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  • Ashleigh Ogilvie-Lee

Blog 11 - THE PARTY!

It is the day of the fête. In the morning, I have to clear out of the house so Josette can prepare for the 15 people coming for lunch, and I have to return the orange coat that has given me bad dreams.

I catch the metro to Hôtel de Ville, which is only three stops away. I am, therefore, much closer to the center of Paris than I thought, so my excuse to escape Josette on the grounds of distance was, I have to admit, lame.

I arrive at the big department store BHV. I am very anxious about trying to exchange my coat as it was on sale, and I don’t really know how to explain that I simply don’t like it anymore. I go to the counter, and the small young man says "oui" without looking up. I say I want to exchange my coat, and he says, "You want your money back? Où est la recette?" I give it to him, and he asks for my bank card, does a little transaction, asks me to sign another recette, and I am on my way. The French are impossible. When you give them a situation, they really can huff and puff about. They simply refuse to comply.

I arrive back home, and I open the door. Josette thinks it is her daughter and she sees me and sighs to some guests who have already arrived, "It’s only Ashlee."

There are about ten people sitting around in a space as big as Josette’s bed, which has been turned back into a small black vinyl two-seater couch. Everyone is sitting and chattering close together like squawking chickens in a small nest. The couple beside me are Felix and Annie (Josette’s sister), and they are quite old with those enormous eyelids like Josette’s, which blinds come down slowly like ancient blinds until light and then life itself is extinguished.

There is a low table in front of the couch with little bowls of whole cloves of garlic, great rounds of salami with big white splotches, cucumber, and turnip all floating around in oil.

Felix has that fat hooked patrician nose that, like the condition of a dog’s teeth, is a good indicator of his great age. He is sitting beside me and he tries to be funny and says he is a dog who chases ducks, but it is impossible to translate. He sadly admits he is a real estate agent who can’t stop working as he has nothing else to do. He says his son has followed him into the business and is now 54 without children, and it's a tragedy. He passes me a turnip and says it’s for a rabbit. His wife stretches her painted lips under her sparkly blue eyelids and nods and smiles like a wound-up poupette (doll).

The last of the 15 guests arrives, and Josette has both her daughters with her. It is Amandine, the older one’s birthday, but the joy for Josette is that her younger daughter Ellen has brought her three children, two teenage boys (Neil and Alain) and a little girl called Lali. Lali spends ages and ages wrapping a headdress around her aunt’s head. Children in France and Germany play with their parents' hair quite a lot as there is no special amusement offered for them; no screens, no toys. No fuss is made of children at all.

I am introduced to the husbands of the girls who are both standing behind them. They are Frederick (Ellen) and Laurent (Amandine). Felix says, "Frederick and Laurent sometimes they fight, sometimes they kiss," and when no one laughs at his joke (blague), he points at the garlic and says, "It stinks.

I see a look of my grandmother in Felix and I say, "You remind me of my grandmother. She was French." And he says, "I'm Spanish." Josette and Annie are the most French of all the people in the room because their parents were born in France. Felix is of Spanish and Tunisian origin, Carrotte's grandparents came from Bucharest and Romania, Laurent was born in France but his parents are from North Vietnam, Frederick was born in France but his parents are from Martinique, and Bernard (Josette's husband) is Tunisian. The origin of people is very important in France, and I am always asked about my origin and my age, as are all the students at my school. Your origin is something to be proud of, and I think of the poor lady-in-waiting of the Queen, Lady Susan Hussey, who had to resign "after she repeatedly asked a black British charity boss where she was really from." Europeans see the British as a white race, whereas the Europeans don't see themselves as white at all. My French friend Julien, who is French but of Spanish origin, says, "You know the Anglo-Saxons (white people) because they don't care about food." Frederick touches his son's hair, and Felix says, "Faites attention" (be careful) or you will make him homosexual, and I can't help but wonder why his 54-year-old son has no children. Lunch is served, and the wine flows very liberally. It takes ages to get everyone seated at the table, and Felix, who is across from me, tries to reach me under the table and announces, "It's no good, I can't reach her," and his poupette nods and smiles. He says, "I can come and stay with him if Josette is mean to me." The poupette smiles. Basil, the Romanian man/boy who lurks downstairs, whom I have never really met except in taps and words through the bathroom door, comes in the front door and sort of sidles to the table, and everyone moves to find him a place. I realize he doesn't speak French or English, and he is pimply, and his face is the same pale color as his hair, and he has left all the life he knows behind because he wants to be with his mother. Josette sits at the head of the table, and everyone claps for her. The entrée of couscous is served, and Felix makes a big grimace and says, "It's too salty," which it really is. Everyone agrees. "Too much salt," he keeps saying.

