Yes, normally today Edith and I are rummaging in our closets in an effort to contrive staggeringly stunning ensembles for your delectation, but for logistical reasons (you don't really care about the details) the weekly schedule has been modified.
Instead, we (you and I, not Edith) will be examining the fine, sometimes complicated, but ever important manners and mores that no matter what one is wearing signal to the French who you are and from whence you arrived. Believe me, it's a minefield. So incendiary are some of these glaring words and gestures that I have decided not to mention them. (You'll have to contact me undercover on a need-to-know basis because I don't want to rock the bateau.)
Once again, some I knew, some I learned and some no one in the world could know unless one first makes the faux pas followed by a correction. Attending a Swiss boarding school normally gives the necessary polish and politesse required. For those who have passed the enrollment age, please allow me to assist.
If you want to give your children and grandchildren a jambe up you could whisk them off to Academie Nadine de Rothschild, Internatioinal Way of Life where she will teach them much more than which fork to use.
She's the perfect professor. She went from the lowest echelons of French society, passing by her starlet stage to le bon mariage and thus becoming La Baronne Nadine de Rothschild. She oozes charm and good humor and never pretends or negates her rise in good fortune and what she learned on the trudge up the mountain. Now she shares the wealth of her experiences through books and her "finishing school."
She also counsels her adherents later in life to help them climb that other important social ladder: career advancement. Business etiquette is itself a rapidly growing career path. (See how Nadine is working the table above.)
Entre temps, let me respond to a few questions which may or may not have occurred to you and about which you may or may not give a whit:
1.) Soup: It is consumed from the point of the spoon, not from the side as we were taught. I know I don't need to say this, but of course I will, no slurping, sucking or blowing on the liquid and if you can't get every last drop with the spoon -- leave it. Do not tip the bowl. (Ed note: French soup spoons are enormous.)
2.) Toasts: In our review last week we discussed never saying, "bon appetit" this week a reminder to never say "Santé" as a toast.
3.) The worst, most condescending insult one can say about another is that he or she is "ordinaire." Ouch. Really.
4.) A variety of key words exist, that once dropped into a conversation immediately classify the speaker, this is the ultimate snobbism of the French. These words I shall not divulge herewith. The paramount rule for good manners is not to offend or embarrass, for that reason I shall abstain. (For a fascinating discourse on snobbism you must click over to La Duchesse at Passage des Perles.)
5.) One says: "Je vous embrasse" and never, "On se fait la bise."
6.) It is the duty, no the obligation, of every dinner party guest to devote equal time engaging the invitee on his (or her) left and right in lively conversation, not to do so is considered unforgivably rude. Too bad for you, speaking from a man's point of view, if you have Ines de la Fressange on your right and the host's deaf great-grandmother on your left. C'est la vie.
7.) When leaving the dining room, push your chair back toward the table.
8.) Never abbreviate on an envelope, always write: Madame, Monsieur or Mademoiselle.
9.) At the very least it is considered inelegant to refuse part of the repas. In France you will either be served or serve yourself, therefore you are in control of your portions. If you despise wild boar (as I do) take a small piece, try to eat a tiny bite and quickly drink some wine. Now you are the perfect guest.
10.) You have probably heard scores of times the rule about never cutting lettuce. It must be folded into a little package. I've certainly mentioned this before, but one detail I neglected is that the job of a good hostess is to make certain her lettuce leaves have been ripped into manageable bits. Also, if the process does require folding you can assist your fork with a small morsel of bread. Yes, it can be tres tricky.
11.) Do not answer the telephone with a bored "oui" implicit in that word is a question mark demanding "what do you want?" Always respond to the ring with a bright, sunny "allo!" -- if you're in a bad mood, let the call go into the answering machine.
12.) This fascinates me: When one is asked to "please pass the salt," it is not to be handed to the person, but placed next to her. Hand-to-hand salt transfers are associated with some ancient superstition. Who knew? Who could know?
13.) On formal wedding invitations, the grandparents' names precede those of the parents on the invitation to the ceremony. Rather charming I think.
14.) If you do not wish to have more wine, never put your hand over the glass. A simple, "non merci" will suffice.
Et voila -- until and unless -- I can think of or find more obscure essential etiquette rules.