For a moment there earlier this week I could have sworn I was back in France. I had a rare week day to myself, without any of the boys, and had decided I would go shopping. I mainly intended to wander and window shop, but I had two shops I particularly wanted to visit. One because I wanted to shop for a birthday present while the boy was away. The second because it’s a shop that you can’t possibly take a buggy into. Imagine my surprise when I found them both shut – on a Monday!
The different hours of French life bemused us initially – even when you know it’s going to be the case, it can still catch you out when you’re used to being able to nip out and get whatever you want, when you want it – in some places 24 hours a day. Once you get used to it though, it’s very easy to work around the reduced hours most of the time, and even becomes rather pleasant. As I contemplate returning to work, I’m inclined to reflect fondly on the different schedule we enjoyed while living in France. In particular, we really enjoyed the long, two-hour lunch break and the later dining hours in the evening – influenced further by the southern proximity to Spain.
School sessions in Quillan were four days a week (no school on Wednesdays), with morning sessions 8.30 to 11.30 am and afternoons 1.30 to 4.30pm. Do not be late or you will be shut out. For those with both parents working, a canteen at the lycee services lunch for school children from all schools in the town. A separate activity programme is provided on Wednesdays and in school holidays, for the same purpose.
So, I could quite happily live with a shorter school and working week, and a long lunch hour with shops shut. So far, so fine. What I never could quite get my head around though, was the wild variation in days and hours of opening, from schools, to administrative services, transport facilities, shops and restaurants, within the same broad parameters.
Most shops are open five days a week out of seven. Most are closed Sundays – and on Mondays to make up for opening on Saturdays. That’s easy enough. The main variation of that is that if shops do open on Sundays, then you will find they are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in mitigation. That can be mildly irritating if you’ve discovered, say, a fantastic patisserie in a neighbouring village, which you take a trip specially to visit for morning coffee only to discover it’s Tuesday, and they were open on Sunday, being market day in that village.
Some are open half days on Sundays – particularly the boulangeries. In some cases, the Sunday morning opening is only in the summer, for the convenience of the tourist trade.
Most shops are open mornings and afternoons, with an enforced closure for lunch. The exception is most restaurants and auberges, which are only open in the lunch hour, and again in the evening for dining. Reasonable enough, since you will find that in many other countries. Slightly more irritating when you pass through a lovely village at just the time when you want a morning coffee, and the only local establishment is an auberge. Lucked out.
Shops may open anywhere between 7 and 9.30 am. It does vary quite widely from the first to open (generally the tabac at 7am), followed closely by the boulangeries (between 7.15 and 7.30 am), then other shops, mostly after 9 am, generally starting with the epicerie or small supermarket chains, which might open at 8.30am. Morning closing may be between 11.30am and 12.30pm, with the occasional shop open until 1pm.
Some shops are only open in the mornings. The upside is they are open every day. This is most often the case with boulangeries.
In the afternoons, again, there is wild variation in re-opening hours, starting with the administrative services (post office and Mairie) at around 1.30pm. I guess this is so shop workers can do administrative business in their lunch hour, which would be convenient. Most shops will not re-open until 3pm at the earliest – though there may be some that open at 2.30pm and others may not open until 3.15 or 3.30pm. Closing can be anywhere between 4.30 pm (administrative services) and 7.30pm.
Of course, in a small town, many shops and services only operated part-time hours and there was no discernible consistency to those at all. Some boutiques were only open Wednesday to Saturday, some Thursday to Saturday. Some only mornings. The cinema was open for scheduled film sessions only – at different times depending on the day of the week. The library was only open three days a week, sometimes morning, sometimes afternoon, sometimes both. The pool was only open in summer, varying hours depending on the day.
Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more confusing, I went to the train station to buy a ticket. It was after 9am, the first train of the day had already been and gone, as had several bus services leaving from the station, but the place was locked and bolted. I looked for the hours on the door. 9.10 am to 5.50 pm. That’s very precise!
Confused? I was! The net effect for me, was that I never assumed anything. I never planned anything, but spontaneously stopped in somewhere if I happened to see it open. I barely shopped except for necessities and I probably bought more fresh, local produce. All of these I would count as good things. But it did do my head in. Bottom line – there was always somewhere open for the all important daily baguette – except for Sunday afternoons.