Next, we eat little pork and beef sausages wrapped in leaves with potatoes and carrots, but this dish isn't salty enough. A salad is passed around after the main course, and Felix warns me that there's too much salt, vinegar, and mustard. Everyone is reaching over each other and talking at once. Lali kisses her maman many times.

Felix will not leave the problem of not enough and too much salt alone, and finally, Josette says to leave the salt and that what matters is to be together. Frederick asks me if I know Peter Jackson and says all he wants to do is go to America and make movies. Ellen sighs and says that for 20 years, he has wanted to go to America, and Felix tells him to stop dreaming.

Frederick says that America is shaping Europe and that rap music is throwing the beautiful English in the bin. Brussels decides the laws for Europe, and the French will never obey the Belgians. The protests in France over the retirement age weren't over the age itself, but how Macron did it. It was not the correct procedure.

I ask the poupette Anne what she does, and she says she is a nurse, but she is retired, and Felix says she has been retired for 40 years. She nods and smiles. A birthday card for Amandine is passed around to be signed with eclairs and macaroons, and then Lali brings in the birthday cake. I am handed a cracker in gold paper. It is an umbrella with the Eiffel Tower on it. It is my present because it is my birthday tomorrow.

Bernard, Josette's husband, has a lazy eye. He gets up and brings over his book on the Tunisian Jews and their special symbol, but I have no time for him. I know that Josette accepts his not sharing the rent of their apartment as she doesn't want to disturb her tranquility. Yet what I see is a man who allowed his wife to support him for four years while he drifted around pretending to study to be an audiologist, and now he keeps all the rent from the third little apartment, so Josette, at 75 years old, has to take in ungrateful students like me, cook for them, sleep in a roll-out bed, and hide people behind curtains.

I give Amandine some beeswax covers for dishes, and everyone marvels at them and says New Zealanders are the protectors of nature. Around 5 pm, the guests start to leave, and then there is just Josette, Carotte, Maria, Laurent, Amandine, and me left. We move to the couch, and they open the bottle of champagne I have brought.

In a haze of cigarette smoke from Josette and Amandine, who pass lighters between each other, Laurent, whose parents are from North Vietnam, says he did his military service in France in its last year, 1998. He and Amandine agree it was a good thing, and military service inspires a love for your country. Their son Matt is in Marseille working as a waiter, and he has two songs in his life: the Marseillaise, "Let's go children of the homeland, the day of glory is here," and "I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky."

Laurent has very strong views on things and says that the only way to learn a language is to travel. There is no point in studying anything unless it helps you get a job, and you have to work to earn money. But he says in France, people start work and they can’t wait to stop. They want to do anything—fish, tidy the house, spend time with the family in the garden—but not work. Carotte says, "I wake up in the morning, and what do I think? Fuck the work!"

Night falls. Maria drifts off downstairs to be with her son. Amandine kisses her mother goodbye. The door closes on them, and Josette turns to me and says, "I never see her; she works so hard, and my poor sister with a husband like that." She gives me a little pot that is painted gold and says, "I watched the person paint it in Morocco." She and Carrotte go into the kitchen to test the faux tiles, and I go downstairs to my dark room. I am quite hungry, but I know there won't be any supper.

I lie on my hard bed and stare out at the buildings, which look as sad as I feel. I don't even have a book in English as, in my enthusiasm to learn French, I only brought a French one. I have 12 hours until I can get on the metro and do French Grammar for 4 hours.

It was a lovely party.

Enjoy the photos:

A la table!

Amandine et Lali.

All around the little table.

Le plat.

Sauce for desert.

Birthday girl.

My presents.

109 views3 comments

3 comentarios

05 jun 2023

Josette sat you right next to her at the party in the middle of the table which I think shows she is quite fond of you! Also… she has a husband? Plot twist 😂

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30 may 2023

Oh the coat - well done on negotiating $ back. Maybe not as fab as it sounded. Buyer's remorse ended with triumph!

Family party creates more context and great that you know how close you are to the city centre. Pass the salt please - no do not pass the salt! Joxo

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Margaret Alldred
Margaret Alldred
30 may 2023

My idea of fun is a tad different but each to their own

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