On arriving in France nearly 10 years ago, my biggest fear was the language. I spoke less than schoolboy French, and my partner at the time spoke even less.
I was determined to speak the language though, and threw myself into learning it as quickly as I could. TV, car radio and newspapers were all in French and I went out of my way to speak to people, anybody really, just to practise. With a lot of hard work I managed to get myself competent enough to hold conversations.
After a few months we were invited to tea (dinner if you’re posh) with the farmer neighbours, a true red letter day for me.
The evening was fun, if not a little difficult. They don’t speak any English, my partner at the time didn’t speak brilliant French and whilst mine was a little better, I certainly wasn’t able to keep up a flowing stream of wit and repartee during the meal.
The food was good, a different wine with every course, all was most enjoyable until the very end of the soiree. Traditionally in France, when the evening ends, coffee is offered. Ann, our lovely hostess, quintessentially a farmers wife, red cheeks, broad of beam and chest, stood up, collected the dishes and said “and now, the coffee.”
After a few minutes of small talk (very small) around the table, Ann came back in, large smile on her face, carrying a tray with four cups, two already filled, two empty ones, a milk jug and a bowl containing sugar lumps, all surrounding a white tea pot with red patterns.
The ensemble was placed on the table, my French hosts replete with beaming smiles. Ann placed the two empty cups in front of the English types and picked up the teapot. It was only then I revealed the terrible, stereotype breaking news: “I’m really sorry, I don’t drink tea. Not even to be polite, I just can’t.”
“You don’t drink tea?’ The words, almost spat at me, it seemed bitterly, by the absolute epitome of a jolly farmers wife.
I then spent five minutes trying to explain that as much as not every French person rides a bike with a string of onions round their neck and a baguette under their arm, nor does every Englishman drink tea.
There was much laughter, followed by slightly red faces as Ann explained to us that she’d gone out specifically during the day to buy a teapot, as she had English people coming to tea. When she was questioned about her purchase in the shop, she explained the English angle and everybody nodded in agreement, understanding her need.
Almost 10 years later, they were at our house last night, and we laughed again at “teapotgate.” They’re still not convinced I’m totally English but they humour me.