I just uncovered this quick ball-point sketch of me when I was about 13 or 14. It brings back such wonderful memories. I can't even remember the artist's name, yet he signed the sketch "I love you, Polly." What more could a teenager want?
Here is the scenario. I was the youngest of five children, and by the time I was a young teen, all of my siblings were off the social radar screen: Saturday night rolled around and they were away at boarding school or college or hanging out with the high school In-crowd in Philadelphia. Which left Polly and the parents. Social beings that they were, dinner parties were a frequent function. When those gatherings were chez nous, I was expected to join the adults at the table and be conversant, polite, and charming. I don't know how I measured up, but I know that it helped me learn to love dinner conversation, candlelight and starched damask napkins. The clink of silverware against china. Engaging in dialogue with adults, and having an opinion about current events.
I remember well the evening. My dinner partner -- a man my parents' age -- treated me as if I were a fascinating adult. I shared my naive views on politics and culture, and he responded with aplomb and appreciation. I blossomed. I was treated as a grown-up! Right there at the table, he asked, "May I sketch you?" And so we giggled conspiratorially and temporarily ignored the other guests for a few minutes while I found a Bic and some paper and he whipped up this sketch at the corner of the dinner table. Suddenly I no longer felt like the baby brat of the family, but a privileged participant in a grown-up world, even though I was wearing a cotton A-line skirt and a striped Skyr turtle-neck. I've kept the portrait to this day: an important reminder. I wish I could remember his name to thank him for the transformational moment.
So, what does this have to do with my love of France? Perhaps everything, perhaps nothing. I know that when I first spent time in France a few years later, it felt so natural, so elemental, to be reveling in dinner conversation. It still does. I don't know to what extent my own children have learned this joy of inter-generational socializing. In France -- at least among my French friends -- this still is the norm. All ages gather at the table and get along (or not!) with verve.
A few years ago I was sitting with a friend in Paris who was feeding her toddler in his high chair. She said, lovingly, "Tiens-toi comme il faut," and made sure he sat up straight, before giving him the next spoonful. He giggled and clowned and wiggled, then sat up tall for his next bite. Then smiled and batted his eyes at us.
Early dinner party training?