The Fourth à la Française!

Photo credit: Alex Gardinier

A flurry of activity enveloped number 41 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Outside on the street, the hum of daily Parisian life continued unabated on this, just another ordinary Wednesday in France, but inside the walls of the courtyard, a buzz of anticipation and festivity filled the air as I arrived the morning of July 4.

Walking through the Ambassador’s residence, I passed several of my colleagues from the office, but it was clear that this was not just another day in the political section. Soon, I was stationed at my post within the gatehouse, where I was joined by my fellow Aggie Catholic friend, Abbie, our scanners at the ready for the impending throngs of Americans and foreign dignitaries alike.

Without much warning, the floodgates were opened, and before I knew it, the four of us interns were doing everything we could to keep up with the flow of the Ambassador’s guests as we quickly– though gracefully–  scanned the barcodes gracing their invitations as efficiently and politely as possible. For the next three hours, I became a broken record, as, after hundreds of iterations, the phrase spilled out of my mouth with the ease and intonation of a native: “Excusez-moi, Monsieur/Madame, est-ce que je peux scanner votre invitation ?

My own scanner kept throwing tantrums throughout the process, and I would later receive an email saying that something had not been set correctly on the computers, rendering my three hours of work absolutely useless (yay, government!), but despite that, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that even we lowly interns would be allowed to join the fête going down in the garden behind the house.

As I joined the throng of thousands in the backyard, I first patiently waited for a mojito while a band comprised of sailors from the Navy belted out classic, Americana rock tunes from the stage at the end of the yard. Then, in true American style (and in flagrant disregard for stuffy French etiquette) I grabbed some Häagen-Dazs before I ate my onion rings and cheesecake.

It was a beautiful, warm day in July, and for just a few hours, I could have forgotten that I was standing in the center of Paris (except for the fact that everyone was wearing suits and I was sharing American culture with my fellow French interns, one of whom had lived in the United States and was overjoyed to have real American food again).

Speaking of American food, when the party wound down at around 3:00 in the afternoon, I jumped back on the metro to enjoy the rest of my day off by meeting my Texan friend Kaitlyn at my apartment to get down to the business of cooking the two chickens I had basted the previous evening. I had been planning an American meal for my host family for about two weeks, and Kaitlyn graciously assisted me in preparing the desserts and fresh-squeezed lemonade, while we worked without measuring utensils and roughly estimated cooking times in a Celsius-based oven, a French replacement for the missing grill called for by the recipe.

Classic queso-making mistake…

Abbie and Jennifer, yet another fellow Aggie (we’re colonising France), joined us a bit later just in time for apéritif. Being Texans and having access to actual American food products within the embassy, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make the classic Velveeta and Rotel tomatoes queso accompanied by tortilla chips with a hint of lime. As you can see, it was the only hitch in the meal, though an easily fixable one.

Now, normally at an American meal, all the food is served together, but I was busy finishing up some last minute preparations when the French family asked about going to the living room, and this unforeseen French twist to my American meal just kind of, well, happened. I must say, I do not believe I have ever eaten queso– that basest of communal, American appetizers– with red wine before.

Queso and wine. It’s all the rage for this year’s Fourth of July.

But this is France, and no French family worth its salt would be caught dead at a dinner party without wine. I think we Americans were secretly laughing at what an affair it turned out to be, with the tortilla chips arrayed nicely in a bowl which was passed around the room, and heaven forbid we dip the chips directly into the dish of queso; instead, we each spooned out a polite little portion onto our plates while we discussed the differences in American and French entertaining culture, all the while sipping our glasses of Bordeaux. I was horrified when my host dad asked the question of what was in the chip dip: “Umm, it’s a type of Mexican cheese, yes, that’s it… cheese, though of course nothing at all like real French cheese…”

Fortunately, my host brothers loved it, and soon, we were deeply engaged in an hours-long meal around the table. I was thrilled to hear from everyone that my chile-lime chicken (ok, paprika-lime chicken; chili is a bit hard to come by over here) was a smashing success, especially when my host dad remarked how well-cooked it was. Kaitlyn and I, slightly giggly from having started our apéro earlier in the afternoon during the cooking process, exchanged amused glances considering the guesswork that went into such a “well-cooked” chicken (205 degrees Celsius? Sure… that’s about 400 Fahrenheit, right?).

Patriotic Pies (Photo credit: Kaitlyn Bates)

Before I could unveil the pièce de résistance, we Americans were obliged to offer our a capella rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” keeping in mind to start the anthem sufficiently low so that “the rockets’ red glare” would not shatter any wineglasses or windows. And then, my not-so-sufficiently-chilled-yet-artfully-decorated cream cheese confections were brought out in their pre-baked graham cracker and Oreo crusts with no one the wiser.

Despite the typically French length of the meal, all too soon, it was 11:30, and our guests had to get home. It may not have been a picnic in the park with fireworks, but celebrating the Fourth of July with several other Americans in Paris with my French host family was a special way to look at this uniquely American holiday.

Later, my French family would compliment me not only the quality of the meal, but the quality of my friends, as well. It’s not often that a room full of Americans conducts themselves so gracefully and in such well-spoken French, but that particular compliment was more spectacular than any fireworks show, and I was honored to have been able to leave such a positive impression of my country with my French friends.

As we began clearing the table, I concluded the evening with the rather diplomatic, “This was a way for us to say thank you to your country for its assistance in the creation of our own,” to which my host mom asserted that I should be the United States’ Ambassador to France one day.

Well, I may be a lowly intern, but I am honored to say that in their eyes, I already am.

Gig ’em and Happy Fourth of July!

5 thoughts on “The Fourth à la Française!”

  1. What a wonderful day. I know you enjoyed doing it as much as they enjoyed receiving it. Ambassador, huh, what a wonderful opportuinity. Something to think about for later. glad you could celebrate and still feel the conncetion that far from home. Keep the memories coming

  2. That sounds lovely — and you should DEFINITELY be ambassador to France. When I become President, the post’s all yours! (Unless you want Secretary of State?)

    I must say, your French Fourth was much more festive than my Indian Fourth last year. We celebrated with KFC and Baskin Robins at the mall after work. 😉

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