People’s Parties

I was recently invited to party and I was told beforehand by the host, a French neighbor who speaks English quite well, that everyone else coming either spoke French or Spanish. “It should be interesting,” I emailed a friend.

I know hardly any Spanish and I landed in France three months ago with an 8th grade school year’s worth of French, from which I can remember only one complete sentence: “La neige est belle aujourd’hui.”  “The snow is beautiful today.” Not exactly a useful phrase in the south of France. In summer.

The party turned out not to be interesting at all because there was little I could say to anyone or they to me. I felt also rather timid about even being there. To compensate, I kept myself busy pouring the wine, serving the food, and helping clean up. That’s what I do when I am at a party and find myself bored or uncomfortable. I don’t leave it. I work it.

The next day my friend emailed back wanting to know how the party was. She said, “I find the idea of being in a country where you don’t know the language fascinating. For me, it makes me realize how much I depend on words not just to communicate but almost as a defense. Without them I feel very vulnerable. As a friend said once, it’s like being a child again who can’t express herself. Very frustrating. Especially when you’re a writer.”

Those were much my own sentiments as I was walking home the night before. I did feel vulnerable. And frustrated. And I realized something. I did not come here to socialize a lot, but I have been, more than I had expected.

Summertime in the south of France, I’ve found, is party time. Someone you know or someone you know knows someone who is throwing a party. I’ve yet to turn anyone down because I have felt privileged to be invited, which perhaps is one of the lessons I have, inadvertently, started learn about myself. Just because you don’t go to someone’s party doesn’t mean you won’t be liked or invited to another one some other time. True, at first, I wanted to meet some people, get to know a few. And I have.

But coming here to meet people and learn a little French were secondary to my main reason for coming here. The main reason I came here was to work on some long-neglected writing projects and to engage more deeply with my inner life, which, in turn, I believe, will help me find out how best I can contribute to the common weal in ever more meaningful ways. I had this idea I would go a foreign country where I would not be distracted by everything going on around me, as I often am at home in the States, and to disengage from the world I knew so well there and get lost in my own world for a while to see what I might find. Not speaking the native tongue of where I ended up, I figured, would be good in that sense; when you can’t talk to anyone then the only person left is yourself.

Which is pretty much what happened at that party I went to, and I didn’t like what I was hearing bawling from my depths. That party was for me perhaps a little like a drunk’s bottoming out. You wake up the next day and say to yourself: Enough.

I have gotten—and am getting—a lot writing done. And I won’t stop socializing completely with the month I have remaining here before heading back to the States in October. After all, I have developed some wonderful friendships here and I know my time with them, at least in this round here in France, is running out. And now that summer is winding down, perhaps there won’t be as much partying going on; the off-season quiet and cooler weather is already palpable as the vacationers pack up their cars and go home and those who live here seem to be just, well, partied out.

That said, I will be more conscious of my choices here. Which is a big part about learning about oneself. When you can be more conscious of your choices you needn’t be a slave to them, going to people’s parties, as Joni Mitchell once sang, fumbling deaf, dumb, and blind.

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4 Responses to People’s Parties

  1. mamadeon says:

    I have the same reaction at parties even when I DO speak the language. I’m not very comfortable talking about things that don’t matter much (i.e., the weather). Small talk is not something I do well.

  2. Wendy Wise says:

    A very good piece Jim. That jumping into the void feeling is exactly how I felt when we first came to France 18 years ago and to quote another song…”You’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties” too. Delighted to have made your acquantance!

  3. Jamie Callan says:

    What a wonderful post! And oh yes, I completely relate to that feeling of being a child in France. Truthfully, I love it, because it fuels the writing–somehow you are frustrated because you are observing all these new sights and you have so much to say about it, but you can’t express it verbally, so you pour it into the page. I know you’ll do this, Jim, with great success! By the way, I’m in France for most of September–in Paris, Auvillar, Toulouse, Rouen and Lille. Still, I think we meet up some other time, since you have writing to do and your time now is so precious. Enjoy every moment!

  4. Grace says:

    I had a good French friend named Anne while living in Morocco (we took yoga together). One night she invited me to a dinner party with some other French people. I remember two things: feeling woefully inept and awkward all night (despite speaking fluent French) and arriving with some homemade hummus and Anne looking at me with confusion and saying, “Did you think we wouldn’t have enough food?” Social events are difficult for some of us, no matter what the occasion, location, and language(s) spoken.

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