The day I’ve been dreading has finally arrived. I received the above invitation a few weeks ago.
Every year at this time, French people try to get to know/reconnect with their neighbors in what is called “Fete de Voisins.” The idea is to form bonds that will counteract the isolation of city living and build stronger communities. So this little fete will include everyone in my small apartment building. I’m pretty sure all the tenants here are French, except one family. I’m also pretty sure their English is no better than my French. In most cases worse (gasp!). Naturally, I’m terrified.
I walk s-l-o-w-l-y down the three flights to the party. On the way I bump into my only English-as-a-first-language speaking neighbor (Denise) and her four year old son (William). Denise is very thoughtfully locking her door, and staring at it as if trying to remember something. Turns out, she’s trying to remember a reason she can’t go to the party. She’s as nervous as I am. But she’s lived here for seven years, so she clearly has an advantage. William, who is fairly fluent in both French and English and fearless because he’s 4 and there promises to be cake, he’s ready to partay. At least now, I have a suitable escort.
We enter the apartment together, doing the whole introduction and kissing both cheeks thing. Damn, these people talk fast! I still don’t know what anyone’s name is because I can’t distinguish the words from the names.
The table overflows with food like some decadent still life. I wish I brought my camera. There are about 11 guests ages ranging from 4-75. The host and hostess are a 70-ish couple and live on the ground floor with an amazing garden with a small koi pond. The husband speaks a petite peux of English (not as much as he thinks).
Representing the 1st floor a 60-ish couple ( think the man was a bit older). They both only speak french, although the husband’s rapid-fire french is punctuated with seemingly random “OH MY GODs” (in English—maybe he’s trying to make me feel at home).
From the second floor we have Denise and William. I’m the third floor.
From the top floor brings two female college students who are renting the apartment. Also in attendance, the attractive 40-ish man who owns the apartment. There’s also a woman I can’t place, but for some reason I think she has something to do with the top floor.
As much as Denise and I would prefer to sit in a corner and talk to each other in English, we know it would be cowardly and we must mingle. I watch her dive bravely into the fray. I’m intimidated by her ability to understand questions and answer them. I feel better when she tells one of the neighbors that her son, William is 40.
In the following three hours, I learn as much as I can about my neighbors and bond with them given my limited French skills. Here’s what I managed to pick up:
The hostess quit smoking after 52 years and she said something about cocaine and morphine in the same sentence. I’m assuming she said it was harder to quit cigarettes than cocaine or morphine. Either that, or she used cocaine and morphine to kick nicotine. Will have to delve deeper into that when my French improves. In response, I tell her that she must have started smoking when she was two. Well, I hope that’s what I told her. She kind of clutched her hand to her heart, in what I hope was a gesture of gratitude or pleasure.
The man on the second floor feels very strongly (OH MY GOD!) that The painter Nicolas Stahl was very something. So was Picasso. He also said something about Collioures, which is a small fishermens village near the Spanish border where a lot of famous painters spent time. I’ve always wanted to go there, so I nod enthusiastically.
First floor’s son got married in Santa Barbara. He may also live there. It’s very beautiful there.
The students on the fourth floor are studying at some school on Jules Grec Blvd . I know where it is, so I nod enthusiastically. They’re majoring in either agriculture, horticulture or quantum physics. They are originally from somewhere in the north of France. I know where the north of France is so I nod in knowingly.
The recipe for Gateau du thon (tuna cake, think meatloaf made with tuna instead of meat): Tuna, lemon juice, capers, egg, salt pepper and a touch of mayo with Dijon mustard. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
The proprietor of “Le sex shop” (a few doors up the street) is very charming.
David and his wife, Nikki (the couple who own the apartment I live in) are lovely, and Nikki is both smart, beautiful and a bunch of other stuff that is said in a very positive manner. Great. I will always be compared to her. I bet her French is perfect, too. Bitch.
The crowing I hear from the building next door at about 10AM every morning is actually a chicken (I figured it was a lazy rooster) They used to have three but two of them died. Not sure if they ate them.
William wants his bubbles (as in to blow bubbles). Bubbles in French ar “bulles de savon”. I initially thought they said bulles de savant (bubbles of knowledge). It took about 15 minutes to clear this up.
The tarte is delicious. The hostess didn’t make it, she bought it at the bakery on the Rue de Republique
The rest of the evening, I’m pretty sure they were just saying bad things about me.
I used the phrase “lentment s’il vous plait” approximately 14 times.
I guess some would say this is a pretty lame example of my French skills if this is all I got from three hours of continual conversation.
On the other hand, a year ago here’s the sum total of what I would have picked up:
Cocaine. Morphine. Cigarettes. Picasso. Collioures. OH MY GOD! Santa Barbara. North of France. Tuna cake. Salt and pepper. They like Nikki better than me. Chicken. Dead. The Sex Shoppe. Knowledge. The tarte is delicious.
I’m making progress!