a “Dinner with a typical French family”
simulation. And though I attended the Four Season’s school of manners
for one summer, at the age of ten, I am very nervous.

François
doesn’t pick me up for dinner. No. I have to meet him at his family’s
house in the bourgeois (and 45 minutes by métro away from me) 7th, and
I‘m running 45 minutes late. I’m wearing black slacks and an
off-the-shoulder black mesh summer sweater, hair slicked back in a pony
tail, and red and black suede open-toe strappy sandals that match the
red chrysanthemums I’m holding in my right hand for Francois’ mother.

 

I
was wearing my white summer linen pants, but “My friend came to visit
me” (my period), at Charles de Gaulle Etoile. I didn’t notice however,
until the Tuileries station.  I was offended by the eight-year old
boy checking out my behind, but when the 90 year old woman with
the Dior silk scarf tied around her head almost lost her balance
leaning out of her chair to check out my behind, I thought, something’s
up. I had to go back home to change. I am now, 45 minutes
late.

I arrive at the apartment, out of breath, but only 40
minutes late. I shaved off five minutes by taking the escalator stairs
two at a time. I script a profuse apology in the elevator up to the
apartment to excuse my tardiness. Dinner with The Family Rule #1: 15
minutes is sociably late—anything over 30 is unacceptable.

The
Mother opens the door. Magenta lipstick.There’s a doily matted in her
hair. The kind I used to cut up and make Valentines with in
kindergarten.  White lace apron tied so tight around her tiny
waist that she is pale from the lack of blood flow. She is not smiling.
She doesn’t even introduce herself. She reminds me of a character in
the Exorcist. She just looks down and—why is she crying? (Hmmmmm,
possessed?)

 

Grandma comes to the door,
squinting. She must have left her glasses in the sitting room where was
sewing, judging from the scarf that has become attached to her plaid
skirt. Behind her I can see the sitting room. There are two overstuffed
chairs and a sofa, all in a muted blue velvet. They each have a white
doily draped along the back. I look at the grandmother and start to
explain the reason I’m late but, she is crying too. Where is François?

 

Francois’s
father, tall and bald, peers over the heads of the sobbing women; he
looks so friendly in his Mr. Rodgers green sweater. His eyes are big,
green-blue like Francois’s. I lean in to kiss his cheek.  And he
starts to cry. Why is everyone crying? Could they all be possessed? Or
did I do something?

Mom always told me to bring
flowers to dinner. How was I to know that chrysanthemums are the
signature funeral flower for France and that Francois’s grandfather was
in bed upstairs awaiting death? Finally, François comes to the door,
wearing a wooly off-white cable-knit turtleneck, fit for skiing in
Aspen. It’s summer! He looks like a sheep. But I’m grateful to him
because he lets me in and leads me through the crowd of tears to the
blue velvet couch with the largest doily in the world on it. The rest
of the family filters in, drying their eyes with Kleenex.

 

The events that follow make up what I like to think of as a valuable learning experience in French etiquette…

 

To
compliment or not to compliment the chef on dinner? I did. I
complimented his mother on the horse steak, tender as rubber. Nevermind
that I specifically told François to remind his mother that I’m a
vegetarian (that eats fish). I complimented her anyway and I got
stabbed in the thigh with a fork by François.

Later
when I confronted him with the open wound on my leg, his defense was
that he was trying to stop me from embarrassing myself. In France, it
is not polite to discuss the food during the meal. This kind of talk is
considered boring.

So….”boring” conversation is rude, but preparing a dinner knowing your guest cannot eat it, is not?

 

To
pee or not to pee? After François stabbed me in the leg, I excused
myself to go to the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face.
Which caused François’s grandmother to cross herself religiously while
I slid out of my chair. Mistake number four: it’s not that it’s rude to
go to the bathroom, it’s just rude to excuse myself. No potty talk at
the table. At all. Not even to say, “Excuse me, where is the restroom?”
I wish I had flushed myself down the toilet.

Should I have said, “I’m going to powder my nose?” Or, “I’m going to borrow some of that magenta lipstick of yours, Madame?”

 

To
chew or not to chew? (This question does not apply to the “steak.”
After 38 chews, I was finally able to get the bite condensed enough to
swallow it whole.) French dinners never end. There’s always another
course. Followed by another course and then another course. And each
course has its own set of rules.

I was just
about to cut a rather large salad leaf in half when François
flicked my arm. He then picked up a leaf of lettuce, too big for his
mouth and stuffed it in—causing his cheeks to puff out and his forehead
to crinkle. Attractive.

Apparently, in France one
does not cut the lettuce in a salad no matter how big the leaf. One
must put the entire leaf in the mouth.

 

As François’s
mother continued to tell me of her trips to Bruges, where she purchases
her lovely hand-made lace, I was getting nervous about how I would fit
the giant leaves in my mouth without cutting them. I considered not
eating the salad at all, but I knew that this would be absolute rudest
thing that I could do. I attacked the lettuce abruptly with my fork,
held my breath and stuffed it in.

 

On the
first chew, my jaw froze—mouth open. I was able to get it closed but it
was incredibly painful. I thought the pain would stop, but it
didn’t. Every bite felt like nails drilling on each side
of my jaw. Now, I was the one crying.

 I
had to sit at the table for two more hours pretending to chew my
food without moving my jaw, which meant, I just wiggled my tonque
around in my mouth. Eventually, I had to admit defeat. I could not
possibly finish my plate–the greatest sin of all while dining in
a French home. 

What was I supposed to do?
I couldn’t chew! It hurt too much. The lettuce was too large
and the steak was horse. Perfect. François’s family hates me and
I’ll probably be drinking my food through a straw for the rest of my
life.

 

Monday I went to the doctor. He
poked around at the muscles in my jaw and gave me some pills to help
relax it. My jaw was functioning by Wednesday. But I waited a few more
days before telling François I was healed. It was partly his fault,
after all. He let me go into the dinner disaster blind, stabbed me in
the thigh with a fork, poked my arm and forced me to eat horse. No
oral labor for me, until the wounds are healed.

I
devoted the week to drafting an eight page apology letter to
Madame Goff-Tuttle for not paying attention in class and a plea to
her to Fed Ex me the notes from 10th grade French.


Kirsten
joins Bonjour Paris from Los Angeles, California where she recently
graduated from the University in Southern California with a  BFA
in Acting. Last year Last year she co-wrote the book and lyrics to a
new pop musical which expects to open in Los Angeles next spring. Two
years ago, while studying at a conservatory in London, Kirsten fell in
love with Paris and decided that she was destined to return for some
time. She’s thrilled to experience this dream come true.

 

 

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