Tabletop threats

When I was a kid, resting my hands on the dinner table would inevitably result in a disapproving glance from my mother followed by the question: “Would you do that if you were dining with the Queen of England?”

I still don’t know about the Queen.  But if my mother were to ask me now, “Would you do that if you were dining with President Sarkozy?” I could answer a confident “Yes.”

In three trips to France, I’ve learned that the table manners ingrained into my head during family dinners and Lil Miss Manners classes don’t translate here.

On one of my first nights in Perpignan, over a dinner of duck and escargot, I received a crash course in French etiquette, which, like many things French, is deeply rooted in history and tradition. Many notions of etiquette evolved from Louis XIV’s court, a possible explanation as to why some manners seem like precautions taken to avoid being murdered by your dinner companions.

During meals in France it is preferred that you keep your hands on the tabletop at all times. Fear not, if your archenemies attend a dinner party with you, they’ll have a hard time concealing their weapons of choice beneath the tablecloth.

French meals are guaranteed to include some wine, but before indulging in it, it is proper to say a toast. In France this act is a portrayal of your trust—you are to look your companion straight in the eyes while clinking glasses and exclaiming, “santé!

The French used to clink their glasses together to ensure that wine from each person’s glass would splash into the other’s in case there was poison in one of them.

Although traditional etiquette practices have held strong over the years, mealtime has lost all hostility and for that I am thankful. My meals thus far have been four-hour experiences of laughter, good food and company with my hands resting contently on the tabletop.