"Le Coktel"

by RAOUL SIMPKINS

RAOUL SIMPKINS is the pseudonym of a former British diplomat who has been entertaining Accent on Living readers with his reports on life in France.

WHEN I lived in Washington, D.C., there were perennial hendshakings over the “cocktail party scandal.” Too many parties, it was inferred. Too many cocktails at the parties. Was it true, as whispered, that General Hotzenheimer, overstimulated by Old Fashioneds, had been caught kissing his Georgetown hostess’s maid last week? And that, towards the end of the evening, Senator Klubb fell so heavily he destroyed an occasional table of considerable worth?

Personally, I enjoyed those Washington affairs immensely, and now that I live in Paris, I find myself looking back on them with increasing wist fulness. The good General Hotzenheimer, were he to appear at a run-of-the-mill Paris party, would undoubtedly remain a model of military sobriety. Why? Because he just wouldn’t get anything much to drink.

Here’s the form. An engraved invitation (an R.S.V.P. job) comes through the mails requesting the pleasure of your company on such-andsuch a date at the Baron do Pompom’s apartment in the Avenue Foch. Six to eight. The occasion is known technically in France as “un coktel.” A sad misnomer.

Rashly you accept. The Baron, whom you have met once or twice, is young and charming. The Avenue Foch is one of the most chic of Parisian thoroughfares; and the Baron’s richly appointed flat, a byword for elegance, looks out on a superb view of the Bois de Boulogne. What fun!

As you enter the room there is a momentary illusion of well-being. Gallic vivacity flickers all over the place like radar. The host is bending low over the hand of a beautiful woman who wears Jacques Fath’s latest piece of bad news for her husband’s bank account. (That reminds you: you must be prepared for a spot of graceful hand-bussing. Lose face otherwise.)

There are several extremely pretty women present and one or two moderately important figures from the Embassies. And — aha! — a reassuring background to the flower-scented scene of sophistication is a large side table. On it stand plenty of bottles and glasses and plates. And behind it stand three men in immaculate white jackets. They look competent and enterprising. Never judge by appearances.

You are greeted by your host, and almost at once here comes the first female hand. Down to it now — not too fast, otherwise you’ll seem to be pecking. Not too slow either. Watch for the back of the wrist ; you can hit yourself a surprisingly painful blow on the nose with it. Prettiest women apt to have boniest wrists. And one man I know had to have a stitch taken in his lip when he smashed the glass of a dainty wrist watch with a carelessly executed power dive.

There, you managed that quite well. Just a generous hint of Chanel No. 5 left clinging to your lips. Never mind — that will no doubt disappear with the first drink. Incidentally, when is it coming along? The three men in white coats are still standing there on the wrong side of the table. What do they think they are — cigarstore Indians?

Oops — another hand! Mouthful of black suède glove this time. Still the owner gives a nice smile and begins telling you all about her search for a house. Complete fill-in on the rentals asked for all the seventeen places she’d seen in six weeks of looking. . . . How are the whitecoats making out? Ah, one of them is uncorking a bottle of some kind. It is soda water and he is giving himself all the time in the world.

Where have we got to? Oh, dear, now we are embarking on the drains of those seventeen houses. Most of them faulty, apparently. But courage — here comes a whitecoat, picking his way through the throng with infinite care.

“Et pour Monsieur?”

Monsieur gazes at the curiously anonymous array spread upon the tray. That large tumbler of frosted glass (not frosted by ice but by its manufacturer) — what can be its contents? The thimble-sized job containing, apparently, a distillate of purple plush? And what in heaven’s name is the faintly greenish substance nestling in what seem to be converter! mustache cups?

You have been in France long enough not to ask for a Martini, which is the trade name for something quite different. Instead you say, in even tones, “Avez-vous un ‘dry’?” Whitecoat nods, but your heart sinks as he indicates one of the mustache cups.

Too late to change the mind. You have got to pick it up and take a sip.

It is unbelievably awful. There is just enough ice in the concoction to cause the exterior of the containing vessel to sweat in an eerily human manner. There is a twist of lemon peel on the surface of the liquid, but from then on in, any resemblance between the “dry” and an American dry Martini is not only purely coincidental but entirely nonexistent.

It is made of one of the lesser breeds of French gin. A Winebibbing nation, the French have never taken gin seriously. Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid is to say that French gin is not quite so unlike English gin as Japanese whiskey is unlike Scotch.

You gag and tears spring to your eyes. This display of emotion is taken as encouragement by the house-hunting lady and she embarks with new zest on a further detailed description of drains and their impishness.

What to do? Whitecoat or one of his fellows may be around again, every hour on the hour, like the defile of mechanical saints in the great clock of Strasbourg Cathedral. Take your courage in both hands, forge your way over to what should, by rights, be the bar and demand a drink? One of the stationary whilecoals will explain courteously that Monsieur must await the ministrations of the perambulating one.

And even when the perambulating one does finally reach you again, what will be your decision? Not another “dry” — anything but that. But what, then, is the alternative? So far, in forty minutes, you have consumed a drop or so of Chanel No.5 and a glass of something that tasted like triple-distilled hemlock. What goes well with that?

While you are pondering this question a tray of what you take to be canapés is insinuated at your elbow. No harm in chewing on a little something, you feel. Might raise the morale. Wrong again. You find yourself with a mouthful, not of cheese, anchovies, smoked ham, or other kindred tart substance, but — of all things — a sickly sweet chocolate cake!

When Whitecoat does come round again — and he bears a faintly reproving look — you point in panic to the item colored like purple plush, It turns out to be “Porto.” And however well port may taste in an Oxford common room after a good dinner, at a Paris “coktel,” taken on top of the “dry” and the Chanel No. 5, it changes out of all knowledge.

The light has been knocked out of you by this time. You take your leave of the charming drain specialist (a last lingering kiss on the black suéde glove) and say good-bye to the host .

“Going so soon?” he cries with well-simulated astonishment. Just a great little old bidder, the Baron.

And how are things in Georgetown these days, General?