Before she married, my dear friend and London flatmate Penny moved in with her French boyfriend James in Paris. He was a young aristocratic Parisian whom she’d met on a trip in the 1970s to Peru where he was volunteering and she was traveling with a girlfriend. They returned together.
Sad for me but happy for them, she moved to Paris with promises that we would see each other often. “Often” can be a hollow wave goodbye, so it was a delight to be invited to their home for New Year’s Eve, traditionally the highlight for holiday celebrations in Paris.
Arriving exhausted but excited, they met me at the Gard du Nord train station with hugs and delight and promises of a warm apartment, good wine, dinner, chats and a fun few days.
I fail to remember the arrondissement or address, but it was along a narrow street where some small shops dotted the lanes: pâtisserie, boulangerie, poissonnerie and épicerie. How convenient! We shopped quickly for a simple supper so we could “play” in the tiny kitchen together just as we did at our London flat on Manchester Square and catch up with simple news. And to lay out the extended family map and personalities.
Monsieur, James’ father, is an important diplomat, and Madame, James’ mother, keeps a serious house, entertaining world wide “significantly important” people in diplomatic, political and high cultural circles. James is an up and coming tax lawyer and his young brother, Sebastian, is a late-blooming teenager who has a distaste for bathing!
Penny and I had been invited for tea on New Year’s Eve afternoon. Madame wanted to meet me before the New Year’s Day luncheon she had planned. Penny warned me that Madame was quite imposing, but if I relied on my well-mannered upbringing I’d be fine. This was Penny’s future mother-in-law. I could not litter Penny’s engagement with disgrace!
My parents had instructed me that as a guest, you respond in the language your host addresses you. If someone greets you with “Good afternoon” – your response should not be “Hi.” So I was prepared for polite conversational French on meeting Madame Vaudoyer if she addressed me in French.
It was a very imposing nineteenth century house, bedecked with antiques inherited over generations, no doubt, imposing wide marble staircase, heavy floor to ceiling curtains. We were shown to Madame Vaudoyer’s sitting room for tea. She was tall, exquisitely slim, dressed in a light blue cashmere sweater twin-set and light plaid skirt, long white chiffon scarf draped around her neck, her hair dressed in a French twist. She greeted us in English. “Oh, please do call me Blinée,” she exhorted when I addressed her as Madame. We exchanged some pleasantries about our walking, shopping “adventures” in Paris while we waited for the tea tray to be brought in. Her friendliness put to rest my intimidation as she encouraged me to speak. And then she brought out two small packages wrapped beautifully, one for each of us. A little leather purse for Penny and a long dark blue crocheted scarf for me. This was totally unexpected and so kind and my lingering doubts about her niceness melted. Penny, perhaps because she was being vetted as a future daughter-in-law, had been subject to much harsher scrutiny I surmised.
The real Parisian “Don’t worry, all our friends speak English” New Year’s Eve party later that evening was friendly, busy and only mildly alcoholic. No one appeared overly pixilated. It was all about happiness not drunkenness and people were tolerant of my basic French. “Bonne année tout le monde!”
Happy to bed, happy to rise the next day. Penny and James had told me that the New Year’s Day luncheon would be formal and delicious. I was super excited and pleased that I had met James’ mother and established a nice little acquaintance.
I entered with confidence and a restrained happy smile on greeting Madame in the second floor drawing room where other guests had arrived. Penny was treated with warmth by the extended family and friends gathered to celebrate. I managed to converse simply in French before being ushered into the large dining room for luncheon. The table was set for twelve in grand style with multiple courses.
Luncheon started with the classic French tradition to celebrate the New Year — foie gras. A treat indeed for me! There were several courses after that, where the protein was served first followed by the vegetables, which rather baffled me. Remembering my mother’s rule: take your cue from the host. Do not pick up your cutlery before she does.
As with all good hosts and media interviewers, Madame began the full table conversation brightly and we all joined in, in English, including myself after she called on me to express my opinion. I do not now remember the topic, but at some point, I addressed her as Blinée and she threw her head back repeating her name in a laughing rebuke of my supposed breach of socially acceptable protocol. I was confused and said quietly “But you asked me to call you . . .”
“Oh, how terribly sweet!” She laughed and threw her smile across the table and immediately continued the discussion in French.
Full force dumbstruck.
On returning to the little apartment, beside niceties, I was still rather speechless. “I tried to warn you.” said Penny.
“My mother’s like that,” said James.
It took me quite a while to understand and appreciate the harsh lesson I learned. Yes, certainly this was a woman who had to be in control and be seen prevailing over her environment, which included family, extended family and friends, so a dominance of the wider world where her family had a place, position and presence would be assured.
It was also an extension of the table etiquette advice referenced earlier – to be sensitive to the nuance of the difference between public and private situations and to respond appropriately within them. The sitting room is not the dining room nor the palace.