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Do's and don'ts of apéritifs

An invitation for an apéro is a well-known way to break the ice with neighbours, but what are the do's and don'ts?

Getting to know the neighbours when you first arrive in France can be a daunting prospect, especially if your French is a bit rusty.

But inviting them over for apéros is a sure-fire way of breaking the ice. It is perfectly fine to ask all the neighbours and anyone else you like, especially those who have helped in the process of house-hunting and moving.

You can either pop round and knock on the door, phone or email. There is no need for written invitations. If you want to make sure people are free give a fortnight’s notice, otherwise a week or a few days is fine.

Apéros are either just before lunch, ie 11.30 or just before dinner, ie 19.00. You can vary the times by half an hour but, especially in rural France, any other time would probably raise eyebrows.

Midweek apéros are usually only casual last-minute invitations between people who have worked together all day, but Friday night is fine.

Saturday lunchtime would be very casual, and would probably be best for people you really know well – and Saturday night is fine, too.

However, Sunday lunchtime is not a good idea because so many people have a huge family lunch. On the other hand, Sunday evening is a very good idea because no-one is hungry but many need to let off steam about demanding grand-mothers who have cooked Sunday dinner and then terrorised the family by asking tricky questions.

The usual drinks are pastis, whisky and a sweet fortified apéro wine like Muscat.

Put chilled water and ice cubes out and some soft drinks are also a good idea. After that, you can do what you like in the way of drinks.

Wine is usually drunk with a meal rather than before in France, but habits are changing so you can serve white or rosé but serving red wine might make people laugh.

If you want to make a bit more effort serve a kir (white wine and a dash of crème de cassis) or a kir royale which is the same made with either sparkling wine or champagne.

You should definitely serve snacks, at least peanuts and crisps but preferably something a bit more substantial. Olives, cubes of cheese, thin slices of saucisson sec are quite normal, carrot, red pepper and cucumber sticks plus a dip would make people feel you had made an effort.

Items like garlic bread, small squares of fresh pizza and vol au vents would make it a handsome affair. Posh things like quails’ eggs and caviar (even if faux) might seem like you were trying too hard but this depends on the company.

Unless they know you very well, French people will not help themselves, either to snacks or to drinks so you or your children will have to circulate constantly, refilling glasses and offering snacks. Some music might help warm up the atmosphere.

Conversation topics are slightly different. People may not automatically tell you their first names. The way round this one is to ask them to call you by your first name.

French people also tend to fight shy of telling you what they do for a living, especially if they are white collar, so you should not ask outright.

Asking how long they have lived in the area is a good gambit, and it is fine to ask where they lived before and where they were born.

Children and pets are good conversation starters, as is DIY, gardening and suggestions for holidays. If things are going well and you feel like it, it is fine to ask people to stay on for supper. This is very relaxed and friendly because the supper necessarily will be something last minute like pasta or a barbecue and no-one will expect anything special. Naturally, if you intend to do this there is no reason why you should not make a batch of pasta sauce earlier – and if no-one can stay you can always freeze it for next time. So do not hesitate – ask the neighbours round for apéros.

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