You’re tooling down the road and notice that quite often you pass parking areas, some merely roadside pull-offs, others small picnic areas complete with tables and trash receptacles. Then you begin to notice something else.
Every day, around 11:30 to 11:45, cars and trucks begin to pull off in a dash to snag a space to park. Rows of big rigs pull over, park, engines idling. Cars, some with a single driver, others with entire families swing off the road, claiming a table and unloading table cloths, baskets or sacks of food, maybe a bottle of wine.
It is Lunch Time in France. Everything stops.
We’re talking EVERYTHING; office buildings, banks, mom-and-pop shops, and chain stores. If you are standing in a queue at the bank, next in line when the clock strikes 12, you know without even asking that you will be told to come back at 2. Oh, there are big chain grocery stores, usually found on the outskirts of town, that remain open. Almost everything else is going to shut down at noon and won’t be open again until 2, maybe 1:30 if you’re looking to conduct a little commerce and you’re lucky. So you might as well have lunch too, cause there’s nothing else to do. In fact, we’ve been run out of museums on more than one occasion when Lunch Time arrived and we were told, “Time to leave. You can come back at 2.”
The French take lunch very seriously. It is an integral part of daily life in France. While the American curse of eating something at your desk while running in place at work may have crept in to the lives of people in the office towers of Paris, Toulouse, or other major cities, outside of town Lunch is still observed in The French Way. Which is to say, they DINE.
Some folks settle for a sandwich, and some boulangeries remain open to sell bread and prepared sandwiches. In bigger towns there is…horrors…often a McDonalds, pronounced Mac-d’NALDs, which still seems to be something of an exotic treat. But mostly, it is a full-blown sit down lunch with multiple courses–something we learned years ago in the very first minutes of our very first visit to France.
Shortly after checking into our room we headed for a brasserie. We were young! We were in love! We were starving! We were foolish! We ordered the daily special!
A large plate of charcuterie and baguettes arrived. We discovered the magic of rillettes, and devoured everything on the plate, as my father would say, like a pair of starving Armenians. We sat back feeling full, happy and sated.
And that’s when the chicken arrived.
A one-half, roast chicken.
That is when we discovered we had only dealt with the appetizer; chicken was the main course. All of this was complicated by the fact that the appetizer in France is called the entree, whereas what we call the entree is called the plat. We were pretty embarrassed by our ignorance.
But wait, there’s more! Dessert was coming.
This is pretty much the pattern for a French Lunch, and you need to keep that timetable top of mind, because just as surely as there is a Time For Lunch, there is a corresponding time when it is Not Time For Lunch, and that would be right after 1:30 to 2pm, when the restaurants close and France gets back to business.
There is no such thing as a late lunch in France. You don’t decide to walk into a restaurant at 2:30 or 3, because restaurants aren’t open. In fact, that window is so tight that if you enter a small restaurant at 1:30 hoping to get seated, you may very well be told, “Sorry, we’re not taking any more customers, we’re closing at 2.” This is the voice of experience talking.
It sounds extreme but it actually turns out to be a pretty smart way of eating, because that lunch is often the big meal of the day, and it is followed by a return to activity. Then instead of a large evening dinner, you can get away with something light. I’ve actually been able to lose some weight with that kind of eating schedule.
So, the restaurants are all closed by 2, and because the French dine later than we are used to, restaurants aren’t open again until about 7, and they don’t expect people to start showing up until around 8 pm. But in that window, starting about 4 pm, give or take because there appear to be no set rules on this, and continuing until, well, God knows when, there occurs time for yet another uniquely French event called apero.
It can happen at any time in the late afternoon. It can happen when you least expect it. Sometimes it comes in the form of a one word question to everyone present; sometimes it is an announcement: Apero! Suddenly things start appearing on the table: salty snacks, sausage, baguette, all manner of finger foods, and adult beverages of a particular kind: aperitifs like Pernod or Ricard, Suze, vin rosé, beer. If it is a group setting, as it was when we were staying at La Boulaie, everyone breaks to neutral corners and returns with whatever they have. It’s a sort of spontaneous party, and it happens, well, a lot. In fact it happens so often (and we now have our own place, so it’s expected that we will be capable of producing apero at the drop of a hat just like anyone else) that we need to keep a supply of apero-appropriate goodies and beverages on hand at all times.
It is a genuinely charming feature of life here, completely natural and part of the wonderful tempo of life. Funny, too, because of the way in which it is just so normal. One afternoon at chez Anthony I was wrapping up a brief visit—a visit that had already involved one obligatory glass of wine–and was headed for the door when Anthony got a phone call. He said to me, “My mother is on her way over and she says we should do apero, so you have to have another glass of wine.” It is one of the burdens one must learn to bear when living here.