In class today we had a list of imperatives that children are taught in order to live a polite existence in France, and foreigners are taught in order to better understand the rituals the French follow. I will repeat only the most interesting ones:
NEVER CUT YOUR SALAD WITH A KNIFE. When a student asked what you do if the salad piece is too big to put in your mouth, we were told that you have to fold it with your knife and fork until it is small enough to put in your mouth. So if you invite French people to dinner, be sure to tear up the salad into small pieces.
NEVER CUT YOUR BREAD WITH A KNIFE. So that means you have to take your baguette and rip it with your fingers, I guess. Otherwise you would be gnawing on it like a dog with a bone.
NEVER SERVE YOURSELF. Apparently you let the servant serve you if there is a servant, or the woman of the house serves you, or if you have a large table the person passing the food to you serves you and you serve the next person.
ALWAYS SIP YOUR DRINK, NEVER EMPTY YOUR GLASS IN ONE GO. Okay, that makes sense, at least you aren't a rolling drunk by the end of the evening, but I can imagine a few Aussies sitting at the table. Or many Americans for that matter saying, "A sip? What's that?".
NEVER SPREAD YOUR PATE. You are supposed to cut the pate, and eat it without spreading it on crackers or on bread.
NEVER EAT OR DRINK ANYTHING UNTIL ALL OF THE GUESTS HAVE ARRIVED. Even if the food and wine or champagne are sitting out, you wait until the hostess tells you that everyone has arrived. Of course, being 20 minutes late is normal and it is not too much to imagine that some guest or other will make their appearance an hour or more late. So fortify yourself before you arrive at the dinner party.
NEVER FOLD YOUR NAPKIN AT THE END OF THE MEAL AND PUT IT ON THE TABLE. Leave it on the chair or put it somewhere without folding it. I have no idea what the deal is on that. But good to know if you ever get invited.
For those who have never been to Europe, you always cut your meat one piece at a time with your right hand and spear it with your fork with the left.
According to some of the books I have read, champagne is served before dinner. And if you give a dinner party, NEVER serve the big names. Anyone can go to the local wine store and buy that. No, to show the guests you care, you must find a good champagne somewhere in the countryside. Apparently there are a great number, and, let's face it, it might be fun tasting until you find a satisfactory one.
Yes, some of these things sound stupid to us, but let's face it. Cutting your meat, then putting your knife down, changing the fork from the left to the right hand while the left hand goes on the lap is also pretty stupid. Polite in American society but an awful lot of extra unnecessary steps. And as one German asked me when I did that at a dinner party in Germany, "what are you doing with that hand under the table?"