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Behind the dowdy disguise of a nine square-metre shop façade was revealed to us a hidden maze of rooms and halls and courtyard. Five euros down, a glass and a notepad were all the requisite tools to grant us entry into the swarming pit of people whose frantic energy and avid enthusiasm could only be matched by that of a stock exchange floor. We had stumbled upon the meeting place of some of the most fanatical vin connoisseurs in Ile-de-France. Feeling a little young and unsure amongst the bespectacled nodding heads and knowing narrowed eyes, we thought it best to try and fit in: first step was to quickly adopt the correct dainty grasp of the stem of the wine glass so as not to attract too much attention to our ignorance.
It was a physical, animalistic exercise: large speckled noses were stretched then plunged into glasses like feisty bees, all facial muscles and orifices were engaged at once to sniff, squint and grunt like dogs on a trail with tongues flapping and smacking like the tail of a whale all to discern the finer notes and tones in the symphony of the wines. Or so was the philosophy of the twittering bow-tied Frenchman who took me under his wing, plonked me down at the Beaujolais table and began serenading me with his love for the vine.
The French are not just simply proud of their fine dining; to them it forms a pillar of the République. It stands for French craftsmanship – something which has not been inherited but is the fruit of the dedication of real French people to their trade who have honed their skills and their recipes until they achieve perfection. It is an area of study; they have elevated the fundamentals of eating and drinking to an art form. Although some of their rituals – especially their need to constantly swirl then spit into the provided buckets at every table – did seem a little bizarre to me, being in a room of connoisseurs was indeed an encouraging experience. This was a room of people who were taking a genuine, passionate interest in life to the point of discernment and dedication. They were a community of people sharing their appreciation for each other’s work; the work of their country, and of their people. The little dance they all put on is actually a rather endearing demonstration of group identity and commitment.
As if our lives had been hijacked by a Hollywood film director playing with the stereotype of the French gastronomic superiority complex, an almost perfect scene rounded-off the night. In a restaurant, our Gallic neighbours on the next table, brandishing smiles and charm, leaned over and, in their best nod towards the English language, offered us a taste of the Roquefort they had just ordered, insisting that, to our unsophisticated British palate this would be a “delightful” education in their culture. Having just tucked into a dog bowl salad each, we had to agree that we could maybe do with a little guidance.
Written by Maddie Kilminster
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham