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…
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