Quite by coincidence, the mayor of Castelnau-le-Lez, Frédéric Lafforgue, scheduled the grand opening of a city park less than two blocks from where I live on November 5. My birthday! Not one to be shy about co-opting others’ efforts, I declared his city-sponsored picnic to be my personal birthday party.
The people I know here are used to my co-opting French events for my own purposes. For instance, I left the United States on July 14, 2021, to move to France. Those who know French history are aware that July 14 is Bastille Day, an occasion marked by amazing, countrywide fireworks.
Since then, I’ve tried to convince those who know me here that the fireworks on July 14 are a celebration of my departure from the United States and my decision to move to France. I must admit, however, to a certain skepticism on their part.
But back to the birthday party.
Most of the people I have come to know, either as friends or by sight, would probably attend, so the mayor even took care of my invitation list. No one would be inadvertently left out.
Gorgeous Fall Day
The weather cooperated stunningly. We enjoyed a beautiful fall day, with temperatures hovering in the high 60s. The greenery and trees scattered around the grounds (about five acres)were gorgeous.
When we arrived, we walked past a wood children’s climbing structure. It was located in a small clearing, almost hidden from the main path. It was one of several areas set aside for kids to play. In discovering the secret play areas, I found myself wishing to be a kid again—they looked so inviting.
Continuing on the main path, we entered an open area where a long table (perhaps 60 feet long) had been set up to serve refreshments, including wine, sparkling water, and juices. I chose the rosé wine. After all, it was my birthday!
Scattered around the area were tables set up with appetizers. I tried a miniature pizza. It was good, but I didn’t want a second. I needed to save room for the picnic lunch.
We mingled with others who slowly drifted into the park until there were several hundred of us. I listened to the conversations in French, occasionally picking up a word or two, but happy to be an observer.
Eventually, a group of friends and I worked our way over to a long row of tables with bag lunches ready to go. We turned in our reservation ticket and picked up our lunch. We found an open table, sat down, and dug in!
I shared my focaccia sandwich and some of my salad with a friend. There were several other food items whose names I do not know, but they were delicious.
A No Regrets Event
While we were eating, two musicians came by and serenaded us. I asked for the Edith Piaf song “No Regrets,” which I thought was particularly appropriate for one’s 81st birthday. Of course, they knew and played the song, with everyone around us singing along.
To my surprise, my friends also asked them to play “Happy Birthday.”
I can now say I have heard happy birthday sung to me in French. Most of the people around us joined in the singing, even without knowing whose birthday it was! When they repeated the song in English, I could sing along.
Being in the park on a beautiful fall afternoon, with neighbors visiting with each other, reminded me of my childhood in Iowa. We didn’t need electronic entertainment or the distraction of scrolling on our cellphone. The pleasure of one another’s company was the amusement.
Many Sundays, neighbors or relatives would stop in uninvited. When that happened, we played volleyball, using the clothesline as a net, and board games. Eventually, food was served.
Lydia Denworth, a science journalist, touched on this topic when she wrote a new book titled Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond. Denworth observed that “There’s a richness to being with your friends in person, and it hits all your senses . . . there’s a difference when you see them on a screen vs. when you see them in person.”
What Cicero Says about Convivium
Denworth’s research echos what Cicero says in his classic book How to Grow Old, written in 44 BCE. He writes that the pleasure of meeting, eating, and conversing with friends is called “convivium,” or living together. And this remains one of life’s greatest pleasures, independent of age.
Indeed, there is something quite nourishing about visiting with friends with no purpose other than to enjoy the give and take of mutually exchanged thoughts and ideas in a gorgeous natural setting.
My closest friend in the US sent me a birthday card that quoted a Shakespeare character who said, “I am wealthy in my friends.”
I can’t imagine a better kind of wealth. Or a better 81st birthday. Thank you, Mayor Lafforgue, for throwing such a wonderful birthday party.
Cover photo by Bernard Julien