We have had the definitive French experience and I have no idea how to put it into words. Like the first time I stood before Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in Florence or after reading The Hours for the first time, I have stored it in my memory museum so that I can revisit it again and again. It was the absolute embodiment of why I wanted to come to France, of everything I love about this amazing culture.
The Farmer and The Wife graciously invited us to dine with them and a few friends at a local restaurant. Now this is exciting. Lots of things to consider though- what to wear? how to not speak rapid English while believing that perfect French is flowing out of my mouth? how to order something that doesn’t have brains in it? how to try all the wines and not be totally hammered before the 1st course? All this was swirling around my already busy melon for a couple of days.
Of course it was on the evening of the day all our stuff arrived and I was exhausted. I’m still trying to get used to the 8 o’clock dinner time here. Anyway the lovely Farmer Michel collects us to meet up with the others. He says “we are nine tonight” and I start sweating. How the hell will I understand a word once they all get yakking top speed? I’ll be left out, a complete doofus, smiling and nodding, eating rare brains.
We meet everyone outside, the Wife Patricia and her 3 longtime girlfriends, a husband and son as well as the other son of Michel and Patricia, Gaeton, a gorgeously fashionable young man who is studying marketing in Dijon and who has just returned from a 3 week English immersion course. He greets us in English thanks be to whatever. A quick check reveals that I am dressed appropriately, thank you again, god of French etiquette.
Now Le Cheval Rouge is a lovely little place attached to a large patio and bar so I’m thinking it will be nice, casual dining. The lady who owns it says hello to everyone who she obviously knows quite well. She is about 50, tanned, cool, great shoes, great jewelry, funky and French to the core. Gesturing, speaking a mile a minute, she passes out the very fancy menus and I see all the gastronomic treasures of Burgundy laid before me.
The food and wine were spectacular but the big love was to be found in the company.
First the ladies. Patricia brought along her English dictionary and explained to her friends that they would all need to talk slowly and they did, all night. They asked me questions, they complimented my hair. One of them thought the color so lovely that she didn’t believe it was natural! They were so warm and kind that I was almost in tears. They helped me order and, best of all, said I had no accent, that my French was quite good. They talked about their friendship spanning over 40 years and about how much they loved being 50 and 47 and 62. They were charming beyond description.
Then the men. To my left, Phillipe, identified to me as soon as I sat down as a ‘farceur’ (who the hell knows if I spelled this right) or a joker and he was indeed hilarious in any language. He talked very slowly to me all night and offered me tastes of his meal. The two boys were absolutely adorable. Gaeton spoke amazingly good English with Neil and was clearly taking an opportunity to make his father proud.
Then there was Michel seated at the head of the table, choosing and tasting the wine, suggesting what to order, taking the first bite of food. A sweet king holding court. He was beaming all night, so proud of his son speaking English with his foreign guests. He paid for the whole meal as a celebration of the end of the rental season of the Ancien Moulin. After dinner he drove us around the town to show us the waterfalls at night. He is a gentle giant and one of the loveliest men I have ever encountered.
The lady who owns the restaurant served us all night and she was absolutely hilarious. Neil asked for his meat medium rare and she guffawed loudly and said NON! You are in France now there is no in between!! When I asked about the debate raging in France over retirement age and pensions, things got really exciting. The volume rose, the pace picked up, everyone was talking at once, the young guys were rolling their eyes, it was fantastic. The evening was so congenial, so full of laughter, kindness and bonhomie that by the end it had become one of the best of my life. When Neil told this to Michel he answered in English (the most beautiful French accent) “I am very happy”.
At one point I quietly asked Patricia if it was rude to taste food from one another or to use tu instead of vous. She smiled her huge smile at me and said that when with friends this is the thing to do. Then she said to me “And Bobbi, you are with your friends, you are with your friends”. Even now as I write this it makes me all teary.
I don’t care how long it takes to get a bank account or that automatic cars are as common as unicorns, I am in love with France and, for at least one night, France loves me too…