Standing on Ceremony in France

My first guests for dinner at my apartment in the 14th arrondissement, on Rue Brézin, right off the Avenue de General Leclerc, were Renaud and Odette, the couple I’d met a week earlier at my friend Daniel’s housewarming.

They’d agreed to come over even though we barely knew each other. But their openness to meet new people was like my own eagerness to be, if not known, at least befriended.

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Odette and Renaud

I’d heard somewhere that the French were hard to break through to. Or even to meet. But I didn’t and haven’t found that. I started making friends fairly quickly. Perhaps this was because I’d had that initial “in” at a party where I knew the host. Perhaps it was because I always invited people over for a homemade meal, and the French respond to that kind of warmth. Perhaps it was because I was so curious about French culture that I found friendliness rather than a cold shoulder. In any event, my first dinner invitation was accepted.

And Renaud did something charming in his response to my undoubtedly awkward French email dinner invitation. He suggested we “tutoyer,” which is using the singular “tu” form instead of the more formal “vous” that you employ at work, or with your boss or with strangers or people you’re not exactly close to. “C’est plus facile,” he wrote, which was true. But it was also evidence that they didn’t want us to stand on ceremony.

The whole “tu” and “vous” thing is tricky for us Anglophones (and the whole lack of it in English is perplexing to the French, who find it odd that our language doesn’t give you an easy way of signifying levels of respect – or social standing – or of putting someone off or drawing someone in).

My ear has become better attuned to the two verb forms. At the time, to make life easier for me, and not commit some blunder by being too casually intimate with someone I’d just met, I would ask people if we could “tutoyer.” It really is simpler, as Renaud had said and luckily for me, the request was always granted. The steps leading up to allowing to use the familiar verb form can take some time, apparently, for the French. Being an American gives you a certain license when it comes to the finer points of verbal etiquette.

The nuances still escape me from time to time, even if I’m now used to hearing the forms and understanding some of the finer points of “tu” and “vous” usage. After one dinner I’d hosted a couple of years later – another apartment in another arrondissement – my friend Philippe called me and asked, appalled, “Did you hear what he said to me?” referring to another friend he’d met there and with whom he’d spoken over dinner. “He used the formal vous when I addressed him in the familiar tu.”

I hadn’t noticed – I’d been too busy concentrating on the ebb and flow of the conversation in general to hear the not-so subtle insult that this implied.

“I’m sure it was nothing,” I told him.

“It was not nothing” Philippe said, still put out.

In fact, when I later asked my other friend about it, he said, “Did I do that? I just thought your friend was very ‘vieille France,'” meaning quite old fashioned and possibly provincial. My friend didn’t think – let’s say he told himself that he didn’t really think – that he was being impolite. It just came out that way.

Anyway, these are subtle and often complicated things to keep track of. And even at the beginning of ma vie française, I was grateful for the vote of confidence that Renaud had placed in our nascent friendship. And also relieved that I wouldn’t have to think about conjugating verbs more than I usually did at that point.

My conversational speech was still hesitant, and I continued to search not only for le mot juste, but just le mot, during talks with patient new French friends. It had only been a month, of course, since my arrival, and despite my rather rapid progress in French I was far less fluent than a slow-learning toddler.

More pressing to me than the byways of a new language, however, was what to serve my French guests.

And how to serve it.

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