January 9, 2008


Beginnings and Endings

New Years Eve is all about beginnings and endings…consequently…the French, if I can make such broad stereotypes, aren’t very good at either. They ended a monarchy by installing another, they gave away Louisiana and it’s adjoining 524 million acres, they (or their new president at least) supported GW at the dawn and the twilight of his reign, and in our new found experience they simply aren’t good at starting or stopping a party such as News Years Eve!

New Years Eve in France is just like everything else, the same and different. Same night, similar parties, more food oriented, and without a clear ending.

The idea seems to be “to party”, like at home, at a restaurant or at a friend’s house. The menus however, are as extravagant as possible. The more courses the better and the food as exotic as the local markets can supply. One course designed to outshine the previous and like an American Thanksgiving too many desserts to possibly be consumed, if even sampled. We arrived at a friend’s home to find a very fancy dining room table immaculately set with menus printed and place cards laid. In another corner was a prepared bar with multicolored bottles and a bucket of ice. But before any drinks were proffered, the ice had melted and we were parched. We have always been the type of hosts who lubricate their guests quickly. At our wedding back in 1995 (wow!) we put the bar by the front door and had served welcome cocktails that, by the time the bride appeared, led to raucous rancor, but I digress. For some reason at a French event the drinks wait….and wait…I need to ask about this. Perhaps the idea is to wait for the last guest to arrive before starting the party, or for 20 minutes to pass before you can go back into the pool, or perhaps to let your tongue warm to room temperature before it finds the wine? There is probably a reason, but to us impatient fast-food Americans it seems simply like awkward moments, waiting until the hosts remember they are supposed to offer a glass.

Finally, we have a glass and voila the fete has begun. The glass from here on out is never empty, bottles are seamlessly opened and poured, wines are never mixed and are seldom the same as we move across France from Pomerol to Bourgogne, back to Cahors and ending up somewhere sweet in a Sauterne. Lobsters, snails, cheeses, délices from all corners. There is no doubt that the French do the middles well. Once you are ensconced in a French meal there is seldom want for anything. The options abound, the flavors are precise and varied, and the quantities, unlike the myth, are copious indeed!

Once begun, the only thing ever lacking at a French meal is the end of the French meal.
Our New Years Eve began at 8pm, we got our first glimpse of the meal around 10, and it proceeded at an escargots pace from there on. Strangely and graciously, after one of the courses, we all moved back to the living room for a quick game of cards! We followed not really understanding what was happening, but were reassured by the printed menus and extra silverware that there would eventually be more food. Pat won the first hand, and then the cards were collected and put away and we returned to the table with something that resembled an appetite. I’m not certain if the evening flowed so much as the wine flowed and we followed. Eventually we made it through the menu like a checklist, nothing remained but the dessert. We had been asked to make a tiramisu, but to my surprise everyone else had been asked to make a dessert as well. So after samples of 4 desserts then out came the ice cream in case you still had a little bit of room, and of course the chocolates. By now it was well into 2008 and the kids were sugar-coated-zombies well into their third desserts.

The conflicts between the 3, 5 and 9 year olds were arriving ever more frequently, doors were being slammed, then locked, and we had played a few more card games. There was a confounding moment where everyone pulled out there cell phones and started calling and texting their absent friends and family, leaving Pat and I to chat amongst ourselves till all the missives had been sent (we couldn’t play as our phone had been left at home). This led to a heated debate about the merits of the i-phone and consumerism in this new year. Then there was a moment where all the men were huddled around the computer trying to select the best internet radio station while the women started threatening to start a dance party. This is where we finally started to make noises about leaving. Not certain how to make our exit, not wanting to be the first, not wanting to break up a party or insult the French in these first few hours of the newest year, but it was almost 3:30 in the morning. Somehow we managed to migrate towards the door, after another 15 minutes of kisses and wishes, we were sent into the cold with bottles of warm water to take the frost off of the windshields, and 7 minutes later we were fast asleep in our own beds dreaming of the distant memories of 2007.

Réveillon is very important to the French. Everyone has plans and the idea is to “party like it’s 1999”. The more elaborate the plans, the longer the menu, the later the hour, the greater the homage to the previous 364 days. The following weeks continue to reinforce the passing of the year with every greeting. In addition to the daily handshaking and kissing, there is a vigorous “bonne année” followed by “meilleurs voeux” and a “bonne santé” and something I still haven’t figured out but it sounds like ‘pair-o-maim’. The funny part is that you need to go through this special discourse once with absolutely everyone you know. If you don’t see them until mid January, then you need to have kept track and remember it then. If you make the mistake and say “best wishes” to someone twice, you’ll be reminded of the first time in a ‘don’t you remember?’ kind of way.

Who says they aren’t good at starting and stopping!? With the clarity of a pause to reflect, and the conversation about the importance of starting the year with a look deep into your eyes and an offered blessing of “good health, may your wishes for the new year be true and good” and two kisses!… I take it all back, it makes a deliberate transition, yet another thing the French are good at!

In case you want to read "Tongue and Cheek", another blog about French life, it is a splendidly written daily blog with excellent photos and acute observations about food, France, love and flea markets. I have corresponded with the American author and wish I could write as well as she does, or take pictures, or find the drive to blog as proficiently. But you must promise to always read ours first.
Click here for "Tongue and Cheek"

Click here for a little song and dance number from Pod and Sarkozy

SO, Happy new year, good health, and may your wishes for the new year be true and good.


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