Tonight we hosted our first dinner party in the new house. We invited our friends Mike and Rob, Mike’s parents Claude and Lili, and our new British expat friends Rosemary and Bill to help us celebrate our first week in the house. We’re also counting on them to give us some good advice on where to start in our renovations.
After much debate, we’d decided to make the evening an American dinner, but served in the French style as much as possible. So while the kids started their school work, I put a huge pan of beef into the oven to slow cook for the day and started my Grandmother’s yeast rolls so that they could rise in the warm kitchen. My plan was to create a menu that was full of southern comfort food, sticking close to our roots for this first impression. By the end of the day we’d have a big pan of sloppy beef barbecue, creamy potato salad, big fluffy yeast rolls, and homemade baked beans all washed down with a gallon of fresh brewed southern sweet tea.
But the thing is… Well, you see, we live in a giant antique. Every single part of this house is “vintage” to the extreme. My kitchen is full of appliances that don’t work and even what does work is missing half its parts. For example, my oven. If you look at the photo of my kitchen, you’ll see two ovens sitting next to each other. But only one works. It looks like they had an oven and when it stopped working, they just bought a new one and set it down next to the old one. The oven that works only has one rack, I have to light it with a match every time I use it, and sometimes the fire decides to go out for no apparent reason right in the middle of cooking.
The fridge is another story altogether. We were shocked to find a nice big American style fridge in the corner of the kitchen when we arrived. It’s more common for the French to have a small fridge like what we might use in an apartment or dorm room. But on our first day in the house, the French sisters took me around showing me how to work everything and when I asked about the fridge, their eyes lit up. Jerking open the door, they proudly showed off their collection of paper napkins and handtowels. No, the fridge doesn’t work, it’s never worked, but look how lovely it is at holding our napkins!
Are you kidding me?!
So, I store my vegetables and eggs on the shelf in the cupboard to make room for meet and cheese in the fridge and we eat the leftovers as soon as we can to keep the space open for the next shopping trip which happens every 48 hours thanks to our lack of space and the miniscule portions they sell at the store. (Sorry, that was a stupid long sentence! Lack of refrigerator space really messes with my writer brain.)
Anyway, I juggled the appliances and intense cooking schedule while simultaneously orchestrating a massive clean-up project in the house. Since this was a party and our friends first chance to see our new home, I wanted everything to look nice. We can’t do much about the peeling wallpaper or the flaking ceiling plaster, but we can clear out the excess furniture and knick-knacks. So, the kids teamed up to tackle those projects. By five o’clock the house smelled incredible and we were hanging up the last set of curtains to finish out the new look in the dining room. We set up the grand salon with apperitifs and a warm, crackling fire, set the table complete with name plates for our guests, and mixed up a set of brownies for dessert.
But here’s the thing about French dinner parties…they start late. The French in general eat later than we do in Arkansas, usually around 7pm. Our friends were all joining us after work, so we didn’t expect them to arrive until 7:30 or 8. Then, there would be about an hour of casual talk with apperitifs (appetizers). Around 9 we might move toward dinner and expect another hour there together. Then, we could expect another round of conversation (and possibly drinks) before saying goodnight. Added to this dynamic schedule was a tour of our home so that Claude, an experienced builder, could help Graham make some decisions about improving our heating system.
In all, our party lasted right at five hours, closing out at 12:30 with our final goodbyes. It was fabulous. They each brought gifts (mental note to follow this custom!), raved about the food, indulged us by tasting the sweet tea, listened to our children and included them as often as possible in the conversation, and gave us fabulous tips for French living as an expatriat. I fell into bed feeling like the luckiest girl in the world. Honestly, anyone who knows me knows how much I love to play hostess, but this night really outdid it. It was a blast from start to finish and the best part was how lovely the house looked when everyone left. I know its still a shabby mess, but its our beautiful shabby mess and as I turned out the last of the lights, I felt the magic of it all settle around me like the first flakes of a winter snow. This beautiful old home is OUR home. It’s a treasure, like a time capsule, and we’re living a life out of time. It may not last, and we may return to our modern ways as we update things along the way, but for now I’ll soak up the magic of the past wrapped in the every day beauty of a life well lived.