Long before I took off for France this semester, I had thought that I was fully prepared for what I had heard about French dinners. Fabulous food, several courses, and most importantly, lots of cheese and wine. No big deal, right? Of course there are the subtle table manners expected as well, but I've never too many problems in that department.
And don't get me wrong, the food is fantastic. Always freshly cooked, natural, and full of flavor. But as the "guest" in my host family's house, there are still a few things I'm trying to figure out at dinner time, even though I've been with them for more than 3 weeks.
Our first week at IES was jam-packed with orientations of all sorts, with one in particular about table manners. For example, in France one is expected to keep both hands ON the table throughout the whole meal. When asked if you like something, never say no, but rather that you don't like it a lot, or simply eat the unpleasing dish more slowly to give a hostess a subtle clue. Never sit down before the hostess does, and never serve yourself before offered to do so. And one eats nearly everything - apples and pizza included - with a fork and knife.
However, at my house, the rules are a little more ambiguous.
I'd expected that eating would be a slow process, both to savor the cuisine and enjoy one another's conversation. In reality, I still can't figure out how my family manages to eat so fast while carrying on conversation.
Meanwhile, I'm struggling with using both a knife and fork at all times, answering questions in French without loosing my mouthful of food, and still attempting to finish eating at the same time my family does. And of course, being the guest, I'm always offered second helpings. If I refuse, my host mother asks me if I like the dish. And in fact, I always do, but it's simply a matter of not wanting to eat too much, especially when I know that cheese and perhaps a dessert are still to follow. I've tried to alleviate this problem by taking less food at the beginning of a meal, but then I'm asked if I'm not very hungry, and usually my host mom serves me extra after everyone else has been served. So I'm doomed from the start!
Of course I greatly appreciate all the courteousness, but it makes things even harder when I'm struggling to be courteous myself and follow all the rules we learned. In fact, striving to be extra-polite has been a blessing in some ways - by not refusing anything I'm offered, I've discovered that I like avocados, salted butter (a Brittany specialty), pickles (though they're different here - tiny and sweet), and many different kinds of cheese.
Another thing - we don't eat dinner until 8:30pm. What a change from Alma dinner promptly at 5:00 when SAGA opens! But in fact, when speaking with my family and the French student assistants at IES, this is completely normal for them.
This all goes to show that I'm not in fact learning a language, but a different way of life. It's all too easy to resist and complain about it, but I'm finding ways to appreciate the differences. After all, this semester is one grand learning process, one bite at a time.
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