Thursday, May 6, 2010

A rather French affair...

Paris is not a nice place to be during the winter. In fact, due to various circumstances such as my appalling apartment and anti-social working hours, this last winter was one of the most unpleasant and miserable of my life. Perhaps I am exaggerating slightly – there was, of course, always the option of returning to the UK for good, but, since I chose to stay in Paris, this suggests I couldn’t have been too unhappy. In hindsight however, the living conditions and lifestyle in general, I would certainly not be prepared to repeat.

Finally the bitter cold is being replaced with balmy spring air, the drab, soulless cafes are alive once more with people spilling out on to the streets and the long dismal nights are slowly but surely being encroached upon by the longer, more relaxing days. Paris in spring, on the other hand, is a wonderful place to be. As I write this I am sitting beneath a cherry blossom tree in full bloom in Buttes Chaumont. The sunlight is filtering down through the leaves and I can hear the birds singing, the children playing and an elderly French couple chatting quietly behind me. This vast turn around in my opinions toward Parisian life has been aided, not only by the improvement in the weather, but also by my working hours. I now work mostly day shifts meaning I am free from as early as 4:15 to have a siesta, a shower and recuperate in a pub with some friends or go out for dinner. A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening in an especially French fashion at a dinner party.

French schools are closed on Wednesdays and, each week, my friend Rose looks after two boys, Dimitri and Guillaume, for the day. They are nice children and sometimes I go for lunch or to play table tennis with them. They seem to have taken a shine to me and often report back to their Mother what we got up to during the day. It is because of this that when Rose, in her infinite wisdom, decided to cook for almost the entire family, the boys and their parents, insisted I come.

It was with some trepidation that I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor of their rather pleasant apartment near the Pantheon. Upon entering I was relieved to find that no one had arrived yet. However, I did find Rose and her sister Aba huddled over the stove in the kitchen engulfed by a cloud of smoke. Presumably, not being used to the induction hob, Rose had misjudged the temperature and burnt the first lot of tatale: a delicious combination of mashed plantain, deep friend until slightly crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Not wanting to add to Rose’s problems I settled myself at the breakfast bar – having a solid barrier between myself and the tension in the kitchen felt rather reassuring. Presently the others began to arrive. First it was the boys’ Aunt and Uncle who came with their two children and then the parents arrived home too with the boys. This made a total of 11, of which, only two spoke any English.

Thankfully, the Father, Frederic brought out the alcohol and provided me with a beer with a dash of Picon – an orange flavoured addition that made it taste rather like marmalade. I sat quietly making kebabs and chatting with the boys’ Uncle whilst Rose and Aba pottered about in the kitchen, the boys played with my iPhone and the little girl spilled her juice, fussed and generally irritated everyone, except, of course, for her doting parents.

I had, without really thinking, brought a bottle of wine which, although wasn’t the cheapest in the ‘Alimentation Generale’ wasn’t anything special either. Frederic opened this and we eventually sat down to dinner. Rose made a toast which induced the boys into fits of giggles and resulted in them taking it upon themselves to try and extract a toast from me as well. Within minutes the entire table was chanting ‘Allez, James! James!’ Naturally I went puce in the face with embarrassment before making my rather forceful excuses. Not being a connoisseur of wine I thought my bottle was rather delicious. Frederic was also very complimentary although I can’t imagine that a €6 bottle of red from the corner shop compared particularly favourably to the expensive looking bottles of Chianti and Merlot that were lined up in the kitchen.

The meal was wonderful and, before long, I was more relaxed and chatting fairly comfortably to Frederic and Celine, the boys’ Mother. Throughout the meal the boys’ cousin, the little girl of about three or four, was a constant nuisance. Sweet, in a clich├ęd sense, with blonde hair and blue eyes she was constantly seeking attention either by whining or crying. Once we had all finished eating her father offered her a chocolate mousse. Before opening it he checked with her that she was sure she was going to eat it to which she replied with a withering look and a Gaelic shrug ‘Bein oui’. This caused the parents to visibly swoon with affection whilst I did my best to keep my food from making a bid for freedom.

After we had cleared the table we moved into the living room for champagne and dessert. Celine had made some delicious cookies which she sandwiched together with a thick, creamy strawberry sauce and summer fruits. The little girl insisted upon meandering around the coffee table upon which were perched everyone’s champagne glasses. Celine and Frederic were somewhat wary about this but didn’t say anything - her parents were oblivious to their precious little girl’s stupidity. Inevitably, before long, she knocked one off the table (luckily for her it wasn’t mine) which caused everyone to wince, draw breath or cry out. This caused the little girl to burst into tears. Rather than giving her a good smack and making her sit down finally, the father swept her into his arms and cooed softly in her ear for the next 15 minutes whilst Celine went about clearing up the spilt champagne.

Eventually, tired, full and relaxed, Rose, Aba and I bid our farewells. We left the warm glow of the apartment and went down the narrow stairs to the wide, Parisian boulevard outside. I was wheeling Rose’s shopping trolley, the kind popular with elderly Grandmothers. The wheel of this contraption kept spinning off causing Rose to chase after it down the street. It was a warm evening and the cafes were still busy, couples walked slowly, arm in arm bathed in the soft moonlight and the imposing outline of the Pantheon stood behind us as we made our way down to the RER and home.

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