Le bon timing

Train times Gare du NordTiming, as they say, is everything.

It is ironic that here in the land of complicated schedules and a season for everything, we must borrow from English to express the notion of timing.

You will find the word ‘timing’ in Larousse and other French dictionaries, translated as ‘minutage’. It seems to particularly focus on an action plan or steps needed to complete a task. The expression ‘le bon timing’ is often associated with business and politics, where timing dictates a strategy of attack. By extension, it is useful to remember as a motto for life in France.

I learned the importance of timing shortly after moving to France. We were invited for drinks with friends and arrived, as is our wont, right on time. Me because being prompt is ingrained along with saying ‘sorry’ and husband because, well, he is always thirsty. To my dismay I discovered that we were the first of the convives, and to add injury to insult, were then made to wait until everyone had arrived before being offered a drink.

“On va attendre les autres?” asked our hosts, glancing pointedly at the array of bottles enticingly standing by. As they clearly assumed we should wait for the others to arrive, we nodded in dumb agreement then proceeded to make polite but dull conversation for the next hour.

After that I became rather laissez-faire about showing up to social events on time. And sometimes had a drink first.

This strategy backfired on occasions when, it turned out, the French are almost obsessively prompt. When it comes to public meetings and events, or closing times, for example, which can be absurdly early. If you don’t get there on time, it will be over before you even get started.

It is traditional in France for le maire to host a new year’s reception for the town’s citizens. We showed up only a little late and missed both the mayor’s speech and our complementary glass of champagne.

There are so many other ways that timing matters in France:

  • There is little point in arriving at a restaurant hoping for a meal before or after the designated serving times at lunch and dinner (generally just before 12:00 until 1:30 or so at lunchtime and not before 7:30 p.m. in the evening). You may not be served and if you are, will certainly not be welcome.
  • Don’t bother trying to join a group or take up an organized activity other than at the beginning of the season in September or possibly at the start of a new year.
  • Do not expect to find strawberries or melon on the menu in the winter or fondue in summer. Seasonal appropriateness must be respected. Don’t look for summer gear in the shops before May or after July. Back-to-school items will be on display everywhere from early August until September. After that, you will have to be content with a few dusty leftovers.
  • As for holidays, you will want to plan your destination well in advance, book early and get a head start on traffic. Don’t forget the school calendar and the various zones (A, B and C) depending on the region.

Alternatively you can always just forget about le timing altogether, sit back and let it ride. Have another glass of wine. Who’s to say? That train may never even show up.

What’s your approach? Do you worry about being on time or always arrive fashionably late?


  1. poshbirdy · February 4, 2016

    I wonder how we will ever get the hang of it!

    • MELewis · February 4, 2016

      Small steps, I’m afraid. But you’ll be surprised that somehow, you eventually figure it out and adapt. 🙂

  2. coteetcampagne · February 4, 2016

    I will have “le bon timing” printed on a tee shirt and wear it around the Aude.
    It’s so appropriate to our own particular situation

    I really like that phrase, may I steal it for an upcoming post? I will, of course, credit your good self

    • MELewis · February 4, 2016

      You may steal, share, beg, borrow to your heart’s delight. I will blush with pride but sadly cannot take credit for coining the phrase, it is all over the French media. 😉

      • coteetcampagne · February 4, 2016

        I obviously don’t scrutinise enough Fremch media! I will work on that ..It’s a good way to get your head around the way the language flows I think.
        WE do listen to French radio. The Sunday programmes seem a touch bizarre, like something broadcast half a century ago.

  3. Suzanne et Pierre · February 4, 2016

    I think this type of things around the daily life stuff is probably the most difficult to adapt to when you are an expat and don”t know the unwritten rules. It is true for France and any other countries…nice post as usual. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · February 4, 2016

      Thanks Suzanne! I’m sure you have felt it a bit in reverse after moving back to Canada. I feel I have to capture my experience now as the expat feeling begins to fade a little after so many years…but I am pleased that many people find it helpful and amusing!

  4. Andrea · February 4, 2016

    Le bon timing works another way though; no Christmas eco rations in shops at the same time as Halloween, or Easter stuff in the first week of January. Hate that.

    • MELewis · February 4, 2016

      Good point. We don’t suffer quite as much from the seasonally inappropriate marketing here in France – it is our sliver lining!

  5. memoirsofahusk · February 4, 2016

    Have you come across ‘Kairological time’? I read about it somewhere and decided it’s the time I keep – but then I’m not sure any longer what it really means. If it really means anything … I have a fluid approach to timing and am never, ever, early. I annoy myself by being unable to be on time for some important things and I hate it when people arrive on the dot for dinner or drinks – so be warned when you come over to ours, just be a little late – you’ll get a drink straight away no matter if no-one else ever arrives!

