I See France

Do I Smell Funny? 

The other night, as we were turning out the lights, Tabitha pointed out that none of the many people we have had to dinner since we’ve been in Paris have ever called again. She offered this up not in the spirit of complaint but as a simple observation. As in: Isn’t it an interesting coincidence that the only people in France we can be sure that we will never see or hear from are precisely those we’ve had over to our house for dinner? Following, as it did, my suggestion that we actually pay some French person to have dinner with us once a week, her insight put a fine point on our social desirability. Which is low.

Up till then, I hadn’t really thought about it. I suffer from something like the opposite of paranoia: I assume that everyone is out to love me. Even, given time, French people. But as soon as Tabitha offered up the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind. How insufferable could we be if even the allure of a free meal wasn’t sufficient to entice French people to spend an evening with us?

My first thought was that we lacked the cooking skills necessary to attract the locals. In the United States of America, so long as you supply enough booze, you can get away with murder in the kitchen. In the old days, when I lived alone in Washington, D.C., I worked miracles with a few packs of frozen pasta and some salad. Later, I discovered that my dinner guests occasionally stopped off at McDonald’s for a quick bite on their way to my place. No matter: They always called to thank me; and they always came back. In Paris they not only do not come back. They vanish. They go straight from our dinner table to the Missing Person’s list at the local police station. Tabitha has taken to snapping their photographs before they leave, so that we have something to remember them by. Here’s one of them:

The French are obviously more finicky than we are about what they put in their mouths. But I think we have accommodated their tastes well enough. Our culinary insecurity has led us to put a great deal of effort into our cooking. Or, at any rate, it has caused Tabitha to put a great deal of effort into her cooking. Her ingredients are always fresh, her dishes always interesting but not excessively so. No frozen pasta, no pig’s testicles.

If it wasn’t our food, then obviously it was our company. This thought struck me with the force of the schoolyard moment when some kid hollers, “Ewwww, who has B.O.?” We needed to stick our noses in our armpits, just to make sure it wasn’t us. Did French people find us boring? If so, there wasn’t much we could do about it. But if we had somehow acquired unpleasant mannerisms or disgusting habits, we could, perhaps, find and eliminate them.

At dinner the next night we watched each other closely for unpleasant mannerisms and disgusting habits. What did we do, or say, that would naturally repel a French person? Who had the B.O.? Jennifer watched Tabitha, Tabitha watched me, I watched Jennifer. As far as we could see, we were free of any unpleasant social odors. No conspicuous mastication, no overt licking of the silverware, no hogging of the extras, no interrupting in the middle of good stories. The method was not foolproof, of course. We might all emit exactly the same unpleasant social odor, in which case we would be unlikely to smell it. But we did our best.

The whole while we were appraising ourselves, Tallulah sat quietly in her high chair, as she does at our parties, being her usual charming dinner companion. Our child, unlike other people’s children, is perfect. She stuck cheese in her ear and pushed a strawberry up her nose as far as it would go. She hurled banana paste onto the floor and simultaneously dumped a jar of sweet potatoes into her lap. From the lake that had formed in her lap she fished out a handful of goop and painted it onto her forehead.

Suddenly, a thought crossed my mind. Nearly as soon as I had it, I let it go. But tell me: Could this possibly be what causes the French to flee us?: