It was the best of weekends, it was the French-est of weekends.
It started with a simple plan to eat dinner one night with Colin’s researcher friends Anthony and Anne-Claire (who have since moved out of the apartment with the toilet that traumatized me), but it ended up being the most social weekend we’ve had in Paris.
Colin and I intentionally decided not to try too hard to make friends this year. We figured that most locals would already have friend groups, and they wouldn’t be looking for new friends who were going to leave in a year. Plus, we speak French very badly. Plus, we wanted to spend our free time traveling and sightseeing. So we decided to just hang out with each other and not worry about our lack of a social life. C’est la vie of a temporary expat, right? It worked for us.
The first clue that we had failed at not making friends was when my French teacher Laurine asked the class if we could get together for a small party to celebrate her birthday. “Bien sûr!” we all replied, because Laurine is wonderful and puts up with a lot from us each week. When Laurine found out I’d be leaving France at the end of January, she started planning the party around my availability. She picked last Sunday. She invited kids and partners as well, so I informed Colin that we would both be hanging out with my French class on Sunday.
Colin then let Anthony know we’d prefer Saturday for our dinner with him. “Pas de problême!” he said, but on Friday he told us we’d actually be joining him and Anne-Claire at another friend’s house for dinner. It was clear that Colin and I hadn’t been on the guest list initially and were sort of party crashers. Our social calendar was too full, so Anthony had wrangled us an invite.
We had no idea what to expect from this house party. Anthony had firmly instructed us not to bring anything (our palates aren’t refined enough to be trusted among true French people) and told us he’d rented a car to drive us somewhere outside of Paris. As we were getting ready, I shared my concern with Colin: “We don’t know whose house we’re going to, where it is, what we’ll be eating, or what we should be wearing; we aren’t bringing anything; and we can’t speak their language. Are we the worst guests ever?”
As it turned out, we were going to a birthday dinner for Anne-Claire at the family home of some of their longtime friends. It was fine not to have brought anything, we were dressed appropriately, and the family – including their pre-teen and teenage children – welcomed us warmly with cheek kisses all around. As a sign of how far we’ve come with blending in, it took several minutes before they realized we didn’t speak French. After that, they’d occasionally stop and translate the conversation (“for the benefit of the children,” they said generously, gesturing not to us but to their kids who were learning English in school), but mostly Colin and I just pretended like we were following along.
I thought we were doing okay at blending in until the family brought out the appetizers ten minutes later. There were oysters on the half-shell, marinated squid, bread and butter, and of course champagne. I took an oyster, carefully spooned on some shallot sauce, lifted it up, and slurped it. I set the empty shell back down on the tray and wiped my face with my hand. When I looked down a minute later, I noticed a small red smear on my finger. “Shallot sauce,” I thought and rubbed it off. But when I brought my hand to my face again, it came back with another red smear. Blood! The oyster shell had scratched my nose! I was mortified. For the next five minutes, I wiped my nose over and over so that no one would notice I was bleeding. Even their 11-year-old son was eating oysters without scratching his face.
My social graces improved from there, but as they brought out more and more wine, my French deteriorated. Luckily my plate was so full that I could focus on eating instead of talking. We had quail eggs, foie gras, duck prepared at least three different ways, and salad, and that was just the first course. Then duck fondue, five types of cheese, and chocolate cake for dessert. It was a true feast. No one noticed my bloody nose, and no one seemed to mind that Colin and I just nodded and smiled a lot.
The next night was Laurine’s party, and Colin and I were both wary of needing to speak French all night again. Fortunately, at that party things went in the opposite direction—the more wine we language learners drank, the more we reverted to English. I was pleased to find that the things I thought I knew about my classmates – the things they’d said when introducing themselves in French – turned out, in fact, to be true when they introduced themselves to Colin in English. As they hugged me, said how much they’d miss me, and invited me to stay in touch and visit, I had the sudden realization that my classmates had become friends.
And Laurine… Before I left, she asked, would I like to get coffee and speak half in French and half in English, just hanging out, not as a class? I agreed, even though speaking French one-on-one sounded like the most stressful thing in the world. So yesterday I went over to her apartment, we ate leftover pie and chocolate, and we talked about everything from US geography to GMO foods to my Morocco travel plans. Nothing really important. Just, you know, hanging out as friends.