This month, Karen Wheeler discovers a French mother’s secret to a peaceful dinner party with children
Saturday night and I’m invited to dinner at Pierre-Antoine’s. I’ve been asked to arrive for 8.30pm, but since he always runs late, as do his friends, I figure 9.30pm will be fine.
Before I leave, I eat a piece of my favourite Ossau-Iraty cheese on baguette, since food is not the focal point of Pierre-Antoine’s soirées, and is usually a long time in coming.
At 9pm, he calls to ask where I am. I detect a note of panic in his voice.
Earlier in the day, I asked if he needed any help but he assured me that everything was under control. By this he meant that he’d already been to the local traiteur (delicatessen) to buy the food.
I walk across the square to Pierre-Antoine’s apartment, and he opens the door looking uncharacteristically stressed. He tells me that his friend The Hunter (as I call him) and his girlfriend are running late, even by their standards.
“He had a problem with one of his hunt dogs, and now they have just telephoned to say that they have a flat tyre, and might be at least another hour,” he says.
In the brightly lit apartment, a fire is blazing and a stylishly dressed couple and their small son are sitting at the table looking glum. Probably they’ve guessed that we won’t be eating until midnight.
Pierre-Antoine pours some champagne, gives six-year-old Barnabé, a can of cola and shakes some crisps into a bowl.
In the French countryside, I’ve noticed, it is quite common for young children to accompany their parents to dinner parties. On one occasion, a couple arrived with camp beds and their children already dressed in pyjamas.
Often the parents bring along a pre-prepared dinner for their offspring and a selection of toys. Once the children have eaten, they are sent to another room to play.
But tonight, poor old Barnabé is sitting at the table and eating with the adults.
He listens politely while Pierre-Antoine and his father, a gendarme – fortunately, not the one who keeps giving me fines – reminisce about the days when they both played for a local football team.
10.30pm arrives and there is still no sign of The Hunter. Barnabé looks hopefully at the kitchen but there is no sign of any activity there either.
He eats some more crisps and then his mother allows him to leave the table and watch television.
11pm comes and goes. Even Pierre-Antoine starts to look irritated. I wish I’d eaten more of the Ossau-Iraty, and wonder if I can sneak home for a snack on the pretext of checking on the dog.
The Hunter and his girlfriend finally arrive, and after another round of apéritifs, Pierre-Antoine serves the first course – pâté en croûte from the traiteur.
Barnabé is summoned from his beanbag back to the table, and instructed to take the worst chair in the house: in front of the blazing fire. Still, the poor child does not complain.
I can’t stand it any longer. I turn to his mother. “Your child is so well behaved. How do you do it?”
I’ve already imagined the bribes. Money? His own bodyweight in chocolate?
“Ah, non,” she says. “Threats.”
“What kind of threats?” I ask, alarmed.
“If he does not behave well, he will not get to play football tomorrow or watch his favourite TV shows.”
Later, before he leaves, Barnabé he gives me (and everyone else present) a polite kiss on each cheek. Adorable.
When I get home I find that Biff, my dog, has not been so well behaved – he’s eaten the rest of the baguette and the Ossau-Iraty. If only threats of missed football matches and banned TV shows worked as well on dogs as on six-year-old boys…
Karen Wheeler is the author of three memoirs about her life in France, including the latest, Tout Soul: The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France, price £10.99, by Sweet Pea Publishing.