Thursday 25 April 2019


So our English pals with the to-die-for place in the South of France are telling us how they were not that long ago invited round for dinner by some nearby French pals and how, having arrived, they found some other French people there and it was all very pleasant except for the fact that one other French couple was stuck en route somewhere so the meal would be delayed: by two hours, in fact, as the stuck people (where were they coming from? Dortmund?) had the greatest conceivable difficulty in unsticking themselves; and when they finally arrived offered no apology, merely a complaint.

Still. You might think that those present would have passed the time by having a few drinks, worrying about Brexit, generally unbuttoning themselves, to the extent that two hours in they'd be quite well lit up. But no. No wines or other alcoholic beverages were served until the laggards had actually shown. Two hours of sitting around, making small talk, neither eating nor drinking. The event was so formal, so rulebound, that nothing could happen, like a wedding or a coronation, until all the participants were present.

How can this be? The French love to drink. They've long been a world leader in liver cirrhosis. The long lunch with two bottles of wine and a digestif. The Calvados followed by a morning spent operating dangerous farming machinery or mining a quarry. The taxi driver haloed by beer fumes. How can this be?

Well, the pals say, that's what the uptight French middle classes do these days. They don't hit the sauce like they used to. And now that this point is out in the open, it occurs to me that, yes, I have been to one or two unnervingly chaste French encounters, where the booze has flowed so sluggishly it might as well not have been there. Dinner with some French semi-family semi-friends a couple of years back saw five adults seated around a single bottle of neither-here-nor-there Côtes du Rhône for an eternity, while many claims were made concerning the superiority of French society, listlessly rebutted by us Brits, all the while staring at this awful, feeble, yet irreplaceable, bottle. We had a strong sense that the bottle, in its uniqueness and finality, was not meant to be drunk at all but was only there to tell us something about the protocols of French conviviality, a symbol of pure culture more than anything else. Long evening.

Or, a very different setting - the residence of the French Ambassador in London (big gaff near Kensington Palace) - where I'd been asked to swell the numbers for an acquaintance getting an award from the French Government. Yes, we had Monsieur l'Ambassadeur himself and, yes, we had a couple of ludicrous footmen with sashes who stood to attention in order to demonstrate that truly we were witnessing the French State, but: even though it was a celebration, a time of congratulations, we had nothing to drink. For an hour or so we milled around, listened to the speeches (one honouring, one accepting), stared out of the windows, got more and more parched and disconsolate, until, just when we were thinking of packing up and going home, some butlers appeared, holding tiny trays bearing tiny glasses of what turned out to be completely horrible red wine. These butlers moved among us with painful slowness, distributing the drink before disappearing for a Gallic age, then re-emerging, lethargically dishing out some more of the warm, filthy grog, disappearing again, and on and on, until everyone had been given their minute token of France's bounty and we could finally slope off to get a proper drink.

As usual, when thinking about these things, l end up wondering, is it me or is it them? Have the French always been this chary or is it merely that I've become such a slavering toper over the years that what once seemed perfectly proper now looks niggardly? Is it just a Brit thing? Are we the odd ones out, yet again? Very possibly.

Except that I also remember how some German family pals once had us round for dinner, beginning the evening with a bottle of sparkling demi-sec and a huge cream cake, all of which we had to consume before getting stuck into the actual dinner of sausages and potatoes and whatnot. In their defence, they did look a bit apprehensive while we all sat there around the coffee table, eating the pudding course at six in the evening, but they made us do it. On the other hand, the next time we ate there they gave us a full-on barbecue with lashings of delicious Reinheitsgebot beer, so things make a kind of sense, sometimes. But who's got it right? Lashings of booze Brits or massively uptight French? What does hospitality mean? A sense of correctness or a sense of abundance? And I haven't even got onto the Americans.


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