Everybody who lives in France knows what l'apéro is, right? Short for apéritif, the word means a drink, usually alcoholic, that you have before dinner to whet your appetite, although how much whetting is actually done is a bit of a moot point, given that the drinks are almost always accompanied by a selection of crisps, olives, cheesy biscuits and, if you are really lucky, saucisson sec. Right?
Well, sort of.
One evening in Brittany, we were invited to a friend of Understanding Frenchman's for apéro. Four hours later, we had indeed had some drinks and the aforementioned crisps, olives etc, but also a large selection of little toasts with delicious toppings, some mini-omelettes, and home-made moelleux au chocolat for dessert. It was basically dinner, except that the main course was missing.
A couple of days later, UFM was on the phone to his cousin, trying to arrange to see him and lamenting the fact that it wouldn't be possible for us to eat together before we had to leave to come back to Paris. It was decided that we would go to said cousin's house for a lunchtime apéro the following day. I have to confess, I was a little relieved that it wasn't an invitation to a full-blown meal - UFM's family are lovely, but we had spent the past ten days eating and making small talk for hours on end in other people's back gardens and I was starting to have had enough. But then, as the drinks and crisps were coming to an end, the cousin said, "So, are you going to stay for lunch?" And lunch turned out to be starters of peaches stuffed with tuna, a barbecue with three different kinds of meat, ratatouille, beans, cheese and two different desserts, including a tiramisu that the cousin's wife had made herself.
There was no way that wasn't planned in advance.
I was mystified. UFM likes to complain when we go out for drinks with my expat friends that it's never very clear where, when or whether we're going to eat (although we almost always do), yet here were all his friends and family doing the same thing. So later, in the car going home, I demanded an explanation. And here it is, The Unofficial Understanding Frenchman Guide to Apéro Invitations:
- Among close friends and family, an apéro will often be followed by an invitation to stay for the actual meal. The reason they don't just invite you for the meal straight away is actually a (very complex) form of politeness: it gives you the chance to decide for yourself, even at the last minute. In the case of the barbecue, if Understanding Frenchman and I had had other things to do that afternoon, we could simply have dropped in for a drink and refused the lunch, leaving our hostess and her family to eat stuffed peaches for a week.
- If you are invited for an apéro but your hosts know that you will have to travel a long way, it's almost certainly an apéro dinatoire like the one we had in the first example. It's a less formal invitation than a full-on dinner party but won't leave you hungry because you left the apéro at 9pm and had to drive for an hour before you got home for dinner.
- Finally, it is actually possible to be invited just for an ordinary apéro. This most commonly happens among neighbours (and in the countryside, people like postmen are also regularly invited in for a drink) because it doesn't take them long to travel and so they can be back home in time to cook their own dinner.
So now you know.