Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Party of the Year
Sorry we're a day late this week. Here, a low-stakes submersion in social anxiety with a very promising finish.
OK so here we are. Today was the big day, when all of Saint-Maxime came out for their (our?) fête de village, and I, the newly arrived stranger, decided to open my doors for them all to pop in. Or not.
I had come to hate throwing parties ever since I first tried to gather friends together for my 16th birthday. The anxiety of wondering who would show up and who wouldn’t, and what everyone would think of who did show up, and whether they would be taking score, and whether anyone was having any fun or just pretending, and if anyone left early did that mean it was a bust—it was all a self-propelling hamster wheel of small-minded anxiety. Never having found a way out of it, despite having thrown a handful of parties since, as an adult I mostly stopped bothering. My thing was dinners, which didn’t rely on large numbers to feel successful, and which usually worked as long as you fed people well and had lots of wine. Those happened to be my specialties.
All the party ambivalence I describe above concerns people I legitimately know and like and look forward to seeing. Here, I was hoping relative and complete strangers would pop in, for food they might find weird, with no idea how many of them there would be, or who they were, or who their friends were, or if they would bother. I was already so far out of what the soft therapy trade refers to as my comfort zone that I figured I may as well just hang out for a while. It’s important to arrive somewhere well; better to at least make an effort to welcome my new neighbors. There would be no escaping awkwardness. Lean in for the near future and pretend like it’s fine.
(Two and a half years later as I write this, I discover that the biggest benefit to me in doing so is having the chance to revisit that crystalline complex of personal insecurity from a standpoint now where I see how little any of it mattered. A reminder to us all that our worst anxieties are no prophet of anything, no matter how perversely engaging they usually are in the moment.)
That morning, Charles and my sister braved persistent LA jet lag to haul their asses out of their squishy beds and help me get ready. (They are good beds with lots of down pillows. I did that much for my guests.) I made them coffee, started the pesto and got to peeling hardboiled eggs, chipping away bit by bit at their tiny, flinty craquelure. The Korean red pepper my sister had brought over from LA turned the egg salad a vibrant salmon pink, (Yes, I made homemade mayo, who do you think I am?) I assembled trays of ham, laid out tons of olives and potato chips and sawed into loaves of bread. Charles and my sister moved extra folding chairs into the kitchen and unpacked a few more boxes to clear up some more space.
It’s always such a weird moment when you have to commit to a certain amount of chairs and space and food and you don’t really have enough faith in your fellow man to know whether you should bother, but you also fear not having enough if more people actually do come. You are setting up, in advance, the physical manifestation of your likely disappointed expectations. Each extra chair felt like a stack of poker chips slid into the middle of a table. At least this table was covered with snacks.
Looking out of the street-facing windows that turned most of my home into a fishbowl, Charles, my sister and I could see les maximiens had already set up at card tables all along the roads in front of their homes for the town-wide garage sale. They ate sliced apples and chatted with friends from other villages who had popped over to check out the tiny flea market, and generally looked like they were having a great time. I recognized a few from my door-knocking and understood there was no way they would be coming by. Looking out I also saw a few urbane-looking passers-by with the air of weekending Parisians: swanky hair, brand-new Birkenstocks, a plaid shirt. They looked cute. I wondered who they were and if they had a house here too.
By about noon, Samira and Claude and Georges and Geneviève showed up with some neighbors of theirs I didn’t know, but who turned out to be loud-talking, jolly day-drinkers. I thanked God for them and opened up the first of many bottles of supermarket white. Samira grabbed the open box of See’s candy muled over by Charles and my sister, and passed them around. The French have a long tradition of their own chocolate and care little of what goes on in America. I had to assure them all that these lumpy, rustic looking candies were not poison. As they dipped in and nodded and approved of the sugar to salt ratio, I psychically tried to steer them toward the dogs in the Nuts and Chews collection. Save us the Almond Squares, I vibrated up to whatever power might be listening. They weren’t listening.
Angelique popped in next with a bottle of red and some visiting German friends, a hippie-looking couple whose female half did what sounded to me like a kind of combo of Feldenkrais and ecstatic dance. I wouldn’t have pegged this as Angelique’s vibe, but they were most welcome. Everyone made introductions, the first breadsticks were cracked, and it seemed like maybe we were having a party, if a slightly awkward one where almost-strangers stood in the kitchen without enough lubrication (yet) to get them to drop their guards. Charles speaks very good French, so he tossed his hair and helped me pull conversation out of people. My sister does not, so when not talking to Angelique, whose English is strong, she made a valiant effort to use sign language. We were trying.
Then I heard a knock at the door and opened it up to a wide-smiling man in a pair of Bermuda shorts, a polo shirt and some Topsiders. Friends, this is the universal code for American.
“I heard there was another American here,” beamed Tom, who introduced himself as the owner of that beautiful pink farm compound at the north entrance to town. The one with the stepped roofline and a pretty garden atop the hill. He looked to be in his early 60s.
“Indeed there is!” I chirped and showed him in.
