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The Citizen

A Survival Guide to Parisian Dinner Conversation

Delights of the intelligentsia’s social life in the City of Lights – A fiction based on real life memories and observations

By Cassandre Pignon, MPA ‘13

In my native country of France, people take dinner conversation very, very seriously.

My American friend Annika called me in a panic yesterday, barely hiding the nervousness in her voice. The issue was indeed nothing small. She was invited to her very first Parisian dinner. She needed my advice.

“First, eat before you get there to avoid looking hungry,” I told her. “Arrive fashionably late. Dress smartly, mixing structured pieces with unique items” – a real art form I realized as I was talking – “and be prepared for the conversation.” I paused.

Dinner conversation is probably the most thrilling and delicate French game, and the very heart of a city’s social life for the intellectual elite. It is on the quality of the conversation that the success of a dinner and the intelligence of the guests are judged. Over Parisian tables, a good line can make or break a reputation.

“Annika, wait a minute,” I said. “This is a tricky question. I’ll think about it and I’ll call you back.”

As I hung up, my mind started to wander. Annika’s call had brought up buried memories. As a countryside girl who had moved to Paris to pursue a graduate education, I remembered my first Parisian dinner, a few years ago. A glass of white wine in one hand and a toast of foie gras in the other, standing up in a 19th century living room with crown moulding and oak parquet floor in Hungarian point pattern, looking at my reflection in the gold framed mirror, I suddenly felt very adult.

The room was filled with typical Parisian intellectuals. They were –the freelance journalists, 35-year-old PhD students, poorly paid government analysts and trust-fund kids living off an old aunt’s inheritance – all proudly calling themselves “socialists.” The women, desperately single, did their yoga every day. They smoked, drank whiskey occasionally, and had cats. The men were thin – coffee was their staple. They wore three-day-old beards and worn out clothing. They claimed cars were bad for the environment, but that’s because they couldn’t afford one.

I couldn’t help but wonder. Were they the very same people I ran into who were beyond drunk at a shady club last Saturday at 3 a.m.?  I didn’t have much time to explore the question, because the conversation was already starting, and the atmosphere was heating up.

That night, the debate was over the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a longtime favorite, which has been played out for more than 30 years in the comfort of Parisian living rooms. A solid, if classic choice, this topic was guaranteed to generate substantial agitation – a good sign of a successful conversation.

I left my memories behind, gathered my thoughts, and called back Annika.

I told her about more about this little-known cultural particularity. The French love to talk maybe more than they love good food. They talk about the meaning of life. They discuss the essence of religion. They debate the role of China in the world, or the end of capitalism, or any topic really. No topic is too complex.

“In appearance, Parisians are experts in any given field,” I said to Annika, doing my best to explain the rules of the game. They quote, without the slightest hint of shame, books they will never read. Don’t be impressed. Knowledge is like jam – my grandmother used to say – the less you have, the more you spread it.”

“This type of debate is very much a play with two main characters arguing passionately, and many others holding supporting roles who fuel the debate and maintain the tension. Like in any play, you can give your character the tone you wish. You can play sanguine, raising your voice, shaking your head, and moving around, occupying all the physical and mental space available. Or you can play detached, sitting on the arm of a sofa, with an ironic smile, legs crossed, waiting for the perfect time to use an incisive line. You can be controversial, over-the-top, eccentric, anything really as long as you aren’t boring.”

I told Annika about our love of controversies, and about the king of all controversial topics Parisian style, the big, fat political scandal. “Annika, be prepared for biting comments. It’s US Weekly written by The New Yorker staff. Just like with any gossip magazine, arguments don’t have to be articulate or deep. Wit is everything, and curse words part of the game.” Clearly, nothing would be worse than being called prudish.

As an introduction, I suggested she watch the Oscar nominated 1996 movie appropriately named “Ridicule”. That’s 96 minutes of conversation games at the court of Louis XVI, in Versailles. In France, nothing has changed since the 18th century. As the French Monarchy was collapsing under the riots of a starving population, Queen Marie Antoinette was still playing with words: “They don’t have bread? Let’s them eat cake!” Three hundred years ago, the members of the intelligentsia were just as arrogant, pretentious, and delightful as they are today.