I just spent a weekend in Chaingy, a beautiful little village about an hour by train from Paris. It is the home of my in-laws, and right out of a storybook about the French countryside. Both my mother and father-in-law are avid gardeners and my mother-in-law is an artist both inside and out, as well as being an extraordinary cook.
You see, currently my husband, who has his own business has a three-year contract working outside this little hamlet and for convenience and financial reasons lives there during the week, while I, alas, must stay in Paris in order to remember I am not on a perpetual vacation!
To say that visiting there is a delight is a gross understatement. My in-laws are gracious, adorable and very inviting, despite they speak no English (or very little) and I am forced to listen intently to conversations and practice my struggling French (globberish my father-in-law calls both his English and my French – a random language that combines the two, often rather badly)
But despite this seemingly fairytale existence, there are still challenges. The language for one. And the constant feeling of living out of a suitcase – and never taking exactly the correct wardrobe for the occasion (Sunday is a dress day for example), or perpetually forgetting some essential I was sure I packed (this past weekend it was mascara for example – don’t ask).
It also is not ideal in that my husband and I have little or no alone time together unless he makes the tiring two hour drive to Paris in traffic after a long week in a challenging job. So, not all sunshine and rainbows.
This past weekend was even a bit more challenging (beginning with a cancelled train – transportation strike, again don’t ask – that necessitated me getting up at 5 am, and then sitting on the new train at the station, which was of course delayed for 40 minutes – because of, yes, the strike.) Can you say welcome to the not so fabulous parts of France?
Anyway, this was the annual family reunion, the last one to be held in Chaingy. My in-laws plan to move to the south of France next year. As you can imagine, since this house has been in the family for four generations and my mother-in-law was actually born here, that there was a special fondness and need for this event to be more than a typical gathering. Old photos were pulled out and examined, memories and teasing to be shared.
And - Me with 21 other people, most of whom were new to me, who guess what, also don’t speak English. Add to that my mother-in-laws penchant for beauty and perfection – which in France requires three plates, three glasses, two forks, three knives of varying size/use and two spoons, per person. Don’t even get me started on the correct way to serve aperitifs before the meal, cold first, hot next, served by one or other of those present, so on and so forth.
But, guess what, this was not only for a lunch and afternoon chat. This is France after all, the home of 2.5 hour meals on a normal basis. No, this soiree extended well beyond dinner into the dark hours of say eleven o’clock that night. So, you can multiply everything above by two.
I had roughly 10 hours to make a faux pas, excluding the roughly 30 hours before hand of preparation; and I was only in it on the tale end not the three months Pauline and Jean-Paul had spent in preparation, nor the three weeks Christian had spent helping, trying out recipes, cleaning, etc.
So, the morning of, my nerves were on edge. Did I mention I typically fail to bring the appropriate attire? It was hot, as in 89 degrees in the sun (or shade, as I tried to place myself) of social time. And Pauline is the epitome of understated French chic, with beautiful blue eyes, a slim build (which she watches intently by eating very small portions without deprivation) and that French ability to wear pale green linen shorts, a delicately cut blouse and pearl bob dangly earrings without looking overdressed; or disturbed by said heat as she flurries through the cooking and serving, with the most delightful smile on her face as if she were simply reclining on a beach somewhere. Meet my new family. Did I mention that I am an extreme introvert, uncomfortable with lots of new people in an environment I not only can’t escape, but am often the focal point of? I was ready for wine at 9:30.
But then the most interesting thing happened. I had a beautiful time. We all began with causal conversation around a tray filled with a variety of nuts and olives and a pitcher of sangria, served traditionally by the men in the group (I learned during my wedding weekend that it is considered very rude for a woman to have an empty glass. Now that is a welcome to France I can appreciate. I also learned upon arrival in France, that no one reaches for an aperitif without first serving the other guests, not gender specific.)
So, after small chit chat, and formal introductions, which my delightful mother-in-law did as each guest arrived, presenting me as if I were Meghan Markle, hot hors devours were served, one tray at a time, as a procession moved in and out of the house like a determined colony of ants.
An hour and a half into the revelry, lunch, a first course of salmon tureen, a mackerel pate and a pork tureen, served of course, The wine flowed with the conversation and I was surprised to discover that I didn’t struggle as badly as I imagined.
I must have had 15 people ask me multiple times, “Ç ava Kim?” (is everything ok)? And most tried to engage me in some form of communication, which we all laughed and eked through together.
As soon as the entrée plate, as they call the first course in French, was removed, the main course was served, roast or turkey with ratatouille and potatoes au gratin. Once finished that plate removed for a smaller one used for bread and a cheese. And finally, desert- (oh, forgot that plate) a choice of sorbets and sugar cookies.
Whew, after about 3 hours, one is stuffed, (something else you never, ever say in France – stuffed. You are basically calling yourself a thanksgiving turkey).
Have you ever been in that situation? Perhaps you are very unhappily married and the thought of a gathering like i described would be more like your seventh circle of hell. Or perhaps you fantasize about an event like that and long for the closeness and laughter of joining your husband and his family for a beautiful day?
How do you imagine your future? What would be a fantasy day for you with loved ones? How would you spend your time? Who would be there? What would you be doing? What makes it special?
Think about it and jot a response below – and remember, dreams can come true. This is my third marriage. I lived many years before experiencing the wonder of this past weekend. I am proof that it is never too late to make joy a reality – but don’t expect that even the most beautiful events come about just by longing for them. You have to make efforts to make your dreams come true. What are you doing right now to make that happen?