Sunday, April 25, 2010

Birthday Party

Back in the fall, just after we moved to Aups, I held our first real dinner party, for three other French families who live in our town. Everybody’s kids ran around like lunatics, then fell in a giant pile in front of the television, watching some Disney movie or another while the parents sat around the dining room table. We poured lots and lots of red wine, and I very nearly understood small portions of the conversation unfolding in front of me.

I was nervous as heck trying to throw a real party in a foreign place, as despite my advanced age, I have long suffered from a sort of learning disability where domesticity is concerned. But while I barely knew any of the people at that table, I was comfortable in their collective presence almost immediately. So what if I couldn't speak their language, or serve cheese with the appropriate utensils (apparently individual clean knives are always a good idea with a cheese course.) I really liked them. And as far as I could tell, everybody had a good time.

As it turns out, the people who came to that party have now become real friends. After all my complaining about how unfriendly French people are in general, we now have actual friendships, a loose web of them quite nicely leavened by the presence really excellent children and some of the coolest Brits you will ever wish to meet.

It happens slowly, this building of friendships in adulthood. You have to suss people out, and you see only gradually what they're really like. When you're in the eighth grade, you can make a new friend almost instantly -- or at least in the process of a 45 minute study hall on three or four consecutive days. But with grownups, particularly with other families, it's more complicated. Some people you might like immediately, and then find that your spouse finds them impossible. Or others you might think were a lot of fun, and later discover that they don’t return your emails. The good news is that friendship drama doesn't sting nearly so much in adulthood; there are just too many other things going on.

Although I felt immediately comfortable with the people who came to that first party, it’s only been more recently that they have felt like closer friends. The kind of people to whom you tell the truth when they ask you how your week has been. The kind of people who really understand when your kids are having a rough day. The kind of people I’m really going to miss like crazy when we leave.

Last Tuesday, our friend Jessica turned 40. Since I am the elder stateswoman of our little clique here in Aups, I invited nearly everybody we know in common over to celebrate her. The crowd of our shared friends, was about half French, half, British; half kids and half adults. Her Mom, who owns the terrific house we have lived in all year, came as well, and we got to ask her a million and one questions – about Jess, and about the house itself. She told us, for example, that the bronze bust that has been watching over us all year is a cast of the first president of Sri Lanka, and the crown he has been wearing is the prize for several dozen years' worth of costume parties she held in another small French town nearby. We learned who painted which portraits, and where she managed to find them all. Not surprisingly, Jessica’s mom turned out to be a beautiful, warm, and compelling woman.

The rest of us were a motley crew of parents who speak English and French with varying degrees of skill. Jessica, for the record, is the most fluent in both, the point around which the rest of us could balance. But the most important thing that we all had in common was that we all really really love Jessica. She’s the first friend we made here – in fact she felt like a friend before we arrived. She sent us photos of her donkeys and her kids, and reassured us about how we might deal with registering for all the important aspects of temporary residency here. She’s the kind of person who has strong affections, strong opinions, and embracing enthusiasms. She doesn’t suffer fools, but neither does she hold anybody at arm’s length unnecessarily. Jessica rocks.

I never counted how many people were here to celebrate (a fact that had some bearing on my failure during the evening to provide the appropriate numbers of spoons, bowls, plates, and slices of cake) but all the chairs in the house seemed to get filled a few times over during the course of dinner. I think we had a few dozen, roughly half each kids and grownups.

It was the kind of party I most enjoy, which means that I let things spiral nicely out of control. I spent part of the day cooking two kinds of soup but nothing else particularly fancy. Everybody brought some treat or other, and it turned out that there was enough to go around. I baked a yellow cake and tried a new frosting recipe. The texture was all wrong, and dripped off the sides of the cake into a puddle on the plate. But it was the kind of party where you could just stick your finger in the pooled failed icing and take a big old lick. Several of the children in attendance did just that, as did the guest of honor herself.

I also enjoyed the evening because it was the kind of party where the kids go completely wild. After about a half hour of balls flying everywhere, of little girls rummaging through the dress up basket, and all of the kids running in and out of our house, our neighbors’ house, and the shared courtyard, one little boy came running inside, blood streaming from the top of his head down onto his white shirt.

He had tripped and somehow gashed his head. But surprisingly enough, he was neither crying nor particularly upset about the fact that his head had been gouged open. His parents, showing a calm equanimity that seems characteristically French, first did this sort of parental neurological exam, asking him to follow their finger with his eyes back and forth. I wasn't sure if they were kidding, but he must have passed, because they asked for a little antibiotic cream to daub on him, then sent him back out to do more crazed running around. As long as the kids don’t get too upset, I always think that these wild rumpuses do them good.

(Our girls, as is their wont, slipped in and out of the core of the action. They seem to choose this place on the sideline of a wild rumpus, despite my deep wish that they would sometimes simply let themselves play with greater abandon.)

When it finally came time to serve dinner, everybody wanted Bill’s Harira, a Moroccan soup he first tasted on his trip with Sean. I had a vague idea of setting up the kitchen table as a buffet, but when the kids all installed themselves there instead, I let the chips (and the quiches, and the salad, and the bread) fall where they may. I even took the bold American move of putting cheese out before dinner, which seemed to the French kids was like I was serving ice-cream sundaes as appetizers. Everybody pulled up a chair, or found a place to stand and eat.

Count this among the accomplishments of the year: I may have found my own personal style of entertaining. I call it ramshackle chaotic mishmash, with good food, and even better company.

As a family, we hadn't been having the greatest day ever. But just as soon as everybody walked in the door, in a big friendly clump, we were returned to ourselves by the comforting and reassuring presence of friends. Not just acquaintances anymore, but real friends.

This has been the best bittersweet surprise of our time here. We expected to learn about France, about the language, about the landscape, and about ourselves. We expected to become attached to the Var, and I certainly fell in love with this remarkable house the second I saw it. But I don’t know if we anticipated the real joys of new friendships. Or the way that we will feel sad, and miss these friends, when it's time to go.

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