If you’re new here, then you may not know that all of France has been confined to their homes since mid-March, and that my husband and I sneaked out of Paris the day before the mandate so we could spend our quarantine with his family in the countryside outside of Toulouse. Our apartment is tiny, so the option to spend two months in a large house with huge yard and vacant roads to walk down was a luxury we couldn’t pass up.
Mind you, that meant we’d have to share our quarantine with four other people: his parents, sister, and her boyfriend. They’re all lovely people, but I’m never too thrilled at the prospect of having to spend more than a few hours with any living human under normal circumstances, let alone an open-ended period of government mandated isolation. Given the apocalypse and all, I decided to chill-out on my misanthropic inclinations for a while and be the most generous and flexible version of myself I could be to hopefully make it through. Feeling bored, isolated, or irritated is after all the least of anyone’s problems right now.
I knew myself well enough to know it was of the utmost importance to spend as little time as possible with anyone in order to help keep the peace. I’m not that grumpy, but I need a lot of alone time, and I didn’t want our quar to turn into a groupthink, cruise ship itinerary, team sport situation. I was glad then when from the very first day everyone would retire to a different part of the house to work, intentionally reducing facetime with one another to avoid annoyance, perturbation, confrontation, or any variety of friction that might arise from this social experiment. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
But then lunch came along. Typically, my lunch consists of a few scraps of whatever, stuffed between what bit of baguette is left, eaten unceremoniously as I hunch over my laptop. The whole affair takes 12 minutes and is executed in total privacy. Therefore I was very uncomfortable when during our first quar lunch, all six of us sat around a table and went through at least four courses of food, while holding conversations. It was a Tuesday, a weekday lunch, and they seriously did the whole plat, fromage, yaourt, fruit, cafe, dessert thing together as a group, having full-fledged conversations all the while. I was tired from our journey to the countryside, confused and stressed from the pandemic, embarassed that I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and flabergasted at the pace of the dejeuner. I couldn’t wait until lunch was over to tell my husband “we can’t do that everyday, we’ll kill each other.”
After a few days of this, rules were put in place that stated that lunch would be fluid, would be BYO, DIY, eaten at one’s convenience. Clearly others in the party had felt similar feelings of claustrophbia at the thought of performing this hour-plus long ceremony twice per day. Dinner was likewise confining and was revised so that it would be cooked by 8:00pm but could be eaten in shifts at whatever time felt right for each couple. I felt the grip of French social norms loosen from around my neck.
But. But. We didn’t actually change our patterns. We tried for a week or two to make space for variety and independence, but it just didn’t take. The urge to rebel against the practical dinner norms subsided, and once week 3 began I actually started to look forward to the group lunches and dinners. I don’t think I was the only one. I don’t know if it was Stockholm syndrome, an appreciation for the little things in the face of adversity, or a true heroes journey character arc, but I began to love exactly what I’ve always hated about the long French meal.
The promise of an uninterupted hour of peace, commeraderie, stories, and tasty treats actually began to be a welcome beacon on the horizon of each morning’s work. The “best practices” of my in-laws’ dining routine went from being mysterious, to irritatingly enforced, to understood and appreciated. The chocolate and biscuits taken with coffee after each lunch went from feeling excessive and calorie-ridden to delicious rewards. I was even sad on the few occasions my husband and I ate a quick lunch apart from the others if one of us had a work call during the lunch hour.
We took turns cooking each night, and it was interesting to try one another’s creations, praise their creativity, choke through their failures. I learned to love a lot of new French products I’ve never heard of, and I demonstrated to them the full range of foods that Tobasco can be enjoyed with (they had never put it on pizza before oh my god can you imagine).
The biggest benefit of these long meals was to our sense of time. Our strict adhesion to a one-hour lunch each day at 1pm and dinner at 8pm served as a clock for our quarantine, helped us stay productive and generally oriented in a world where there were few demands on our time, nowhere to be, and no norms to guide us. I’ve seen in my friends and experienced myself how this ordeal has played with one’s sense of time. I spent an entire day thinking it was Tuesday when it was in fact Thursday. I feel like I’ve been in this house for just two weeks but maybe also six months. Every day is the same yet somehow it’s gone from winter to early summer. But these two daily meals helped me organize myself, forced me to do yoga at 6:30pm otherwise I’d run out of time and never do it, force my husband to finally stop working for the day, forced daily walks and showers to be taken. As a freelancer, I work from home, eat at odd hours when it’s convenient, and never know what time I should work out because I have almost no constraints to work around. Without a nice little constraint, where does one even start?
The meals also gave us a moment to exchange news and updates about the world and ourselves. Did you hear the new rule about flying internationall? Did you know the Mairie is giving out masks? Did you know I won a new contract? We could “echanger des banalites” in this designated window, and leave each other the hell alone the rest of the day to preserve the afforementioned anti-tension measures of the rest of the day.
When we drive back to Paris on Thursday, back to our tiny apartment and tiny table, I will not miss having to devise a menu for six people some of whom are picky, I will not miss the hard mattress that’s been attacking my back for ten weeks, and I will not miss worrying that I cooked something too spicy. But I just might miss that sense of commeraderie and order we were able to create together twice each day.