Column: Long Live Long Lunches in France

Sunday, July 26, 2015
Like nearly everyone with roots in Norwich, I have long known the operating hours of Dan and Whit’s General Store. If it is between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., the store is open, except on Thanksgiving and Christmas days, when the doors shut at 11:59 a.m. The certainty plays a major role in Dan and Whit’s being such an anchor in the center of town. Residents can fearlessly start a cooking, carpentry or craft project, secure in the knowledge that D&W’s will be open if they need anchovies, sandpaper or quilt thread. Sure, you’ll have to make some small talk with other residents while making your purchase, but that is a small price to pay for the guarantee that your project — professional or personal — will go forward. 

Naturally, the store isn’t open just for convenience. Like stores and businesses around the Upper Valley and across the country, the team at Dan and Whit’s understands that no business has ever made a dollar by being closed. Over the decades, American commerce has responded to customers’ desires to get what they want when they want with ferocious efficacy. Everything is seemingly open all the time. It never occurred to me to think about this reality, much less question it, before I moved to rural Burgundy, France, where I have been living for the past 18 months.

I explain to my French friends that in the U.S., as long as there is the possibility that one person with one dollar in his pocket might come into a store, the store is open.

Rhythms here are fixed in an entirely different manner, and it can be both charming (a sign that says a store is only open by appointment because the owner is “waiting for a happy event,” which I guess means she is pregnant) and infuriating (the sporting goods store is closed exceptionnellement on a Tuesday).

Consider a simple question of vocabulary. On days they are not working, Americans tend to say they have or are taking the day off. Oftentimes, this is the day for tackling all the neglected tasks in non-work life: buying a birthday present, getting an oil change, picking up a new pair of shoelaces, or weeding the garden.

In the French countryside, by contrast, a day off is called une journée de repos, or a day of rest. Ponder for a moment just how different those two mentalities are. Rather than checking items furiously off their to-do lists, Burgundians, instead, rest.

It can be difficult for this American to grasp just exactly what they need rest from. A standard business in my town of Arnay-le-Duc is open from 10-12 and 2-7. That’s correct: all businesses are closed between the hours of noon and 2 p.m. for the sacred observance of lunch. This means, of course, that shopkeepers need to open and close their businesses twice each day instead of once. Shops are closed on Sunday and Monday, even in high tourist season.

It took me at least six months to internalize this rhythm, but now, when the clock strikes noon, I know that there is no hope of doing anything other than eating for the next two hours. There are worse punishments in life.

Because hiring staff is complicated, time-consuming, and wildly costly, most small businesses here consist of one to three employees. For a sole proprietor like Emmanuel, who owns the local wine shop/cafe, this means that when he is on vacation, his store is closed. (Everyone from the cashier to the pediatrician takes five weeks of annual vacation; it is French law.) His business, in other words, makes zero euros for 104 Sundays and Mondays, 11 national holidays and 25 vacation days, or 140 out of 365 days, nearly 40 percent of the year.

In France, his situation is normal. To French people, Dan and Whit’s is pas normale.

I confess that this can be exasperating. There are any number of good ideas that are thwarted under this system. When the rain lifted on a recent Sunday afternoon, our thoughts turned to a barbecue. Sadly, because we had not planned ahead, we had no charcoal or chicken legs. Every store within an hour’s drive was shuttered closed. No barbecue. On more than one occasion I have found myself pulling on a locked post office door, my letters to mail in one hand, momentarily baffled until I realize it is 12:15 p.m. I will need to come back after 2. Not long ago, the main branch office of our bank was closed from Friday until Tuesday, making depositing a check impossible. Because we cannot deposit checks at the ATM, the bank was unable to take our money for four consecutive days.

But there are also undeniable advantages to this way of living. When the church bells toll at high noon, one feels all activity cease. Whether in their dining room or around an outside terrace table, the people of Burgundy — including this family of Americans — have paused in their day to break bread together. They sit and eat with their families, enjoying pâtés, escargots, crudités, boeuf bourguignon, Époisses or any other of the dozens of regional specialties. They will drink a glass of wine or a goblet of sparkling water and talk about the weather, politics, the national education system, the outlook for this year’s wine harvest, and, of course, the food they are eating, will eat or have eaten. They will let the modern world’s workers fret and panic as they scarf a sandwich at their desk.

These people may be following an antiquated tradition whose days are numbered, with long lunches and state-mandated vacations soon to join the Cape Verde giant skink and the Japanese river otter on the timeline of extinctions.

Or, they may be continuing to do what they have done since time immemorial, unthreatened by the evolution of the world around them, comfortable in their way of life and certain that it will outlast all that the 21st century throws at them.

I hope it is the latter.

Mark Lilienthal was a speechwriter for former Massachusetts governor Deval L. Patrick. He posts regularly about living in France at

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