I still moved here recently enough that I spend lots of time in social settings looking to my left and right to see how other people are doing even the littlest things. Which hand are they holding their knife in? Is their napkin on the table or in their lap? I don’t underestimate the importance of small cultural norms. I know that the faster I adapt to the little things that French people in their vie quotidienne (daily life), the faster I can fit in like a regular. Think about how important it is in America. If someone doesn’t know coffee shop culture or what to do when picking out produce at the grocery store (in France, there’s a person in the produce dept. that weighs your produce and puts a sticker on it like they’d do at the deli in an American grocery store), it can be annoying for everyone in that space.
In the past few weeks, I’ve taken mental notes on how to navigate grocery store culture, bank culture, bike lane/ pedestrian culture, bakery/ café culture, classroom culture, and teacher’s room/ break time culture.
One such adventure has been navigating French school lunches. For €3, I get a salad, huge plate of meat/ potatoes/ veggies, bread, fruit, cheese, yogurt, and coffee. The problem is… every other person in the teacher’s room clears their entire plate every day! It is an incredible feat to watch. They manage to maintain lively conversations while daintily shoveling food in their mouths. Today, I was determined to pace myself with the women at my table. I finished my salad at the same time as them and started working on my ham/ potatoes/ peas (which were all covered in a thick cream sauce). That’s where they lost me. Each one of them ate it all and then mopped up the rest of the cream sauce with their bread. WHAT? Where did it all go?? I surrendered with some ham left and started on my yogurt and cheese. There was NO room left in my stomach for a whole banana, but I went for it. I had three classes after lunch, but all I wanted was to take a nap!
Of course, women in France don’t snack, but I hadn’t been snacking either! Shockingly, they are all stick thin. Of course, I’m not the first one to notice this puzzling phenomenon. Mireille Guiliano acknowledges it in hilarious ways in French Women Don’t Get Fat. And Pamela Druckerman talks at length about French school lunches in her own memoir, Bringing Up Bébé. Their insights remind me that as an American living in France, I am not alone.
For a girl whose lunches throughout college consisted of to-go containers of hummus and pretzels while sitting in the International Programs office, daily Christmas dinner for lunch kind of makes me want to vomit. En fait, if copious amounts of delicious French food is my greatest cultural battle, I’d say I’m winning.