Formal French Functions – as in Soirées

Written by admin on March 19, 2010 – 2:52 pm -

Recently I offered the use of my apartment to an American friend for a reception.

Jerry heads a global think tank, The Millennium Project, that does admirable work in the field of future studies and research. It was a no-brainer to host a gathering chez moi and was the least I could do. It required minimal work or wear and tear.

Even though all of the attendees would be guests of this group and I wouldn’t know a soul, what did it matter? It would be an opportunity to meet new people, the majority of whom I assumed would be French.

As it turned out, people were from all over the world. In that way, it was similar to parties in Washington, D.C., where it’s rare to meet someone actually born there. Only one guest was a native Parisian, but many had lived here for the majority of their lives. Each person had a mission and that was to make the world a better place through committed dedication and not simply talking the talk.

The one thing the women had in common is they all wore black. If you’re in Paris during cold weather and want to look Parisian, black is it no matter what the fashion gurus are trying to have us believe.

The evening was a success. But upon reflection, I realize it might have gone more smoothly had my American side not surfaced.

Two weeks prior to the “cocktail”, custom-designed and elegant invitations were sent. So far so good, right? No, probably wrong. Call it the Green movement or laziness, they were sent via cyberspace. The invitation composition program is ingenious and tracks who’s received the invitation, whether or not they’ve opened it and even allows people to RSVP on the spot without having to send an extra email or pick up the phone to respond.

Don’t get me wrong. The French are incredibly Internet savvy and use it with a vengeance. They send mails, and on-line communication isn’t the enigma it was ten years ago.  The French have not only taken to computers but they’re frequently glued to iPhones, Blackberries—and lord help you if you’re not a master at texting.

Ride on any métro (it’s amazing the signal can reach that far down) and you’ll see people typing away rather than reading newspapers as they used to do. Come to think of it, perhaps they’re reading their news on-line.

In the case of this event, people didn’t respond to the invitation. I’ve always found the French to be très correct, but why weren’t they saying whether or not they were attending? It was baffling.

When it came to saying yay or nay to the reception, perhaps it was because the invites were cyber-sent during winter vacation when the recipients had other things on their minds. Or maybe they were holding off in order to see what was on their agendas for that day.

There was no reason to bother fretting (or in my case, obsessing) because there wasn’t a darn thing I could do except buy a few extra bottles of wine and faux-champagne for Kir royals, which would be served in flute-shaped glasses.  People could opt to drink hard liquor, but not ever one person asked for scotch, gin, vodka or anything with high alcohol content.

The French usually don’t serve tons of food at cocktail receptions. Nuts, olives, a few hot and cold appetizers usually do the job. Guests are expected to go out to dinner after an event and usually plan on doing so. The evening was so interesting and people were so involved in exchanging ideas and meeting one another that they didn’t drink and run.

This is where my American side comes into play. The idea of people leaving a party of mine hungry goes so against my grain. Perhaps it’s one of the reasons Americans tend to have problems with their weight since they rationalize that anything they eat while standing up, or that’s been passed (or grabbed off a plate) doesn’t enter into the calorie intake quotient.

If you’re of the Martha Stewart generation, it was only polite that guests could go home without having to stop for dinner or cook before going to bed.

Do you think it’s a fundamental difference between the French and Americans that cocktails mean cocktails and not dinner? Now that I think about it, my French friends tend to bring a bottle of wine or some flowers to an event (don’t believe that those are no-no’s) while my American friends frequently offer to bring food and, even if you say no, frequently arrive with something edible.

I know I always ask what I may cook or bring when I’m in the States. I don’t when I’m in France; perhaps it’s simply yet another cultural difference.

As someone who’s always curious and fascinated by cultural differences, I know that no matter how hard I try to stay au courant, it’s hard (O.K., impossible) to keep up with rapidly changing trends as the developed world becomes increasingly global.


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