What does un intello do for fun?
Every year, Jean-Pierre and Florence (Jumpy and Flo-Flo to intimates) have a fancy pique-nique for their anniversary. And every year it rains.
Jumpy’s whimsical invitation asks guests to bring totally imaginary dishes like terrine de kâ à la tetragone. Quoi? A kâ (kaon), as only a serious Scrabble player would know, is a sub-nuclear particle. Tetragone, apparently, is a tendance (trendy) salad green. I finally figure out he’s corrupted the classic dish terrine de cailles (quail) à l’estragon (tarragon).
Who are these guys? In the US, as Bill Gates said, “It’s not cool to be smart,” but in France you can be playful, powerful, sexy, even charming, and still be intello (an intellectual). Their guests include a member of the Académie de l’Institut de France, three recipients of the Légion d’Honneur (including a commandeur), professeurs, scientifiques, architectes, and Énarques(graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, which trains France’s top diplomats and politicos).
Le jour J (on D-day), ça flotte (it rains). Naturellement. Their wedding also was held sous une pluie battante (in hurtling rain). So Jumpy is well prepared: party games! But his pointy-headed gang isn’t into colin maillard (blind man’s buff) or Jacques a dit(Simon says). They are fiercely competitive. These people teethe their kids on Les Incollables (The Unflunkables), a game whose sneaky subtext is to prepare for the Bac (national high school graduation exam). Jumpy has invented a high-level version of Trivial Pursuit. He’s been collecting questions for weeks. The categories: pop culture, explorers, French grammar. The difficulty ranges from the insanely obscure to the merely unknowable.
▪ “Which group of words is exclusively masculine?”
a) armistice, interview, oasis, ovule, épithète
b) météore, apogée, éloge, pétale, effluve
c) hémisphère, échappatoire, équivoque, chrysanthème, harmonica
For those without a dictionnaire, the answer is b).
▪ “Which great Arctic explorer did Professor Jean Malaurie evoke at the end of his book Ultima Thulé: Grande Fresque Historique de l’Exploration Arctique?” (Answer: himself.)
▪ “Raymond Poulidor never won the Tour de France: true or false?” (True.) Everyone but me knows that one. They also know that Jacques Anquetil won the famous bicycle race five times. There’s even an expression: “préférer Poulidor à Anquetil.” It’s very French to snub the star who wins over and over but admire a man who won’t give up even though he always comes in second. Given the recent “scandales de dopage” in the Tour de France, the honest, hard-working Poulidor is a bigger hero than ever.
C’est trop (it’s great party). Everybody’s yelling out answers. Pourquoi cet enthousiasme? Eh bien, verbal one-upmanship is a mode of French interaction. Talk is often laced with allusions to history, philosophy, poetry and other aristocratic pursuits. According to Pascal Baudry, author of French and Americans: The Other Shore, you drop such references into conversation to discover if your interlocuteur is your equal. The code de recognition is shared culture. Are you in or out? Should you be so foolish as to ask a question to which you don’t know the answer, judgment is swift: You are considered, says Baudry, “naïf, pour ne pas dire imbécile” (put politely, “naïve”).
Luckily, although making fun of innocents is deeply ingrained in French culture, so is fighting back. Much comedy, from Molière to modern movies, is based on blasting people’s pretensions. In Ridicule (1996), a poor country aristocrat gets revenge after being made a laughingstock at the court of Versailles. For Le Dîner des Cons (The Dinner Game, 1999), a Parisian sophisticate pays dearly for trying to find the biggest idiot to bring to a dinner. You never know who’s going to end up ridicule. To be safe, I brought my sub-nuclear particles in a lead terrine.