Tom’s place was the sexiest part of that entrance to Saint-Maxime and I had long wondered who owned it. He bought it 15 years ago and told me he usually came for summer with his wife and their daughter. It turned out we knew a few people in common in the magazine world in New York. Drinks were planned for a few nights from now. What were the chances? Shared references. Sunny disposition. It’s like I touched down on the moon and went looking for oxygen and found a table spread with foie gras and bruschetta and Champagne, which is what Tom and his wife Callahan (it’s a family name; once upon a time they were Irish) served the three of us when we visited a few nights later.
Nobody else from the village showed up that day. I wondered if it would be weird the next time I saw them out and about. So far it seemed like people always greeted each other in passing. Fake smiles never killed anyone, I thought. I can do that.
Everyone trickled out after two pm or so, leaving behind a week’s worth of egg salad leftovers. Now snack-fed and day drunk enough to venture out and see what the hell else was happening in my town, Charles, my sister and I sallied forth.
The card tables were still up, filled mostly with random, basement-smelling leftovers now. I grinned goofily at everyone and we headed back towards the off-duty pétanque court where the professional brocanteurs had come to sell. Georges told me that in years past, Saint-Maxime had one of the best village fleas in the area, but it was thin and mangy to my eyes. My big scores were some vintage board games about the now-defunct French rules of the road, and rhubarb out of someone’s backyard that I got for a euro. We headed back to the house to clean up.
On our way back, sitting outside one pretty little cottage across from City Hall, about a block from the church across from my house was a trim, smiling 40-something fellow with a close-cropped beard and a baseball cap. Next to him was an elegantly put together blonde whose apparent age and eyes said she was his mother.
I walked straight up to them with my hand extended. (The hangover from COVID meant France was still temporarily foregoing the standard double-cheek kiss.) They were Cassandre and Jean-Yves, mother and son indeed, and both full-time residents like me. Jean-Yves was gay, an illustrator who bought his house, a simple-looking two-story next to Tom’s last year. He had had enough of tiny Parisian apartment living, he told me. (Later I’d find out he was recovering from a nightmare of a relationship, and was as shellshocked as I was.) He was chatty and doe-eyed and immediately asked for my number.
Charles, my sister and I went back to the house to crash, too tired from my kind of unsuccessful party to stay up for the fireworks, though we could hear them in the distance, accompanied by oohs and ahhs like all fireworks shows across space and time. There was indeed music, an unsurprisingly mainstream amalgam of FM rock. Sure, why not?
Sometime that night, I got a text message from Jean-Yves asking if I’d like to come to Cassandre’s for a cocktail the day after next. There was something major about Cassandre, with her blown-dry hair and silk scarf and regal bearing and letter-perfect manners. In my BritBox-fueled hallucinations, I had fantasized that country living might land me in the cushiony bosom of a benign, mentoring Imelda Staunton or Judi Dench. Could she be my Judi?
“Can I bring anything?” I asked.
“No, we’ll have tons,” he said.
The following night Charles, my sister and I came with wine all the same, which I handed to Cassandre, dressed in a splashy red caftan and big gold hoop earrings. She showed us out to her big L-shaped backyard where a plastic picnic table was covered with quiches and tarts and pinwheels and ham wraps and sausage rolls. There were two families already there with young kids, both weekending Parisians with village homes next to hers. They had all spent three months of COVID confinement together out here, and only got to know each other when the kids invited themselves over to play in Cassandre’s garden. Talking with one of the mothers, Amandine, she was low key and sharp, and worked in ad sales at one of the big national newspapers. Her husband is a Michelin-starred chef in Versailles yet it was she who brought the ham wraps. I liked her immediately.
Cassandre contained multitudes. A novelist and poet who had been published, but now mostly peddled her own paperbacks at book fairs. She toured the continent in camper with her late companion, a wild bohemian Dutchman who died suddenly two years before I arrived in town. Back in the 1980s, she had worked as a dealer of sundries in the Congo, where she lived with her second husband and kids. She did a stint as the general manager of a high end leather goods company in Paris. And then she was for a time a personal assistant to a Parisian billionaire. “He was so cheap he’d try to get Social Security to reimburse him for electric toothbrushes,” she told me. Cassandre had four children, twice as many grandchildren, and led writer’s workshops out of her home that made her light up when she described them. She liked to watercolor birds in their natural habitats in her spare time. She showed me a few and she had a good hand.
Before I left her place that night, Cassandre added me to the WhatsApp group she, Jean-Yves and the two young families had set up to share photos of the kids and facilitate future gatherings en masse. “Les voisins,” it’s called. The neighbors. I was now one of them.
The next night was our big date at Tom’s, whose daughter Ella, not yet three, entertained us by naming a shockingly deep panoply of vegetables and a bit of dancing. My sister knew the tiny town in Mississippi where Callahan grew up. We drank like fish for a few hours and stumbled home after dark. It was pitch black like nothing we’d ever seen on the walk down. We ran down the hill from Tom’s drunkenly and stopped to look at the moon, hanging over the steeple of the church where I lived. It was our moon too now.