We were standing with a very helpful assistant in a large furniture store just outside Carcassonne . The last hour had been spent choosing furniture for our house, while trying to stay within our budget (not large) and selecting only what we really needed. The assistant had organised delivery arrangements and was now about to take us to the cash desk to pay. Or so I thought. He looked at his watch. “It’s 5 to 12” he said, “We’re closing in 5 minutes so you’ll have to come back at 2”.
“But this will only take 10 minutes” I explained politely.
His reply was two words and absolutely final, “It’s lunchtime”.
It was not worth driving to our house in Castelnaudary for lunch and then back again. We would have to find somewhere nearby to wait for 2 whole hours until the store reopened. Then we hit another problem. A small wooden cabinet we had said we would take with us was waiting beside the car. When we tried to put it in the boot it was too big. Could we risk driving off and leaving it in the car park of the furniture store, now empty except for our car?
The restaurant opposite was filling up with local workers so we decided to have lunch there and chose a table from where we could see the car and cabinet. John, my husband, being a man who enjoys a good meal, was happier than I was. I felt as if I had been robbed of 2 hours and was cross that my plans for the afternoon would have to change. We ordered the set lunch menu, which included a glass of wine. The wine and the bread basket came first. It only took a couple of sips of wine and a piece of bread for the inevitable to happen. Relaxation and a sense of perspective set in. What could be so important about my afternoon that it couldn’t wait while we enjoyed a pleasant, good value meal with time to talk? We even found it funny that we were sitting looking at the cabinet. There was no danger of it being stolen because everyone was at lunch.
Apparently, not so long ago the whole of France closed between 12 and 2, the time allowed for the midday meal. Friends of ours who work in Paris say that tradition is dying out, giving way to the corporate model of lunch being a quick sandwich at your desk. In the towns and villages of the Aude that is not the case. At midday shops and offices close while the cafes and restaurants fill up or workers head home. But even if a restaurant or home is not on the agenda, lunchtime still matters.
Last summer as we were sitting by the Canal du Midi in Castelnaudary enjoying the sunshine, a camper van pulled up nearby. It was just after midday. A family of four climbed down from the camper van bringing with them a tablecloth, glasses, plates and cutlery and set these out on a public picnic table. The food followed and they sat and enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the bank of the Canal. It made a charming picture, created with a style that seems to come so naturally to the French.
As for the furniture store, we returned at 2pm where the helpful assistant was waiting for us. Final arrangements were made and payment taken. We drove out of the car park at ten past two, refreshed and much calmer than we had been at ten past twelve, and with the afternoon still ahead.