On French Time!

Returning home at 6 this evening, my arms laden with bags and bouquets of flowers I stop dead in my hallway, quite simply because I can go no further. There are two men, a huge cardboard box and a fridge blocking the way!

I am somewhat incredulous regarding the arrival of these two men, especially because they actually are in possession of a fridge. They were due on the 13th July but were clearly working on French time!

It is especially appropriate that they should arrive today, since tonight I am out to dinner, hence the flowers, and the two events dovetail nicely to demonstrate that elusive paradox known as “French Time”.

You may have read my previous post about our somewhat “désagréable”  proprietaire and landlord of the building in which I live. After a series of pitiful pleas to have the broken-down cooker replaced, and in the face of complete refusal by the same, I resorted to “storm tactics” in which I gained proof that every one of the miserable fitted electric fixtures in my kitchen were well past their ‘sell-by date’ and in a state of total “vetuste”. Eventually the campaign reaped results, and whilst in Italy on holiday in the early summer I received email confirmation that a new fridge was on its way.

I think I can be excused my growing paranoïa when July turned to August, August to September, and September to October, and now November, that the landlord had commenced a counter-offensive. I cannot count the number of emails that winged their way to the Agent, nor the number of phone-calls made to the kitchen fitter, only say that with the increase in time, the vocabulary, content and assertiveness of my communications improved dramatically!

My two sets of neighbours living below me have both chosen this month to move out, both equally frustrated by the landlord, and yesterday quite by chance I happened to bump into the Agent in the lift with two prospective tenants. It was a brave move on her part to ask whether ‘par chance’ I had heard from the fridge man.

“J’ai appelé plusieurs fois Madame, I said  Mais je n’ai eu aucune réponse”  (I’ve called several times with no response) I was very polite in the circumstances!

Clearly with me and potential tenants likely to meet over the next few weeks, the agent made the all important phone-call, and the fridge is now with me, the very next day! It is mid November.

This kind of scenario is one that every Britain thinking of France believes is the norm. The French are quite simply always late, the workmen invariably delayed and everyone takes three hours for lunch. But is that really the case? The answer simply is that that depends!

Yes the agent had quite clearly taken a three hour lunch with plenty of wine when we first signed for this apartement, which could explain why the “apartement with garage” that we’d signed for didn’t actually come with a garage. But no, not all business men and professionals are the same. French professionals often work longer hours and more intensively than their British counterparts, but take longer fixed holidays than the British and generally for the entire month of August. For this reason I would have been foolhardy to think that a fridge ordered in July would ever have been delivered or installed before September.  It appears however, that French workmen do indeed work to “French-time”, and when the kitchen fitters arrived this afternoon and I enquired ever-so politely about the delay, I received what I thought was an ever-so typical reply:

“C’était un poulet avec le fournisseur” – (there was a chicken with the supplier) In other words, clearly the supplier was having  problems and was nothing to do with the fitter. It must have been, I thought, a very big chicken!

However, the joke was ultimately on me! My fluent french speaking son assures me that I misheard (how typical) and that there was actually:

“Un boulet avec le fournisseur” (a mess-up, to be polite!) Frankly I prefer the more colourful chicken option, which leads me nicely on to the invitation to dinner.

Tonight I shall be celebrating the arrival of the fridge with French friends who have invited me as the lone “Anglaise” to spend the evening with them and several other couples.  One of the common misconceptions about the French is that they are always several hours late for a dinner party. When I first arrived in France I found this concept very  ‘inquiétant’. After all, how late should one be? When invited for our first French dinner party I suffered a not inconsiderable level of stress, even before I arrived, and that was before I crossed the threshold and attempted to speak French all evening.

For the first French dinner party ‘Husband à l’Etranger’ and I were fashionably late! However it was quite clear, within minutes of arriving, that being late is not in fact “de rigeur”. And why? Because at a French dinner party, no drinks are served until the last invitée has arrived. To arrive late means to deprive your fellow guests of a drink for an inconsiderate amount of time. But when the drinks at last are served it will  invariably be Champagne and the party can begin.

Champagne is served as one might serve wine in the UK, with one major exception, it is served, and savoured. The French in general really know their wines, or Champagnes, and the morning afterwards, you will not find a dozen empties in the recycling bin, but one or two carefully selected and expensive bottles which will last the evening. And while there are millions of bottles of cheap wine circulating in supermarkets all over France,(I suspect for the millions of foreigners who stampede France every year) the French on the whole are highly selective. Whilst in Britain guests arrive for dinner holding a bottle of wine, the French have in general an “empty handed” policy prefering, if need be, to arrive with a box of special chocolates, generally exquisite, but costing a small fortune!

But French timing doesn’t stop there! One of the other extraordinary phenomenon regarding the French dinner party is that the French also leave on time. Our first dinner party, having booked a baby-sitter, we felt bound to return home by midnight. As we stood to go, we were astonished to find all our fellow guests stand in unison, and felt guilty that we had so clumsily terminated the evening. We are several dinner parties further on, and have discovered, to our quiet amusement, that this phenomenon of leaving together is universal. To save the host from numerous trips to let his guests out onto the street, (remember that the French have, very often, wonderfully ornate, but locked, metal gates to their gardens) the guests leave “en masse”. And so, after the coffees and digestifs have been served, the invitées start to observe and take their cues from one another, gradually closing the conversations in order to rise as one, around midnight, and leave!

