FRENCH MYTH: The French assign a lot of value to meals, taking hours for lunch and dinner, and talking into the night. Food is served in courses (anywhere from three to twelve), and slowly savored. Being fully present is important, as is making good conversation.
FRENCH REALITY: At least with my Quebecois family, the myth is stunningly correct.
Ever since I arrived in Quebec City, I’ve been noting the differences between Francophone and American culture. The most obvious one is the language, but many others exist; ones that I expected, and ones that have really surprised me. First off, I understood that French is spoken Quebec City. But it didn’t hit me that these people actually speak French until I spent an entire day without hearing English spoken (outside our classroom, that is, where English is very much alive – and being used to ask, “How do you say _____ in French?).
There’s also the lovely reality of a million little shops replacing Walmart. You want a journal? Go to the Stationary store. You need a book? Duck into a small, dusty, crammed with French tomes bookshop. Meat? The Butcher. Shoes? The leather store. No megamarts or gigantic grocery stores to be found. I love it.
Now, I’ve read a lot about France and French culture. Memoirs, histories, guidebooks, you name it. So I was prepared for the little stores, and the casual treatment of sexuality, and the importance of saying bonjour to everyone. I was also prepared for the way the family meal is treated; living it, however, is a whole different story.
Here’s how it works: each night, everyone has naturally congregated in the kitchen a good thirty minutes before the meal is ready, to chat and catch up and just…enjoy the atmosphere? My host mother is cooking, but in a relaxed and comfortable way, taking her time and never letting the food keep her from being present. We sip tea, set the table…and then it’s time to eat! We start with some sort of appetizer course – either a soup (we eat a lot of soup) or a little salad, which usually takes about fifteen or twenty minutes to finish, since we’re all laughing and talking. What we’re laughing and talking about I couldn’t tell you, but somehow it just HAPPENS. The magic of the french dinner table, I suppose.
Then the main course (a small portion on a large plate) is doled out, and we spend at least another forty minutes enjoying that. Yet again, not sure what we do for the better part of an hour, especially since the actual food is about a third of what I usually consume. Side note: walking around four miles a day + way less food = guaranteed weight loss. And then there’s dessert! Fruit for me, and a petite slice of a tart or a few sweet crackers for everyone else, along with a a pot of tea. Another thirty minutes to an hour is passed sipping tea and talking and laughing some more (I love how much I laugh here!).
When the conversation naturally dies down, it’s usually been about two hours, and even then, Courtney and I stay at the table, writing in our journals, playing a long game of chess, and drinking copious amounts of tea.
I know it’s partially because I have far less to do, but I am completely enamored by this pace of life.