I know I’m not French, I definitely don’t look French, and I know sometimes I stand out, like a typical American in France. I can navigate most situations with confidence despite all odds. But being “à table” (at the table) with Romain’s family still trips me up.
Let’s consider a casual family dinner at home in Dallas. It’s usually my job to set the table because it took me a while to come around to cooking. I enjoy setting the table. I know where the water and wine glasses go relative to the plate, I know that the knife blade faces in towards the plate, etc. Thanks to my mom, I know to use placemats. Tablecloths are generally reserved for holidays. We always have flowers on the table, candles lit, and voilà.
We set everything out on the island in the kitchen and everyone goes through the line when the meal is ready. It’s what we’ve always done in my family.
Romain first visited my family in the US way before I ever spent time with his family. He couldn’t seem to wrap his head around our version of “à table.” It completely stressed him out. I couldn’t figure out what he didn’t understand about this simple concept, so I just brushed him off. I actually told him to read a book about etiquette. Looking back, I shouldn’t have been so insensitive, but at the time I hadn’t experienced the ‘fish out of water’ feeling.
As it turns out, the joke was on me. And the joke continues to be on me.
I have the ‘fish out of water’ feeling every time I eat with Romain’s family. The French “à table” experience is so different and in these situations I feel like I have “American in France” tattooed across my forehead. There’s seemingly a code and a rhyme and a reason for everything. That reason is French “politesse,” or politeness.
After more than a year, here’s some of what I’ve learned:
- Fork prongs touch the table
- Starter plates go on top of the main dish plates, and every course is served at the table, family style
- The person responsible for serving (usually the mother) sits closest to the kitchen
- Look in the eyes when saying “Cheers”
- Bread goes directly on the table once cut
- Use your knife at all times – but definitely don’t cut your lettuce
- Don’t keep your hands in your lap
- Don’t finish eating before the head of the table
- Once the head of the table is finished eating, everyone is finished eating
- Don’t get up from the table unless you’re clearing dishes
These are just a few examples that come to mind. There are plenty that I’m missing, and I’m sure I’ve fumbled them hundreds of times by now. After spending time in Normandy this summer with Romain’s family I can set a casual French table with 80-90% accuracy.
It takes every ounce of my brain power to stay focused and follow the conversation when there are four of us “à table.” If there’s a large group of people, I generally go into autopilot and just smile. I’m lucky if I can contribute to the conversation when someone directly asks me something – forget spontaneous interjections.
I felt like I made real progress last night at dinner with Romain, his mom, and brother. First, it was a small group. Second, they were all acutely aware that my French is a work in progress. Third, Romain’s mom regularly checked-in with me to make sure I was following. I even found myself thinking of multiple things to add to the conversation, but alas, I couldn’t figure out how to say them before we moved on to the next topic. My greatest accomplishments from the evening are that I successfully made a few jokes and I left the dinner without being completely exhausted from translating in my head.
So far, the two most important “à table” takeaways for me are that: we have huge cultural differences “à table” and otherwise, and wine makes it a lot easier to be the only person who doesn’t speak the language. Also, I’m probably lucky that Romain didn’t break up with me after his first trip to the US. It had to have been beyond traumatizing.