Feb 12th, 2020, 12:43 AM

An American Trapped in a French Apéro

By Jill Campbell
Martini glasses
Golden champagne chalices gleaming under string lights. Image Credit: Unsplash/Billy Huynh
This is the story of one unending apéro and the American inside me that demanded release.

I can't lie ... the long, leisurely approach the French take to dining is one of the many reasons I fell in love with this country and uprooted myself from the star-spangled United States. And I will continue to love it, just as I will continue to love almond croissants and getting dirty looks from slow-moving, well-dressed French grandmothers carrying groceries back to their flats in the middle of the day. 

It goes without saying that I have an undying appreciation for French culture and that I actually quite prefer it to the corn dogs and the frenzied 80 hour work weeks that stereotypically define my mother country. But at the same time, I have never felt more like an American than during one apéro that was just a bit too long. It was the final night of a quick escape from the Parisian smog and an extraordinarily chaotic semester, during which I took refuge at the family chalet of a French friend in a small and bougie village tucked high in the French Alps. 

The French Alps. Image Credit: Flickr/Ville Majander

It is 5:00. Six of us — two Americans, one Russian, one Venezuelan and two French people — walk into a mid-century modern hotel lobby that smells like the essence of class. Three of us, including myself, are sporting black turtlenecks. The hotel manager turns out to be an old friend of the French woman in our party, surprising us all. For the rest of the night, we are treated like absolute royalty. It sounds great, and it was. 

We are escorted to the lounge and set up camp for the next six hours, settling comfortably into plush dove-gray couches, a couple of pale pink velour armchairs and, my favorite, a fluffy white chair-pod hybrid shaped like an egg. 

The manager brings out a cold bottle of champagne and seven glasses. He joins us and does not leave us for the rest of our time there. We say salut and I can only imagine how many different combinations of clinks and eye-contact are exchanged between us. Minutes later we are brought truffled cashews. 

Conversation topics include the city of Lille as the world's major karaoke leader, followed by wildly specific details about the French system of private equity. Well, I am assuming these details are wildly specific because I cannot understand what the hell anyone is saying. Another bottle of champagne comes around, this one rosé — how daring. Another salut. I begin to observe a sensation of restlessness, shaking my leg in the fluffy-egg chair.

Rosé and white wines. Image Credit: Flickr/NwongPR

It's 7:30. We're brought snacks. We pass around chicken gyro bites, empanadas, shrimp tempura bites, breaded fondue balls and truffle crêpe bites. A man in another black turtleneck wearing small circular glasses approaches us. I have no idea who he is or why he is so close to me. As it happens, he is the chef! He, too, sits with us for the rest of the evening, which begs a question I do not dare ask aloud: "aren't these people at work?" 

I feel slightly ill from all of the bite-sized delights, quite tipsy, and I remember I have an assignment due at midnight that I haven't started — I had brushed it off earlier thinking I'd have plenty of time after dinner. Then I remembered I was in France. And this is when the reality of my situation dawned on me: I was an American trapped in a French apéro.

Suddenly a tiny, pot-bellied George Washington appears on my right shoulder, wearing nothing but an American flag. On my left shoulder, I am shocked to find a miniature Jean-Paul Sartre, coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other. They debate my options fiercely, seemingly unaware of the fact that I have no escape, that we had all piled into one car and driven for 20 minutes down mountain roads to get to this hellish, beautiful establishment.  

We make the switch from rosé to regional white wine, discussing this transition in detail. I glance out the window at the icy cobblestones under the streetlights. Then I reach for the chilly wine bottle and replenish my own glass, a gesture earning me genuinely puzzled glances from each man in the group. 

I remember that I had told my mom I'd give her a quick phone call, that there's a couple of emails I should respond to and that I really need to schedule a doctor's appointment. These responsibilities haunt me as I finish my wine and pop a truffled cashew into my mouth. How American of me. 

American and French flags. Image Credit: Flickr/Angela Guedes Dias

The variable stances that France and North America hold towards time signify a fundamental difference in culture that perhaps underlies many other areas in which we don't see eye to eye, like the number of hours in a workweek or what time supermarkets ought to close. And while this article marks one instance when the American in me demanded to be heard in the form of an impatient, scantily-clad George Washington, and yes, the leisure built into the French institution of dining got on my nerves, as I reflect on this long night I feel nothing but a fondness for my non-native home. There may be moments of tension that I and other expatriates encounter sporadically, but even when differences flare, those of us who have found ourselves partial to tiny Sartre, privy to this cheese-obsessed, double-cheek-kissing world, always manage to come back to this: c'est pas grave.