April 8, 2016

Mundane Observations

When living abroad, as I do with my family in rural Burgundy, France, it does not take long to notice the little differences between here and home. It is only with time, however, that one begins to comprehend the cultural links in the chain. Eventually, experience and simple observation help decode the mysterious until the relationship between two seeming oddities becomes part of the social logic of a foreign land.

Take, for example, one of the ironclad rules of French life: “On ne mange pas entre les repas.” One does not eat between meals. At first glance, this dictum helps explain why, generally, French people are thinner than Americans. Imagine eliminating every muffin or bagel you snitch at during your mid-morning break at work. Wouldn’t you be able to tighten your belt an additional notch or two if you never had that “whoops-I-ate-the-whole-thing” bag of Smartfood or shared a snack with your children in the afternoon?

But there is more to it than simply eschewing edibles outside of proscribed mealtimes. The repasts themselves explain the overriding philosophy. If you ditched your bland turkey sandwich at noon in favor of an appetizer of poached eggs in red wine sauce, a main course of rosy, sliced duck breast in a honey-mustard sauce with skillet-browned potatoes and green beans, followed inexorably by a cheese course and a slice of apple tart, it would be much easier to stave off a case of the afternoon hungries.

Our journey with this seemingly innocuous maxim is not over. Because the entire population has absorbed the words and accepted them as near-Biblical truth, supermarkets, small grocery stores, and the weekly outdoor markets that dot the countryside offer astonishingly little to eat on the go. There are no hot dog carts, no hot slices of pizza, no deli counters offering made-to-order sandwiches, no little tubs of carrot sticks and hummus. Even at rest stops on the highways, one eats, seated, with metal flatware and chooses from several hot plats du jour.

The No Take Out mantra applies to drinks as well. I cannot recall ever seeing a French person perambulating with a cup of hot coffee or a bottle of water. Nobody drinks any type of beverage in the car. A Frenchman in the street almost never has his hands full.

This national empty-handedness leads to the final reality stemming from a refusal to nibble. Because one is never carrying anything disposable, there is a surprising dearth of refuse receptacles on the Burgundy landscape. Perhaps more surprising, the ones that are provided for passers-by are almost universally empty. But it makes perfect sense. If we think back to the original premise – on ne mange pas entre les repas – and then consider what goes into the trash cans on busy US streets, the differences are clear. No white butcher paper wrapping a submarine sandwich, no paper bags, no straws, no take out coffee cups, no empty Doritos bags, no foil that wrapped your egg and cheese on an English, nothing to do with food. In other words, they don’t need a trash can because they never have trash with them because they never eat between meals and, when they do eat, they eat at a table with real utensils and dishes.

What do you think? A stretch? I actually think I am right.


  1. Sadly, during our nearly 20 years of visiting France almost every year, we've seen significant degradation of these traditional precepts — especially in Paris. Now, one regularly sees people walking down the street eating. There's much more junk food advertised, available, and visibly consumed. And portion sizes, même dans les patisseries artisanale, have grown noticeably. But we rue these changes deeply.

  2. As a visitor here, it can at times be difficult for me to witness "modern" life intrude and change the habits of the locals. But, at the same time, I understand. After all, the Internets are cool...and so is a lot of world culture, no matter the downsides. I guess for me, the differences between here and home remain pronounced. Take McDo for example. It is wildly popular here...but the restaurants are also empty outside of meal times here in the countryside. No one scarfs a Value Meal at 3pm; it simply is not done. See what I mean? France, like everywhere in our era, is finding it harder and harder to hang on to the past. But some things remain a deep part of the culture. Lunch is from 12-2...never before nor after. A big difference from USA, where we are always eating! I try to appreciate those traditions and focus less on the changes I don't like. Not sure how intellectually honest that is of me, but it keeps me sane and optimistic! Thanks as always for reading.

  3. Well observed !
    Thxs for this blog. I'm too entangled in my own cultural habits to be able to observe them from a distance. So, I let you do it for me. Let me just tell you that the result is full of finesse. Bravo and thank you, I wish you the best in your new life in Burgundy.

  4. Thanks, Gwenn. Hope you'll keep reading.


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