Recently we returned from a family holiday in Spain. Whilst we were there the kids ate at any time from 9 in the evening onwards and went to bed at midnight. We got up between 9 and 10 in the morning, and breakfast and lunch were served at any time we pleased between then and supper. It took us three days of Spanish-style relaxation to loosen the tension that had been spreading across our shoulders every time that we walked into a restaurant at, say, 2.30pm, hoping to be served lunch. Would we be too late? Would the waiter greet our request to spend money in his establishment with the contempt it deserved and show us the door? Oh no, wait. We were no longer in France: it was fine.
As previously observed, you see, lunch in France is served between 12 noon and 2pm (although anyone entering a restaurant at 1.55pm is clearly taking the pipi and will be lucky to be tolerated). Goûter is served between 4 and 5.30pm; the apéro from 6.30pm onwards; and dinner starts at 7.30 with last service at 10 (though see advice about late lunches when considering cutting it fine at the end of the evening). Since breakfast is hardly ever served except in service stations, and only then by surly-looking people who have clearly been dragged out of bed five-minutes previously, it is hard to gauge its precise scheduling requirements. If you even mention such a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon concept as brunch, it will make someone’s head explode, so I advise you in the strongest possible terms not to try it.
If I sound dogmatic about this, it is because I have lived in France for two and a half years and learned to my cost that a certain degree of rigidity is applied to mealtimes here. This does not just apply in restaurants, but at home too. Should you, for example, arrange a happy little playdate for your children and suggest that the parents should collect their offspring at about 5.30pm, you should on no account offer them an alcoholic beverage when they arrive. Under such circumstances you will have got off lightly if the only reproving remark directed towards you is non, merci : qui boit du vin à cette heure ?(Answer: me, occasionally, but clearly I am an alcoholic who is beyond all help.) Similarly a birthday party organised between 3 and 5pm would be deemed an utter failure if a) it did not include a goûter, or b) it tried to include any sort of actual meal, or birthday tea in the English sense. Trust me, I have tried both, and the appalled looks that the small invitees gave me on each occasion were enough to make me shrivel.
It is not just at mealtimes that French life is subjected to an unspoken, but immovable timetable. The entire year has its programme which must be adhered to. Thus the summer holidays that must be taken in August; the rule that everything everywhere closes in the week of the quinze août; the rentrée for adults and children alike on 1 September; the very notion that schools should close for two weeks in February to allow their pupils to go skiing; and the refusal to take on new work in May because nobody does any work at all during that month.
One consequence of this rhythm, applied on a blanket basis to all citizens alike, is that bank holidays are not seen as opportunities for small businesses to make money: mais non, small businesses, meaning shops, restaurants, and even some hotels, remain, just like everything else, obstinately fermé. Thus on the fête du travail, more restaurants take the excuse to ne pas travailler than decide to travaillent. Similarly, if you have the misfortune to be driving from, say, Barcelona to Lyon, on the quinze août, you should expect an even more sulky service than normal in the ironically-named motorway service stations, and will also have to brace yourself for overhearing endless diatribes from French nationals in the lengthy queue for a single desultory croissant about how, when they get home, il n’y aura rien qui sera ouvert parce que (defeatist shrug) : c’est le quinze août.
(Sometimes I just long to take these people by the shoulders, shake them roundly, remind them that “thinking outside the box” has elsewhere long been considered a hackneyed concept, and to ask when exactly they themselves expect to start doing it to a sufficient degree to permit them perhaps to open a convenience store on a day when, arguably, more people would appreciate the convenience of it than on any other day…)
Inflexible thinking is a quality I have remarked upon even within the bosom of our own, much-cherished and otherwise blemish-free village. As soon as we arrived in this gorgeous location, we started looking forward to the part of our summer that we had planned to spend at home. I had envisaged blissful gentle strolls down into the village to sip beer in the café in the square, and peaceful meanderings around the local commerces with our various visitors.
Well, silly, naïve, little me.
There was I thinking that the village might view the summer months as an opportunity to increase its cash-flow by appealing to holiday-makers drawn to the pretty village up a hill just outside of Lyon. I had clearly forgotten that August is a time when people leave, and that this rule was universally applied. Whoever you are, and wherever you may be, holidays are something that are taken elsewhere (where, presumably, you hope that local businesses will have had the foresight not to leave themselves, although why you cherish this hope having lived in France for more than five minutes, I have no idea). Thus, in St Cyr au Mont d’Or, the summer months are the perfect time to have the city of Lyon dig up the picture-postcard town centre in order to renew the pavements. Or indeed the ideal time to close the bustling café with the breathtaking view, so that it can open in time for…wait for it… the rentrée. Of course, as the leaves begin to fall and the chill sets in at the start of September, my thoughts will be turning to sitting out on the pavement in my local café, when under the August sun and with spare time on my hands I would never have dreamed of such a thing.
I could go on and on, but this blog post is already quite lengthy enough. The instances when French rigidity damages more than just the good humour of a grumpy arrival from happy-go-lucky Spain—the burkini-wearers of Nice, for example—will have to wait until a future post.
I went native in August and neglected this blog, but it is nearly the rentrée and I am back. If you like this post please share it, or get in touch. I would love to hear your views.