Early Saturday evening and I am at a little gathering of French friends on the Ile de Ré. We have been chatting for several hours, when Camille the hostess, says ‘alors, you will stay for dinner?’ This, I realise, is a subtle code as everyone suddenly gets up from the table, protesting that they must leave (since we were invited for aperitifs, not dinner.) And so begins a scene that I have witnessed many times at French gatherings or dinner in friends' houses: the art of the long, graceful goodbye.
One of the unwritten rules of French etiquette, it seems to me, is that you must never announce your intention to leave and then actually follow through (at least not immediately). Instead, guests must strive to create the impression that they are tearing themselves away only under duress.
A typical exit procedure might go like this: first you announce your intention to leave, and ten minutes later you might actually push your chair back and stand up from the table. You remain here for a minimum of five minutes, preferably ten, still engaged in animated conversation, before slowly edging out of the room and advancing towards the door as reluctantly as possible. Throughout this process, you must maintain a lively discourse with your hosts. Then comes the cheek kissing, followed by some more conversation on the doorstep. Only then, do you make your getaway. Having watched my French friends do it many times, I have realised that there is a real art to this - the subtle dance of the long, graceful good-bye.