A lesson from French school cafeterias to our dinner tables this holiday season.
My French friends tried to understand my frustration. In a year like 2020, we’re all in the same boat more or less, they said. I was FaceTiming with these dear acquaintances and complaining to them about my recent underwhelming holidays plans. I looked at them, cuddled up and cozy in their home in the south of France with their cat, their newborn baby, their wine collection, and each other, and suddenly felt they couldn’t quite relate to the depressing tale of my first solo Thanksgiving.
But you, beloved French Collective members, you who predominantly reside in California....surely you need no further context to understand the hardships of which I speak. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on, cases have spiked over the last few weeks out here. This means that, for most of us, we had to make adjustments to our yearly Thanksgiving traditions. For some, this meant staying put instead of traveling home to a different city or state; for others, it meant having fewer family members or friends around the table than usual.
For me, it meant canceling a trip down south to stay with friends and making a big bowl of stuffing to eat all on my own.
Pigging out and pouring myself another glass of slightly chilled Beaujolais wasn’t so much the problem. It was knowing that, while most of us were feeling a little lonelier than usual on Turkey Day, not all of us were. Because the increase in COVID patients could be linked in part to people still going home for the holidays. Yes, quite a few Americans seem to have insisted on having their pumpkin pie and eating it, too. At the same dinner table with the same big group of people, just as they’ve done year after year, global meltdown or not.
As interesting as it would be to turn up the heat on the American politics simmering below this surface here, I think it better suits our purpose to zoom out and look at the 2020 holiday season from a French perspective. Because France and other French-speaking countries have holidays like Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s on the horizon, too. Holidays synonymous with large gatherings, travel, eating and drinking indoors, and all other sorts of seemingly normal activities turned on their head by this pandemic. And although citizens are waiting on the final word of what their holidays will look like - in France, there’s talk of loosening current “confinement” restrictions starting December 15th, but still enforcing a curfew throughout the season - most know that whatever rules they are asked to follow will be obeyed, in general, by all.
When conversing with my friends in the south of France, they mentioned how more rural regions of France - “villages where there are more cows than people” - struggled to understand why they had to follow the same strict restrictions as big cities like Paris and Marseille. But they did so, nonetheless. This imagery of quiet villagers staying within a kilometer radius of their home and only going out for essential services reminded me, oddly enough, of a lesson I learned in a Parisian school cafeteria.
I arrived in the French capital in August of 2007 to teach English at a local primary school. Out of the many cultural lessons I would learn while there, perhaps none were as flagrant as those I absorbed during the two-hour-long lunch hours. These long breaks seemed fabulous at first, but soon, bored out of my mind and ready to either head back to my apartment or teach my next class, I asked a French colleague to explain why such a long midday break was necessary.
“The children not eating in the cafeteria need time to go home for lunch,” she responded coolly.
When I asked her why children would go home for lunch, she began to list off the many different allergies and dietary restrictions that would prohibit certain children from eating what was served at the canteen. There were also those good-old-fashioned helicopter parents who wanted to make sure their children were eating as healthy as possible (I still shake my head in disbelief at this because French school lunches are like spa food compared to what I ate growing up).
My coworker didn’t seem to understand my question, so I tried again. Why do children go home? Why can’t their parents just send them to school with a lunchbox and call it a day?
There, she stopped, raised an eyebrow, and looked me square in the face.
“Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité.”
But at lunch?
A family has the personal freedom - liberty - to decide what to feed their children, she explained. But once inside the school walls, everyone is equal. A wealthier pupil doesn’t get to flaunt their fancy packed lunch while another kid down the table picks at their meager ham sandwich (bologna sandwich doesn’t seem quite as French). And, she finished, they celebrate togetherness - fraternity - by enjoying the same school lunch in the cafeteria.
At the time, I likely rolled my eyes. Philosophical principles dictating how French school children enjoyed their midday meal seemed far too extra for me, and memories of swapping out the crackers or chips from my lunchbox in exchange for a friend’s Oreos or pudding pack seemed superior. But I came to see the beauty in it all. I came to realize that teaching these ideals during formative years was crucial.
The effects of these fraternal lunches seem to be long-lasting. The idea of togetherness, of hunkering down and weathering the current storm together as a nation, has been difficult France and other French-speaking countries, just as it has been difficult for every country around the world. But when speaking to my friends, I get the clear understanding that they know it’s for the greater good.
Here’s hoping that, on this side of the Atlantic, we’ll share a little bit of that togetherness spirit throughout the holidays.
And if it means eating more stuffing all on my own, so be it.