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Taking Long Lunches in France

Lunch in France
One of many lunch options in France, where food is enjoyed slowly.

I was a New Yorker. It was normal to sit in close quarters with colleagues at work during lunch hour and discreetly consume a mixed salad that I bought at the café that was a part of the lobby within the office building. I thought it was standard to rush to work and then sit for the first hour reading the news. I thought all of this was normal until one birthday I arrived at my desk only to see a piece of cake left for me on my chair, while my colleagues sat fixated at their computers. I worked in a tense and awkward environment, with my coworkers too within their bubbles to lift their eyes for a moment and even wish me happy birthday. In that moment, I wondered if I would ever find a place that would pause to celebrate life.  

Transitions

In 2009, I moved to a historic town 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Paris, France. At first, stereotypes about the French were in the forefront of my mind, I experienced culture shock, and even moments of tears. Only after living in the country for some time did I start to see the wide array of cultural colors shine though.

When I arrived in France, I did not speak any French. I would spend days dedicated to French lessons and working at an international school in the afternoons. In between, I would struggle with the metro system, walk endlessly, only to make it home to inhale lunch. I would turn around quickly to bike to the office, all so that my school-lunch-work commute would take up less than an hour.

My boyfriend, now my époux (husband), would laugh and say, “No one is checking, chill out, relax a few minutes…” Out of personal habit, I thought that I was being a responsible and diligent person. Anyway, how could I deserve an extra few minutes when everyone else must be expecting me back at work?

Learning to Work to Live

The same personal habits and attitude started to come to my attention when I would collaborate with my French colleagues, whom I accidentally offended on a regular basis with butchered and politically incorrect French phraseology. Only through hearing rumors did I realize that what I thought was an honorable work ethic on my part was so intense that they actually thought I was working to get them fired or steal their jobs. I felt that my coworkers did not understand that I just wanted to help and do the most I possibly could. In France, my behavior could be interpreted as a threat, while in New York it would have been positively reinforced.

In New York City, you do not go to bed at night wishing to dream about the kudos your boss has given you for going above and beyond your job requirements. You do those things in New York because there is so much intense competition; there are real threats in the concrete jungle and you need to stand out and keep watch to ensure that no lions come into your camp at night. When you overcome that sense of fear and actually get to know your colleagues, not just for the reports they produce, but for the interests you share and support you give one another, your work environment takes on another light.

What took me some time to realize in France is that it is fine to do what’s necessary at the office, but then go home and live, not just un petit peu (a little bit), but beaucoup (a lot). The French work to live — by earning enough to take their once-in-a-lifetime vacations each and every year, even if that means they save every centime by cutting back. Many will spend 25 days in Tahiti, where they will snorkel a minimum of 12 times, and may come back with a tribal tattoo.

Working Hard, Living Slow in France

In France, when you arrive in the morning you actually dive right into your day, work like mad without a second to spare for a glance at your phone or the news online, and pack up at 5 p.m., quite satisfied and with nothing to prove. In the middle of the workday, you pause for a long lunch. Sometimes those long lunches are around tiny tables with colleagues where you order a menthe à l’eau (mint-flavored water) as an apéritif, followed by three courses and a café. I am lucky to share offices with my husband, and that our apartment is a pleasant 4-minute walk away. We are able to walk back to chez nous (our place) to make a sandwich and sit in our garden on a sunny day. In France, we can exhale and have daily periods where we reconnect with our lives. We do not remain completely and perpetually connected to our professional lives. Where our first lunches in France were eaten in haste, today I have learned to cherish time slowed down.

Long lunch in France
Pausing for a long déjeuner is normale.

Taking a long déjeuner is not only totally accepted, but encouraged. A French child rarely goes to school with a box of processed foods or a bag of snacks. Children will often actually return home, on their trotinettes (scooters), to share a real meal with their family, since meals are a sacred moment in the day. Perhaps you sit on a park bench, or go to a local tearoom; even the most basic moments in daily life are a way to step away and breathe. Delis exist but are more rare than in New York City, for example, and should you opt for something preparé, the boulangerie will delicately wrap your baguette sandwiche, as well as a chocolate treat or pâtisserie (pastry), with a pretty bow. And during a lazy Sunday afternoon, you can serve poulet rôti (roasted chicken) with some grainy mustard on pretty china and voila, you instantly have an elaborate 3-hour picnic luncheon.

At the end of our workday, we meander around the town center and spend just as much time filling a small shopping bag as we would a large cart in the U.S. However, instead of aimlessly perusing aisles full of unnecessary marketing campaigns or hopping around for the best prices, we are at a food source, hearing tales from the fromager about where our cheese was produced, or the boucher carefully preparing meat while detailing his favorite recipe. We buy a dozen oranges to squeeze our own juice, choosing the experience and taste versus the convenient alternative. We may not have as great a quantity of merchandise to show for the shopping trip, but we gain so much more in quality by slowing our pace and opening our senses.

Going to the market in France
Going to the market in France is a sensory experience not to be missed.

Making Friends in France

Making friends was particularly difficult as a foreigner at the start of my French adventure. I was told early on that Americans were “superficial,” which is fair enough as some Americans think that French are “snobby,” but was still a little offended by this notion. My best attempts at conversation did not get much response. No one really contributed to the conversation, nor did my French acquaintances open up much other than to speak about generic subjects. In my experience in the U.S., we would have been best friends after sharing the type of conversations I attempted to initiate. We may have even shared our entire life stories and finished with a hug. 

Over time, I learned that the French are very selective about whom they allow as a friend, and that friendship does not come in as many forms as in the U.S. In France, you have fewer acquaintances or friends. You socialize and take the time to develop genuine and deep friendships, such that when they bloom, they last a lifetime. Less superficial, perhaps. Once I started nurturing relationships and investing in them, by having rendezvous over tea, for example, more French women actually opened up and reciprocated. When I have a birthday at work now, I not only receive many homemade cakes, but bisous (kisses) throughout the day from people who are genuinely happy to have something to celebrate. When getting to know someone in France you generally do not just grab a drink together at the bar on the way to another bar to meet another friend, but actually invite them to your home. You then will often host, invite them to your dinner table, and converse for hours about previous, upcoming, and dream vacations over a bottle of Bourgogne wine, along with homemade moelleux au chocolat. The friends I have made in this way remain, and it is a testament to how I prefer to build relationships going forward.

The adventure of such a new life, where you learn to slow down and focus on a connection with the people around you, often helps reorient your compass based upon personal and not just professional values. Having experienced such immersion, I have become a global citizen who sees the world differently, who appreciates long walks and longer lunches, who tries to connect with people in a deeper manner, while not just interacting with projected personas. I hope to have many cups of tea with new friends, or impromptu glasses of bubbly while shopping in the grands magasins, pauses in a park with a box of macrons for no good reason at all… because savoring every little moment, c’est la vie!

Katie Hunter is a New Yorker who grew up in a haunted house in the "upstate" countryside who hopped the pond with her French-American husband in 2009 to live 20 km (12 miles) west of Paris where she learned the language from scratch. She has since traveled to 25+ countries, transforming her into a true global citizen thanks to the multitude of faces, colors, sites, smells, sounds, tastes and interactions that she has lived and cherished. She likes to think outside of the box and travel in the same spirit, as many trips have been off the beaten path, connecting with the local communities in a sustainable way.

Related Topics
Living in the France: Articles and Resources
 
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