14 Jul 2010

Two-Hour Twilight

One of the most striking of French 'oddities' encountered on French soil by the foreign visitor (or the native back home after years spent abroad!) will be the time and importance given to meal times, and especially the noon till two break, where everything comes to a standstill. I call this the two-hour twilight.

Bar the welfare depts that now tend to be open through lunch, local government institutions (town halls, municipal libraries, public baths, etc.), banks, post offices, civil service institutions (job centres, tax offices, préfecture, etc.), offices, surgeries, shop floors, shops and garages are all closed for the best part of two hours. Bakeries and grocery stores will tend to give a 30-minute window or so, enabling people straight out of the workplace to buy their baguette or last-minute essentials before heading home for lunch.

Yet, sign of the changing times (and a blessing for some customers), most branded chain stores and supermarkets will be open. And of course so will cafés and restaurants, only too pleased to capitalise on the opportunity to cater for the stranded workers on their daily two-hour lunch break but unable or unwilling to nip back home for a quick bite and a nap.

In some areas of town, this extended lunchtime break can spell tough luck for employees, especially if there is no canteen, the local amenities are closed, and you rely on public transport. What do you do with your time? Once again you cannot exactly run errands or catch up with personal paperwork, if this involves a trip to the local bank. You can always do some of it by phone, I suppose, that is if you are indulgent of call centres, and they are able to assist with your request.

Although I approve of the importance of proper breaks, especially from a worker's viewpoint, I am wondering whether it wouldn't be more beneficial for all parties concerned (workers, customers, the general public) and for business if, while retaining the format of the two-hour lunchtime break, the workplace actually remained open for business, but employees took their break in turn.

With this 'business as usual' formula, like we have in Britain, service is uninterrupted and everybody gets served. Company employees and customers alike can get things done at lunchtime, whether it be personal errands or business dealings. And the business benefits too.

But maybe where I am missing the point altogether is that the French two-hour lunch break is a sacrosanct tradition, and that it should be seen for what it means in the first place: purely dedicated to meal time, food and rest. My perception is probably altered by the fact that I have lived in England so long, I have become more pragmatic and rushed off my feet than my French counterparts!

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