It’s been almost one month since I swapped cobbled streets and late night library sessions for the treelined avenues and post-work apéritifs of Paris, and so far I have learnt a few lessons whilst settling into the city:
- You don’t actually speak better French when you’re drunk, but you think you do and sometimes that’s just as effective.
- As stereotypical as it is to admit, catching a glimpse of the Eiffel tower from the window of your flat never gets old.
- French people don’t really care to talk about Brexit, because they have far more important things on their mind.
I always knew that working full time as an intern in a big city was going to be a completely different experience to studying in Oxford, but one of the biggest cultural differences I have experienced was first presented to me in the most unexpected way: an unassuming booklet of vouchers that was handed to me on my first day at the office. I was told that these were my Ticket Restaurant: a booklet of vouchers, entitling me to seven Euros worth of food every work day at any restaurant, café or supermarket. At the time, I saw this as a fortunate perk of the job, but I soon realised how such a seemingly inconsequential thing is reflective of the French mind-set and attitude to food.
In Oxford, lunch usually involved crossing the corridor between my college library and hall, grabbing something to eat and staying seated for the absolute minimum time necessary; until I finish my food, or until the guilt, for abandoning my essay becomes too overwhelming. Lunch is usually spent with students in a similar position to me, who all have something important to be getting back to. Often, lunch is wolfed down in hurried bites between pages read or sentences typed, and scrambled together out of a mismatched leftovers to save the time and money needed for a trip to Tesco.
This attitude to food is by no means something exclusive to Oxford. It is reflected around the country, as eating “al desko” is increasingly common around the UK. But in France, the fact that every full-time employee is given access to a free lunch outside the office places an importance on taking time out of your day to eat, and to eat well. Even though I’ve gone from attending a few contact hours a day at university to working 9 to 5, my lunchtimes have never felt so relaxed. The culture of eating a proper meal (usually two courses), and physically being away from work, turns lunch breaks into a real retreat away from the stresses of the office. It’s even reflected in the language: the English “break” implies a break away from work, a brief distraction. The French “pause” reflects the idea of putting everything on hold for that one hour in the middle of the day.
My new-found love for lunch breaks has been one of the biggest and most pleasantly surprising cultural differences of my year abroad so far, and I haven’t even started talking about the food. On that front, all I can say is that French cuisine does live up to the hype, I’ve eaten bread with every meal and have yet to go a day without eating some sort of pastry from one of the many patisseries that can be found on every street corner of the city. Now I just need to discover the French secret to eating well without putting on weight; although I’d happily accept an expanding waistline as collateral damage.