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March 16, 2011 | by  | in Online Only |
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Fuck Yeah I’m in France: Getting Shit Done


Photo by Gary Barker

The first thing you learn when you come to France is that the French, for everything that they are, certainly are not an efficient people. Unfortunately for me, this lesson was learnt on my very first day in France, when, having just dragged my wheelie suitcase halfway across town from the train station to the university, I was struck by the Curse of the European Lunch-Break.

Contrary to the idea we have in New Zealand of running errands during your lunch-break, in many European countries the lunch break really is just a time for eating lunch. In Spain they sleep, in Italy they head home for lunch with the family, and in France they simply close up shop. And by ‘close up shop’ I mean, quite literally, that between the hours of 12pm and 2pm all shops, banks, pharmacies, offices, universities and post offices close. You are forced, by these sheer limited opening hours alone, to take a break and just… well… have lunch. And god forbid if you try to do anything else.

One time, for example, a friend and I (forced to do so because everything else was closed) were having a coffee at a cafe sometime between 12-2pm. When we went to pay the bill, there was an awkward moment when we realised that every single staff-member had stopped for lunch, and were now all giving us the evils and willing us to go away, wondering how we could be so inconsiderate as to want to pay while they were eating. In fact, there is a post office near my house that is open each day from 8am-10am, and then again from 3-5.30pm. This means, that with a 5-hour lunch break in its 9.5-hours between open and close, the post office is CLOSED for more hours each day than it is OPEN. The other day I managed to post three parcels there; I threw them onto the counter and ran out the doors, scared that they’d be forced to close before I’d even managed to utter ‘Bonjour’.

And so it was that I found myself, on my first day in France, standing outside a locked and very abandoned-looking international students’ office at some time between 12-2pm. Shit. I was at a total loss. I had no idea where I was living, was suffering from severe sleep-deprivation and couldn’t communicate very effectively with anyone. Not yet familiar with the Opening-Hour Curse, I assumed that the office simply mustn’t have opened yet for the year. So, after sitting down and having a wee cry, followed by a self-motivational pep-talk, I dragged my suitcase all the way back to the train station, bought a phone card and called the international students’ office.

“Hi, I’m an exchange student, I’ve just arrived in France and I was just at the office but it was closed.”

“Closed? What? No. We’re open. Of course we’re open. We’re all here. See you soon.”

The second lesson you’ll learn in France is that the French either proudly defend, or are incredibly indifferent to the – at times crippling – inefficiency of their way of life. Some French will sing to you the many praises of doing nothing at lunchtimes, all-day Sunday and half of Monday (when shops are also shut), such as reducing stress of workers and creating more days for enforced family-time. Others will simply offer you one of two all-purpose, fail-safe, “I don’t care about your problems, foreigner” responses. These are “C’est pas grave” (Don’t worry about it) and “C’est la France” (That’s France).

“Why do I have to wait ten days before the bank will open my account, and then another five before they send me a letter with a code which I then have to take to the bank – but not between 12-2pm – to retrieve my bank card? I can’t wait that long, I have no money left!”

“C’est pas grave.”

“Why has our class inexplicably moved not only to a different room, but also is now going to be taught on a different day AND at a different time, but only for two weeks, after which it changes again?!”

“C’est la France”

But with each day of living here, this French way of life seems a little more natural. Sitting down to have lunch or a coffee (takeaway coffee doesn’t exist here) seems much nicer than their on-run-equivalents; learning to come back after 2pm is a little less grating, and even my stomach has begun to align its hunger with the daily lock-down.

I’ve even begun to regularly utter “C’est pas grave” instead of getting worried when something goes wrong. If anything, “C’est la France” is always a faster and easier option than attempting to explain the inexplicable. Maybe the French aren’t so inefficient, after all.

Until next time, c’est la France!

For more regular updates of my adventures in La Rochelle and beyond, follow www.frenchletter.tumblr.com

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  1. Vic OE says:

    Want to do an exchange to Spain? Find out how at http://www.victoria.ac.nz/exchange to learn about the Vic OE programme!

    Molly, we hope the French style of living (and administration) becomes more routine to you soon. Always tricky at the start but you’ll be amazing at efficiently getting things done by the end because you have to watch office and shop opening hours ;) Relax and enjoy a French pastry at a cafe for us. Keep writing, we love reading your blog :)

    Clare & Fiona (Vic OE)

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