"Come over for aperos, around 8pm."
What an odd thing to suggest. An aperitif is a drink you have before your dinner, a disgestif one that you have afterwards – much needed, because if you dine late, you are going to need some help with the digesting before you can even hope to go to sleep.
So you are being invited to come and have a drink and a few nibbles, and a spot of amiable chat, in the unwritten acceptance that you will then push off and let your hosts have their meal in peace. You will be sipping your Pineau de Charentes and munching on salty nuts with the aroma of the Bourgignon or the chicken Chasseur wafting around you, especially as, in the country, aperos are served in the kitchen.
The etiquette of aperos is that you do not linger for more than an hour, maybe an hour and a half at the outside, in order to facilitate the eating of said dinner by your hosts, but also so that you can go home and eat yours. You do not outstay your welcome.
Armed with this knowledge, we decided we should hold such an event, though we took the English wimp’s way out and ate first. We set the bottles on the table, laid out the nibbles, and waited for our guests to arrive.
These were our neighbour and his uncle, a retired doctor who came to stay for six months of the year, and spent the rest of the time on the south coast, in one of his many properties. The neighbour was a lovely man who spoke several languages; his uncle robustly refused to understand a single word of anything but French, and if you couldn’t follow him, he repeated things in increasing volume until you did. His nephew would translate, up to the point where he refused, for the sake of the entente cordiale.
The English say that on such occasions (not that we have aperos: we have, perhaps cocktails, but not this pre-dinner, have a glass and get lost, ritual) you should not discuss religion, sex, or politics. Uncle launched into all three with gusto.
The die had been cast when we first met, and he asked whether I were a philosopher. I replied, philosophically, that one must be. And that was that. I was a whole new audience for his long-held, rigid, tenets on anything and everything.
No sooner had he sat down than he asked, “Are the English young people still sleeping together before marriage?” in a tone that implied, “and what are you doing about it?” That was the opening salvo in what can only be constituted a battle of wits that couldn’t be won. Whenever he sensed that he was losing the upper hand, he changed the subject. “Do animals have souls?” “The English aristocracy are all gay because of the Public School system.” “Margaret Thatcher was a great Prime Minister even though she was a woman.”
I didn’t drink much – I was on medication that disagreed with alcohol. “Give up the medication,” said the former doctor. “You can’t live without wine.” To underline this, he helped himself to the drink. A finger of whiskey became two: that was rinsed out with red wine, pastis, more whiskey. He was knocking back the nibbles too. The little individually-wrapped cheeses went down a treat, and the wrappers went straight on the floor.
Before the evening was over – and it went on, and on, for nearly three hours – I was actually banging my head on the table in sheer frustration. Eventually, when he who does everything around here and I were totally exhausted, the old reprobate heaved himself to his feet, and I got to mine, ready to find his coat. He then shot off down the hall to examine the staircase, and to comment on its sturdy and useful construction. It did just what a staircase should do, which apparently is exactly what you want in one.
I then shoe-horned him into his coat (they had walked fifty yards to our house, but it was a formal occasion), and he turned to the man of the house. “It’s good when a woman helps you on with your clothes, but it’s even better when she helps you take them off!” he said, with a leer. I held the front door wide, and he, well-pleased, and his nephew, long inured to his ways, left the premises. We bolted the door, stood in the middle of the floor, and laughed hysterically for a good five minutes in total shock.
The next day we saw that all their lace curtains were now knotted in the way I had done ours. I chose to see this as a mark of respect for a worthy adversary, rather than a case of, to the victor, the spoils.
We eat our main meal at lunchtimes now. If you don’t eat dinner, there can be no need for aperitifs.