Although I’ve lived in Paris for seven years already, I had never before ushered in the New Year here. I had previously opted to flee to warmer climes. But last year the time had come. First of all: it was a wonderful celebration, but it also literally served up the cultural differences between France and Germany.
Fondue, casting lead, fireworks or the Dinner For One sketch? Completely unknown here. Whilst Berlin lets off many fireworks in the days before New Year’s Eve which make it feel like you're in the middle of an air raid, Paris is soothingly quiet. Public fireworks here are only permitted to be let off by the state, and only on 14 July, Bastille Day. There’s only one thing Paris has in common with Germany: about four days before New Year’s Eve, there is an accumulation of nervous enquiries from friends by text and messenger, asking “whether you have any plans”. As most Parisians live in apartments no bigger than the rooms in most German halls of residence, there are of course limits when it comes to larger groups of people. And so I responded positively to the spontaneous invitation of Serge, my only friend with a “salon” deserving of the name.
Within just two days, a group of 15 people agreed to meet for dinner – an act that among city-dwellers is considered a real tour de force. “Bring a few oysters and champagne. We’ll provide the main course”, were the rather vague instructions. The French, as I am constantly realising, have true improvisation talents in the kitchen and at the table. Whilst it is considered good manners in Germany to always have everything ready when your first guests arrive, in France – particularly in larger groups – the meals themselves are considered a team project. A social choreography where each person contributes their talents and what they feel like doing. Not ideal for impatient eaters.
What you should know: A private dinner invitation in Paris is also completely different from one in Germany. 8 pm is only a vague starting time. Whoever arrives hungry and on time is out of luck: “Oh, you’re here already?” were the words I often heard in the beginning, and so there I stood awkwardly nibbling on nuts and drinking champagne, as I waited for the other guests to arrive. Once they'd actually got there, I spent another hour hanging around while they enjoyed their aperitifs. And when the starter was finally served no earlier than 9:30 pm, I was mostly dangerously tipsy. In France, aperitif, starter, main course, dessert and coffee are a ritual that fills an evening, and doesn’t end till after midnight. Life’s a journey, not a destination.
When I was new to Paris and sent out my first dinner invite, I made every mistake in the book. The casserole I put in the oven punctually at 8 pm was totally overcooked by 8:30 (seems a short time for the casserole to be overcooked, should time be changed?) pm, when everybody had finally arrived. I hadn’t bought any snacks or thought about dessert either – at home, we only used to have these things on public holidays. As I cleared away the plates and thought that the cosy part of the evening was about to start, my surprised guests asked: “What about dessert?” Embarrassed, I had to resort to serving yoghurt, and when the last person had scratched out the last spoonful and drunk the last sip of coffee, it was 9:30 pm, and the first guests started going home. As I later learned, coffee is the way a good host draws the evening to a close.
That New Year’s Eve with Serge, by midnight we had only just finished our main course. Then, we clinked champagne glasses again and had a dance. Dessert was at 3 am. It was a fabulous party, but next time I know I’ll be better off eating a sandwich beforehand.