    • MELewis · February 6, 2016

      I actually had to google that. (You are clearly raising the intellectual tone of this humble blog!) The concept strikes me as apt, and entirely fitting with how I would LIKE to live my life. It ain’t gonna happen, though, given the harsh timelines and realities of social and professional obligations. There is nothing worse than guests who arrive too early – keep that drink on hand and I’ll be there with bells on!

      • memoirsofahusk · February 8, 2016

        Ha! I didn’t explain it because I’d have had to Google it too to make sure I remembered it correctly!

  6. Osyth · February 4, 2016

    Like you being on time and saying sorry are hardwired into my core. My father’s fault entirely and quite how he survived my congenitally late mother, I never quite worked out. I would add to your list that absolutely NOTHING is open in rural France for the whole of January something that my son-in-law was deeply disgruntled with last year when he brought my daughter out to stay for the long weekend of her birthday (31st January) …I saw a different side to Mr Laissez-Faire when I explained that there were no restaurants at all let alone the swanky one he had wanted to try for the first time!

    • MELewis · February 6, 2016

      Oh dear, those semi-annual closings are a killer, aren’t they? I dragged myself to our Sunday market early in January only to discover that the fishmonger had taken the entire month off. It’s true that trying to explain these things to foreigners (look who’s talking?) is tough. Every time we have visitors I find myself defending all the things I usually rant about. Now I try to look at shops and services not as things but as people – it’s far easier to understand that your friend or colleague has taken a much-needed holiday than a supplier who has left you high and dry!

      • Osyth · February 6, 2016

        I like that strategy – people rather than services. The experience last year changed my children’s attitude instantly from ‘mummy lives in this beautiful place’ to ‘MUM – you need to move somewhere more civilised’ – I have selective hearing 😉

  7. davidprosser · February 5, 2016

    I’m of an age where it was considered courteous to be on time and that’s what I’ve always stuck to though in the past I’ve been uncomfortable to be the first to arrive by quite a margin. Luckily I was never left without a drink.
    Nowadays I’d glad I don’t socialise as I’m told one should be fashionably late and I’m not sure how that would sit with me.
    xxx Gigantic Hugs Mel xxx

    • MELewis · February 6, 2016

      I suppose it depends on how you define ‘socialise’. Reading your blog it seems to me that you are highly social, David, always going out to meet your family and friends. Still, I suppose if you mean dinner parties and drinks I must confess we also socialise a lot less than before. There is something to be said for the quiet life. Bon weekend! xo

  8. Kat · February 5, 2016

    I’m a stickler for punctuality but my boyfriend is congenitally late (I borrowed this term ‘congenitally late’ from the comments above, so appropriate!). There are times I have wondered, how in the world did we end up together? Hahaha…

    • MELewis · February 6, 2016

      Good question, and one I have been asking myself for 30 years of marriage! My guy is not chronically or congenitally late but we are so different in so many ways. Maybe that’s the secret, eh? 😉

  9. zipfslaw1 · February 5, 2016

    I was scheduled to give a talk in France once. Two minutes before start time, the room was empty. The person who was helping me set up my laptop had spent quite a bit of her professional life in the US. “Don’t worry, Kevin–people are coming,” she said. “We’re just not the same about schedules here.” A few minutes later, it was a bit past the scheduled start time, but the room was full. Whew!

    How does one pronounce “timing”? I’m never sure which words are pronounced like “parking” and which are pronounced like “shampooing”…

    • MELewis · February 6, 2016

      Funny story and a good example of how the French do have a knack for timing. As for the pronunciation of English words in French, that is an excellent question and one I have devoted much thought and the occasional blog post to (https://francesays.com/2013/07/06/parlez-vous-franglais/). ‘Timing’ in French is a mashup with ‘time’ said the same as in English and the ‘ing’ with that inimitable French ring – emphasis on the second syllable, bien sûr!

  10. Lisa @ cheergerm · February 6, 2016

    An hour with no drink offered! Crikey….I am always early or on time…particularly for movies. (I get all nervous beforehand and just have to get there early…not quite sure why.) Interesting to read how timing works in France, what a wonderful wide world we live in!

    • MELewis · February 7, 2016

      Funny, I get a bit nervous when I have to make any kind of social appearance, too. My late mother-in-law, who did not drink much but enjoyed the bit she did – would always suggest we go ahead and have a drink by saying: “Ca va les faire venir.” I loved her for that! 🙂

  11. Mél@nie · February 8, 2016

    ici, on l’appelle “le quart d’heure toulousain” qui parfois dure 30′ ou plus… 🙂
    * * *
    @”What’s your approach?” – my hubby and I have always been ponctuels… 🙂

  12. emilycommander · February 9, 2016

    You are quite right about this: the French run to a clock that I often misread. Our experience with the Mayor’s voeux sounds even more traumatic than yours though: one hour in and he was still talking, so we left without any champagne (sob).

    • MELewis · February 9, 2016

      Ha, ha…that is rather hard. Good on you for having had the courage to sneak out!

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