The Two-Hour Goodbye
I am definitely slowing down, because ever since arriving in France, when I’m out and about, as midnight approaches, my head starts rolling back toward my neck, which I have to make an effort to snap back when I’m à table or at a party with mes amis françaiss. When I was younger, I regularly stayed awake until 2…but usually 3am, with friends and co-workers, drinking wine, bowling, or just watching tv after work, unwinding with the baker’s favorite dinner: A big bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa. Times have certainly changed, and now by 11pm, I’m ready to brush my teeth and hop in the sack, exhausted from another day of this constantly challenging thing called “life.”
I’m not much of a social animal, as people who’ve tried to corner me have discovered, which (judging by some of the awkward situations that I’ve found myself in), proves I’m not all that great at socializing. A lot of it comes from being squirreled away in the back of restaurant kitchens for thirty-five years, where it seems most conversations are about food, sex, cooking, sex, our lack of sleep, sex, who makes the best salsa, raunchy jokes, sex, and making sure the dishwasher is on your side. Because if not, they can really f**k you up. (And believe me, they will.) Nowadays, though, my biggest concern at night is simply remaining vertical.
When you go to a party in France, be it a dinner party or a get-together of another kind (even a rendezvous at a bar or restaurant), leaving is simply pas possible. Okay, it’s not impossible, but the process can take a good two hours or so. At restaurants in France, it’s considered rude to give someone the check before they are ready to leave. So people will linger as long as they want. (And they like to make sure that they do.) To me, it seems to be rude to be the first person to suggest leaving, even long after you’ve finished up. From the looks I get when I suggest getting the check and settling up, it’s like you’re telling your friends, “I’ve had enough of you. Time’s up.” And no one wants to be that person who’s the first to make a move toward leaving. Because no one wants to be the spoil sport, which seems to fall on my shoulders.
Parties are even harder, as there’s no crowd of people clustered at the bar, waiting for your table. (Although most Parisians are pretty good at being oblivious to people waiting behind them.) Because I don’t want to be known as always being the spoil sport, I will brave it out until it’s become a Herculean effort to keep my eyes open, and my head starts dropping and rolling around like it’s going to come off its axis. An hour later, after I’ve started the process of leaving, when I’ve finally made it to the door, after we’ve put on our coat and gathered the rest of our belongings, there’s the inevitable final goodbyes.
I was probably the only person in Paris to bemoan when the métro decided to run an extra hour on the weekends. In those days, no matter what was going on, no matter how long (and long-winded) someone was, someone would invariably jump up and announce they had to leave to catch the last métro, and others would hurriedly follow suit. Going to a dinner party, I knew there was a definite time-line for the evening, and that I would be in my favorite place in the world – home, and horizontal, in my nice comfy bed – not long after midnight. And after years in professional kitchens, I have learned to value each and every second of when I can be horizontal.
In spite of thinking of themselves as free-thinking individualists, Parisians collectively respected that dernier métro hour because they knew how impossible it was to catch a taxi late in the evening, especially on weekends. And I remember waiting in long, long taxi queues, bundled up behind twenty or more people, shivering in the cold, waiting as taxis came one-by-one…at irregular intervals, to pick up passengers. Services like Le Cab and Uber changed the landscape, but offer their own challenges. Mostly because in order to use them, you need to commader a driver on their apps. Once you do, and they say they’re coming, you need to be ready & waiting when they arrive. So if you hit that “Request” button and you’re standing in someone’s doorway, ripe and ready to leave, and people are debating some obscure topic like….
Me: Thank you for the lovely evening. Dinner was great and it was nice to see you.
Them: Thanks, how are you getting home?
Me: We’re taking the metro.
Them: Oh? Which metro?
Me: Line 13.
Someone Else Who is Getting Ready to Leave: Is that the one that passes by the Pompidou Center?
Me: No, it’s not. (At this point, a few other guests gather ’round..)
Another Person, Also Getting Ready to Leave: The Pompidou Center? Mais oui! There is a good exhibition of 1950’s ink blotches there.
Another Guest (Not Ready to Leave, but Not Wanting to be Excluded from A Conversion Where They Can Get Their Word/Opinion In): I saw it, and it’s not bad. But there is a better exhibition at the Musée Branly on Mayan symbol-removing devices, that they offered the gods during the sacrifices, when they made a mistake.
