Le bon moment

I went to our local butcher shop hoping to pick up something nice to slip on the barbecue this past weekend – which turned out to be a wash-out weather-wise. I should have known better as we are not yet ‘officially’ in BBQ season. The butcher had the basics, of course, but not the nice selection of sausages we usually enjoy grilling up when the fine weather comes.

That should be soon, as we enter the month of May and the annual holiday festival. It starts with Labour Day on May 1st and VE or Victory in Europe day on the 8th; these are followed by the Ascension long weekend from Thursday to Monday at the end of May and the Pentecost holiday Monday in early June. By then we shall be in full seasonal swing and the local shops will be well-stocked with everything from ice-cream to grillades.

It was a timely reminder in case I’d forgotten that here in France, timing is everything. There are no official rules for when you switch your greeting from ‘bonjour’ to ‘bonsoir’ or until what time one can reasonably wish someone a ‘bonne journée’ vs. ‘bon après-midi’ or ‘bonne soirée’. You just have to learn to sense when the timing is right.

Bonjour or ‘good day’ is the standard greeting in France. After that, you can try a ‘rebonjour’ or casually switch to ‘salut’, which is closer to ‘hi’. Oddly, some sort of greeting is always expected but it’s often not clear what it should be. Sometimes people will say ‘hello’ borrowed from English or just ‘hé!’

When I worked full-time in Lyon, it was common to say ‘bonjour’ the first time you saw someone in the morning, then ‘rebonjour’ when you saw them again, and just ‘re’ after that. Some people would get clever with ‘re-re-rebonjour’ or after several such instances ‘re-re-re’ which sounds as if you’re gargling. No wonder we non-natives get confused!

Timing is everything, as they say. Getting a sense for ‘le bon moment’ or le bon timing as the French will often say (which words being ‘officially’ borrowed and how they are pronounced being another topic for which there are no rules), is perhaps the greatest challenge for second-language learners in France.

Have a bonne journée!

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?