The Seven-Hour Dinner

This is a story based on actual events.

By William J. Furney

Anyone who has been to France knows how almost impossibly chic and sophisticated the French can be. It’s certainly not true of them all, but even in the smaller, rural towns there’s an air of quality living and high-mindedness that transcends the otherwise mundane: they’ve latched onto a brightly burning filament of life and are glowing.

Even the first word of the day is pleasant and warm. In English, it’s curt, matter-of-fact and clinically dull. Almost no one smiles when saying “good morning”, because for most, it’s not and it’s a dour effort to get it out. I am certainly not a fan, and try to avoid it as best I can. Even the Spanish (buenos dias) is a bit of an effort, but nonetheless conveys much more meaning and heat. And I’ve always found the Malay/Indonesian “selamat pagi” to be as bright and cheery as leaping out of bed with such unbridled gusto that you feel you could do anything. It has promise.

“Bonjour” (and perhaps also the neighbouring, if rougher-sounding, Italian counterpart buongiorno) is altogether lovely, though. It’s a two-in-one early day greeting that rolls off the tongue like a lithe lover lifting themselves effortlessly out of bed and even makes the most hardened, word-weary soul glad they said or heard it. You should always start the day with a good-sounding word. This underlying and unspoken current of passion is what brings the French day. I could say “bonjour” all day long.

The other thing that struck me about France on my recent visit — arriving on a calm flight via Geneva, Switzerland, from England, and staying in the small and elegant border town of Chambery, was that the shopkeepers were, I thought, constantly wishing their patrons a “good journey”.

Well, like many in European schools, I studied French, but, equally, left school without much French (despite passing exams: failure, educational system!). To my scandalously untrained ear, “Bonne journée” merely meant, as my host Michel told me when I enquired, “Have a nice day” — not that everyone coming into a store was departing on worldwide travel adventures. And later I heard, “Bonne soirée” (Have a good evening, and not, as some might expect, “Have a nice dinner party”).

***

How long does a meal last? It’s relative, as Einstein might have said. Dining alone: sup, slurp, shamelessly wolf down as fast as you can, in say, a few indigestion-forming minutes. Who cares? Who’s watching? Help yourself to seconds, thirds — lick the saucepan clean. Saves on washing up, you sloth. A family having dinner together: each racing to the culinary finish to dash off and do as they please. With your lover? Take as long as you want and later there might even be a striptease.

I have never been a fan of the word “meal”. It conjures up upsetting images of famished yet portly pigs scoffing swill at big, long troughs. (I love pigs, which are highly intelligent, which is why I don’t eat them.)

And “dinner parties” in the Anglo part of the Western world are now absolutely naff. They are so totally passé. Dinner, after all, is dinner, and most certainly not a party. If it’s a fiesta you’re after, ditch the dishes and get straight to the drinks and whatever else. Inviting people to dinner — friends; most certainly not family — is an altogether different affair, and remains as such as long as the “party” element is kept well away.

I, Irish out of Asia after 14 years and now in France in early November 2017 after a three-country trip of almost six weeks that also took in Malaga in southern Spain and the tiny volcanic island of Gran Canaria that claims to have the best weather in the world and is also part of Spain and off the coast of west Africa, was having a dinner. And it would be vegan, for meat-eaters.

Are the French fussy about their food? Mais oui. French cuisine is, after all, world-renowned and the good people of this fine land love nothing other than opulent indulgences, in everything from the horrendous cruelty of foie gras to the very best in palate-pleasing wines.

I won’t deny that I wondered how my spartan, if succulent, fare — constructed around health and ethical matters — would go down, if at all. But going on the same main dish I cooked for close to two dozen mostly meat-eating Brits in Brighton, England, three months earlier, I knew I had little to worry about, as they had devoured the spicy lentil stew and asked for more.

Sometimes people really don’t know what’s good for them. And they look down on you, scandalised, for eating what is not pleasing to the body instead of merely the fleeting whims of the palate. Taste lasts seconds while the effects of beneficial or detrimental (processed junk) remain. For this, vegans are roundly criticized as being nut-jobs, for daring to care about their health, animals and the environment.

***

“What if no one comes?” I said to my host, Michel, as we sat in sofa chairs tapping our fingers. “Good question,” he said dryly and with a mild smile. “Do the French turn up on time or early or late for dinners?” I asked. “Usually they come 10 minutes after the time, but I once had a woman arrive an hour before a dinner. She wasn’t French, though. She just sat there for an hour, doing nothing, and I don’t know why she came so early,” he said.

The doorbell rang. It was an actual bell, of the old, school type, on the front door to the apartment. French(-style) kisses, handshakes and I retreated into my kitchen space, most of the cooking work prepared hours in advance. Two middle-aged couples: Charline, a former deputy mayor of Chambery who throughout the evening helped me in the kitchen and who was sassy and had a definite sparkle in her eye, and her wiry-haired partner who glared at me the entire evening; and Michele, whom Michel said would be the belle of this particular evening ball but was stony-silent from the moment she arrived, and her equally unfriendly partner Robert. Of course there was a barrier of language; no one spoke English apart from moi et Michel.

It turned out everyone hated each other.

And then Anup from India arrived. Michel said he had left India in search of an enhanced life and ended up doing a course at Michel’s business school (before he, Michel, was fired, after 10 years’ toil, for various transgressions) and stayed. He had little French but managed to get a job at the school he graduated from and then a mortgage to buy a flat in Chambery. But he was lonely, as he had left his estranged wife in India, and so basically just ate kebabs and got fat.

Anup wanted to know what I was cooking for this evening and stepped into the tiny kitchen that was overflowing with food. I told him it was a type of spicy lentil stew I had made recently, and it would be accompanied by great heaving, steaming mounds of wholegrain rice. He loved the idea, the smells, the promise of something approaching home-cooked food that would take him right back to his motherland and help to put his mind off the unsavory fact that his wife was now suing him for half a million euros because she thought everyone earned a fortune in Europe.

***

Seated around the candle-lit table, the eight of us dined. Practically everyone apart from me was unhappy and downright miserable with their lot, and they barely concealed it. Amid the pretense of laughter, frivolity and hand-clapping with the arrival of each course, the truth was everyone was painting a patina of pretence and was on the verge of collapse at any moment.

Michel had crumbled into a shattered wreck only evenings earlier, and had been in such emotional despair he had fallen off his dining chair.

Everyone assumes the French have it together, but the reality is that, with their ultra-high standards, most are just a breath away from a heart-stopping nervous breakdown. French women are on the record as saying they would rather smoke than risk getting fat if they gave them up and became healthier as a result.

Our never-ending dinner began with talk about CERN, as Michel and I had just visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, in my continuing search for understanding about superstring theory and the nature of reality. As the wine flowed and the courses kept coming (two deserts, though the second was strawberries dipped in 100% dark chocolate), the conversation catapulted into basic nonsense. And then someone produced champagne and we all lost our minds and the hours ticked by — midnight, 1am, 2am — and finally the guests left.

“They said it felt like Christmas and they didn’t want to leave,” Michel said days later after talking to them.

C’est la vie, j’imagine.

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