Who says the French know nothing about timing? In general they are impeccable, although workmen all over France leave alot to be desired…

but at least now I can chill my Champagne!

And the pleasure I get from opening my new ‘bon marché'(cheap) fridge is definitely heightened by the wait.

And perhaps that was the point!

12 thoughts on “On French Time!

  1. Very entertaining, and nicely put I must say as it is always very enjoyable, and sometimes hilarious, to learn about your own culture, through the eyes of a foreigner….

    Indeed you know that if people leave all together, or almost, it is not “to save trips to the door” but by politeness. Why? Obvious (to a frenchman) if ones leaves and the others stay it will give the impression some are more welcomed than the others… So by politeness everybody is going to leave the party, when the first one leaves…. Same for arriving at a party… Not just in time as it would look like one is in a hurry (they’re hungry ?), not too late as it will not be very polite to have all these people waiting for the first drink…
    We eat and drink all together, to start drinking before the last guest is arrived is unpolite,as he will see you started without him… I suggest 10-15 minutes…

    Bringing a bottle of wine is like telling “you don’t have good wine I bring mine”, so bring flowers for the hostess, or chocolate, but flowers are definiteny a better choice….
    Love your blog!


    • Thank you for your excellent comment. I think the french traditions around dinner parties are charming. Sometimes in the Uk, having to leave promptly from a party can make the guest feel like he is insulting his host, and can be embarrassing, In France somehow this tradition spares the guest all of that. I once had a party in the UK when the last guest left several hours after the others, and you are abolutely right, it’s politeness and good manners to leave before the hosts are so exhausted that they are ‘praying’ for you to leave!
      That was a really interesting comment about bringing wine, and with so many fantastic florists in France how can anyone resist!


  2. Not giving anyone a drink until the last guest has arrived drives me mad and I think it’s not very hospitable either. We went to a dinner party where one couple got lost on the way and were over an hour late – we weren’t even offered a glass of water. Funnily enough around here it seems to be only the mixed English/French couples who stick rigidly to the rule, the French ones and any household with an Australian in it offer you a drink as soon as you come in the door.


    • Yes waiting for someone that is late is extreme. One of the guests at our last dinner party was caught in the lorry driver “go slow” ecotax strike on the way out of Paris. He rang to warn the host, and then the host started serving drinks. memo for the future: always ring if delayed or it’ll be daggers from the other invitées when you arrive!


    • The drinks are the “ceremonious” party’s kick-off nothing else.

      If you are thirsty you can ask for a drink, and you will be served one immediatly, with a big smile and loud apologies for not realising that you needed one in the first place…. and that is quite lucky as there are not enough Australians in France to save our guests from dehydration 🙂

      It is also the privilege of the host to rather informaly decide to have a drink at any time, saying something like “on va commencer, ça les fera venir” (let’s start, it will make them appear!) as we all know this is what is going to happen, most of the time…

      Indeed the late guest will be welcomed with an apology for not been able to wait for him, and a couple of jokes probably so that eveybody knows it doesn’t matter really.

      I must add that what I wrote is rather formal, giving a clue to foreigners on social behaviour…

      As a matter of fact once you get to know the people you can ask yourself for a drink as soon as the door opens and you have said “Hello!”, all rules are made to be broken aren’t they?


  3. We’ve found the etiquette about drinks varies enormously. Most of our French friends do as Ago above says and start serving drinks anyway, provided that most of the guests have arrived. We did, though, experience one party where about 60 people were invited and nobody got a drink until the last person turned up – more than an hour late. I thought that was going to extremes!


  4. Oh my god, a fridge that was 4 months late! Was the proprietaire holding it hostage because you managed to prove the last one was a broken down piece of crap? I wouldn’t put it past them…

    Oh and yes, the French leaving a party are always so amusing. Not only do they all leave at once (because it’s considered rude for some to stay behind and impose on the host), but they take FOREVER to leave. They make at least 6 attempts to go “Bon on va y aller” before they start chatting about another topic for about half an hour. It always take them a good half hour to properly leave. We Americans are more prompt. We may delay a little by a few minutes, but once we say we are leaving, we are pretty much out the door!


    • Culture again…. Leaving too quickly might look like you, in fact, are leaving because you are bored….
      So you tell you are going to leave, and you go on with the conversation, showing clearly that it’s time to leave but you enjoy the party.

      As a matter of fact you just have to tell you want to leave 30 minutes before the real time you want to leave. We French are more subtle? (joking!)

      But on this subject (dining parties) the most interesting trick is about how and when to return the invite (most confusing for foreigners I think….)
      May be an idea for another of your excellent posts someday….


      • Oh Ago, you can’t leave us on a cliff hanger like that! Thank you so much for all your excellent comments…but tell us, when should we return the invite. Is there really a formula?


      • This is your blog not mine 😉 I love to read your views and then maybe a give you a few clues (or another point of view) like an echo to your own words… some sort of “Entente Cordiale” as they used to say.


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