Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment
Part 9: Sofas versus Dinner Tables
(which side are you on?)

It is quite a while now since I left France, but I am continuing to live with it in more ways than one. England, is (still) France's great traditional rival and enemy, and although in many respects the English way of life is alarmingly familiar to me, it also serves to remind me of things that I had stopped noticing in France.

When T. and I first arrived in this charming city that we will (for the sake of poetic license) call Winter-upon-Myre, we went in search of a flat to rent. In Europe of course (apparently I am not currently living in Europe) a large proportion of normal citizens live in rented accommodation for many years rather than buying property. This is not at all the case in England, where homes and castles famously correspond (with the exception of London where anyone normal can no longer afford to do more than rent a part-share of a broom closet). No, in Winter-upon-Myre rental properties are generally destined for students, a transient population who haven't yet learnt better. Students and, of course, foreigners like ourselves.

So there we were, in an icy downpour that lasted two weeks in mid Summer, looking for a flat to rent. The main problem was not the weather, nor the flats themselves, but the furniture; and furnished these flats almost all were. Just imagine a small sitting-room with an enormous sofa and two large sagging armchairs, with beerstains, and a low corner stand evidently intended for a TV... Quoth T., his eyes widening with horror "But... where do zey eat? Zis iss not posseeble! Zere iss no room for a dining table!" (except that as we were speaking in French he didn't have a funny accent at all; this is just a touch of cheap comedy for which I trust you will forgive me). The fact remains: these flats had been furnished, and very thoroughly furnished, with no remaining space for a dining table. "So... 'ow do zeze Eenglish people eat?" we wondered and a terrible vision sprang to our minds in reply: evidently it would take only a few of the large pallid people we had been observing in the street to fill up that enormous sagging sofa, and with a packet of chips in one hand, a beer in the other and the TV on in front of them they would never feel the lack of a dining table.

How close T. came to packing his bags and heading straight home to France in those first weeks of rain and anglophobia I may never know. Suffice it to say that by August the weather had improved to resemble a bright, chilly Winter's day in Sydney and we had found a delightful, sparsely furnished flat. But I want to come back to that sofa, the chips and the beer... (With a rapid aside: when I said chips I was speaking Strine or French ("des chips"), since chips in this country are only hot chips ("des frites", usually served with greasy battered fish) and Aussie packet chips are crisps. Got that?) So to come back to these English students and their staple diet of crisps... The point is that no French student could live like that. I am convinced that 99.9% of English students would rather live without a dining table than without a sofa; the opposite would be true in France. ... how are they ever going to create a real European community if they can't even agree on the furniture?

Food is important in France -- you have all heard that before. Food is an art, sure. But what does that actually mean for the great majority of French people, who can't afford to eat in the Tour d'Argent? Well, in fact -- rather a lot. It is not just that they are capable of talking about food for hours on end; food is fundamental for the French. Food is a source of pleasure and nutrition; it also gives meaning and structure to life. Eating is an activity of high symbolic value.

Food is an inexhaustible topic of conversation. I have heard normal, healthy French people talk about vinaigrettes for as long, and with as much emotion, as English people talking about soap operas. Never mind the wine and cheese! It is also a daily timetable: people are reunited with their families, friends or colleagues at set times, each day, around a table. Arguably this is no longer as true in Paris as it used to be; there are more and more shops selling frozen food, and people have less time for the long, serious weektime lunches of yesteryear. But Toulouse, and the South-West of France in general, still claims the prize for the longest daily lunch breaks: about two hours.

Since meals give rhythm to the day, French people very rarely nibble or eat outside mealtimes. In the streets of Winter-upon-Myre one sees people eating at any hour of the day, sometimes even as they walk in the street. This is rare in France. Nibbling might indeed be part of French tradition, but generally only to accompany the "apéritif" when dinner is going to be later than usual, and alcohol definitely plays the dominant part on such occasions. Perhaps the sacredness of mealtimes could help to explain why the French, who invented the chocolate éclair, roquefort, camembert and béchamel sauce, nevertheless have a far lower proportion of obesity than the so-called "Anglo-Saxon" countries.

Not only do meals regulate the day, they normally have an internal rhythm, a punctuation of sorts, as well. Lunch and dinner should normally have an entrée, a main course and cheese or desert, to which might be added the apéritif before the entrée and salad after the cheese; on special occasions there might be several main dishes. Now you may well be thinking that this resembles formal "Anglo-Saxon" practice and no doubt only traditionalist French families, or those belonging to a cultural elite, do this every day. Not so.

I still remember with embarrassment one of my early conversation classes at the University of Toulouse, which is not (in case you had any lingering doubts) in the least an establishment reserved for France's social or cultural elite. After a discussion of English food and eating habits, I tried to get my students to confess that these ritualistic French mealtimes were something that they associated with parental constraint. -- Now that you are living away from "home", in the big city, flatting alone or with friends, surely you don't have a separate entrée at the beginning of every meal? I asked them. And these kids -- 18 or 19 years old -- looked at me with pity and said (kindly but firmly): Of course we do: food tastes better that way.

Of course, despite these reassuring signs of cultural resistance, MacDonalds ("le Macdo") is having more and more success among young people in France. My young students assured me that it was just a fun outing and not a real replacement for meals. Perhaps someone should advise MacDonalds' marketing department that what they really need to do is to introduce a special "French formula": "McEntree" followed by "McDish", with a special "McCheese" before "McDesert"?

Jennifer Yee