Bending the rules

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.

A meal being eaten at the outrageous hour of 10pm in Spain
A meal being eaten at the outrageous hour of 10pm in Spain

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.

Beer in the local café... in July, just before it closed for the rest of the summer
Beer in the local café… in July, just before it closed for the rest of the summer

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.

The café in August
The café in August


Digging up the picturesque pavements
Digging up the picturesque pavements

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.



24 thoughts on “Bending the rules

  1. I would (and do) go nuts in Spain. I like to rise early and go to bed early, which means eating early. I possibly could get by in Spain by skipping dinner entirely–just eating a very early one at the tail end of their lunch.
    The thing about French rigidity is that they consider that everybody should have holidays and time off and dinner with family. That part I love. But when I’ve forgotten to buy milk and it’s Saturday evening and Monday is a holiday, I know I’m out of luck until Tuesday. And I think, how hard is it to have just one or two 24/7 shops?

    1. Precisely. Shop owners could go on holiday on rotation. It’s not that hard…!
      I think the thing about Spain is that it gives the impression of not giving a monkeys when you get up and eat. Though doubtless it’s just as rigid in its apparent flexibility…
      Thank you for stopping by.

  2. Don’t get Shirley started on the French interpretation of “le Brunch”! The places that are trendy enough to serve it obviously don’t understand that it can be just one meal, and serve you everything you would expect from a breakfast PLUS a lunch all at once.

  3. Believe it or not, after so many years in France, all the things you mention here (against which I have also ranted and railed at various times), now seem ‘normal’. When in Spain and other more Latin climes, we find ourselves sadly out of step with the free-and-easy approach to mealtimes. Seems there is something about French structure that eventually finds its way into your DNA…

    1. Yes, I can imagine that would be the case (hence the stress on entering restaurants at weird times). It probably explains why most French friends look askance at me when I point out the issue (as if there were anything odd about having fixed mealtimes).

  4. It’s funny we were just talking about the rigid meal time tables last night with English friends who were visiting France for the first time. We have given many children’s birthday parties here in France, I always do an English party tea, cucumber and ham sandwiches, crusts cut off in triangles, crisps, fruit, and then cake. The funny thing is the French children all adore it and the parents always think it is so much better than just cake and candy which is the French way!

  5. We have been refused a booking in a restaurant at 8.45 before now. After some negotiation 8.30 was reluctantly agreed on. Frankly that seems bizarre…but I suppose it just sort of fits in with French customer “service” ideals!! Still, I do like living here (mostly)

  6. Haha, I love this. The rigid mealtime structure is the most universally French thing to me. And it really does get into your system after awhile in France! The other day I caught myself scolding someone, “No chips after lunch! You just ate lunch! This is not chip eating time!” Haha. But I still eat salé at goûter time if I feel like it because I’m a rebel. And I would definitely accept a glass of wine at 5:30pm. (Isn’t that why we say “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere”?!)

    The only thing I like about August business closures is when brand new places stay open to get some business, so you discover cool new places by matter of necessity. But it’s terribly frustrating when you try to make dinner plans, and all your favorite places are closed, and the one that is open has terrible service because it’s regular staff and chef are on vacation!

    When I went to Spain with another expat friend, we were looking for lunch at noon, but no one was eating. Finally, we ate around 2 because we were starving, and when we asked why no one else was eating, we were told that people might start eating around 3! (This was in the south.)

    1. It’s really funny isn’t it, how quickly we all acclimatise to different ways of doing things. I find myself being a little bit defensive to visitors when they have just mooched down into the village for a potter around and find everything closed for lunch (still – at 3pm). And yet when I go away and come back it makes me feel hopping mad!
      I hope your cultural adjustment back to life in the US is going well!

  7. I have always kind of admired how the French do these things their way and will continue to do so no matter what anyone thinks.
    Saying that, if I lived there and had forgotten to buy milk etc. I’d probably quickly lose interest in those quaint little ways and wish for a ‘big Asda’ or something 🙂

    1. You’re quite right – it is admirable that the French stick to their guns, and it is a much better approach than gradually tricking everyone into working all day and night and never seeing their kids. Sometimes their “thin end of the wedge” attitude gets to me a little bit though… Especially compared to the Spanish, who don’t seem particularly stressed out by their flexibility. Thank you for dropping by.

  8. You need to move to summer holiday land Emily, everything’s open here in August and get this…many supermarkets are open ALL DAY on SUNDAY too! Our boulangerie is open every single day of the year from 6-20h including 1st Jan, 1st May and Christmas….next holiday come to Lou Messugo and try it for yourself! I missed you last month at #AllAboutFrance, it’s the 1st one you’ve ever missed I believe! Glad you had a relaxing holiday though…we also went to Spain (and Portugal).

    1. Thank you Phoebe! I am glad I was missed, though was sorry to miss it. At least it meant that I had switched off… Yes, I think France is very different in summer holiday land. I might just take you up on your suggestion.

  9. I love all your posts. Everything is so true and easy to relate to. I understand why there’s such rigidity with mealtimes at restaurants but sometimes you just want options. Being American where everything is open all the time, learning the French timetable for everything has taken a bit of work to get used to. I too was surprised to see stores closed on Sundays in touristy areas during peak tourist season. Now I just shrug and do my best to do things at the right times. 😉 #allaboutfrance

  10. Visiting via @AllAbout France! This is one thing that regularly drove me NUTS while we were living in France. Also included were snacks – my children just tend to eat, constantly, and to keep them in a good mood I would feed them the end of my baguette, or cheerios, or fruit or something. As usually they don’t conveniently get hungry between 12 and 2! I think you know exactly the looks I would get!

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