(At this point, my head being lolling back, again.)
My Other Half (Somewhat Oblivious to the Difficulty I Am Having, Keeping my Eyes Focused): Mayans? There is a pizzeria near me called Mayan.
(At this point I’m wondering why anyone would name a pizzeria “Mayan,” since pizza has nothing to do with Mexico, or Mayan culture. But I’m so tired, I let it pass.)
Our Host: I’ve eaten at the pizzeria and it’s okay, but there is a pizzeria in the 10ème that serves pizza like they do in Naples, although you can get a pizza with canned corn on it, too.
My Other Half: Have you been to Naples?
Our Host: Yes, we went last year. It was okay, but we prefer Sicily.
Another Guest: I just finished a book by a Sicilian historian, a 4381 page tome on the mores of Persephone. Have you read it?
Yet Another Guest: Ah, I have that book on Persephone on the pile of literature of my nightstand, which I’m planning on reading after I finish the books on top of it by Camus, Focault, Voltaire, and a few comic books. She was the daughter of Zeus. Wasn’t she?
Guest #3: Daughter? Yes. And by the way, my daughter is graduating from high school soon.
Our Host’s Wife: Your daughter is that grown up? I haven’t seen her in years.
Guest #2: Oh really? Well, we’ll have to plan a get-together. What is she studying in school? Is it still the late Greco-Roman algorithm for the angles that they built the stairs leading up to their temples?
Because it’s France, everyone wants to get in that all-important last word, which can prolong the goodbye at least an hour. Maybe two. Meanwhile, you’re smartphone is dinging and vibrating away in your pocket, and your driver is pulling away because you don’t want to be rude and interrupt while people are debating pizza, Italian cities, or comic books.
Like everything in the world, at least according to commentators on a certain news-style network in the states, this maybe can all be blamed on the media. The French have television shows that go on for hours, literally, where people talk and talk and talk…and talk and talk and talk, while audience members sit behind them, perched on backless benches, listening to them intently. (A friend of mine was in the audience of one and he described the experience as agonizing. Which, in the name of diplomacy, I’m going to assume he was referring to those backless benches.) In America, people tend to speak in short sound-bites, no doubt moderating their discussions and cutting them short to make room for the copious amount of advertising. Another cultural difference: I’ve never seen a commercial for something like “going commando,” in France, which I saw the other day in the states. Which I sincerely wish I hadn’t.
Another difference is that in Paris, you’re required to say goodbye to everyone, personally, looking them in the eyes, before leaving any fête. Even if you haven’t really talked to or interacted with someone, you need to go and shake their hand if they’re a man, or give them les bises (the kisses), if it’s a woman. Although sometimes with women, you shake their hands if you don’t know them very well when greeting them or saying goodbye. Unless you’ve talked to them for an unspecified period of time at the party. But sometimes, you do bisou women when you meet them, if you’re a man.
If you’re a woman, generally you bisou other French women when meeting them, whether you know them or not in social situations. But men shake hands, in business and pleasure. Although some men bisou each other, depending on how well they know each other, often in family situations but it happens with close friends and you kind of need to use that few seconds upon greeting to size up each and every situation and figure out what approach you’re going to take in that split second as you’re leaning forward to say goodbye. Confused yet? If so, you’ll be glad to know that there are French charts out there to help.
[Chart Source: Combien de Bises]
As you can see, much depends on what part of France you live in. Sometimes you make les bises up to 4 times, although according to my Parisian partner, twice ça suffit – or, is sufficient. (The chart actually says it can go up to 5, but I’ve not seen or experienced that. I could imagine if you had to bise fives times when leaving a party, if there were fifteen people in attendance, you’d be responsible for a whopping seventy-five kisses. I’d need to start getting ready to leave around 9:15pm.)
Some people throw ya for a loop by starting with the opposite cheek. I start with right cheek to right cheek but have done some awkward nose bumping with people who do the opposite. (I’ve not determined what determines which side you start with.) With that, I gotta go because I’m exhausted just thinking about it. And I’ve got a few more hours before I can pieuter, or hit le sac.