I’ve just spent two days interpreting in Dunkirk for a meeting between French and English partners. My favourite time of the day: lunch. And not just because of the food, but because a work lunch is one of the most obvious time when the English are very English, and the French, very French.
The joint project is going to last three years and the partners are meeting every quarter. The first meeting happened in England and the very first lunch was a typically English affair: short, tasteless, uncomfortable, more meant to sustain a worker than excite a gourmet. We came out of the meeting room and sat in soft chairs in the hall. There were a few limp sandwiches and the French were looking lost. They had just been told we were breaking for lunch, what was going on? I gently directed them towards the sandwiches (cucumber, cheese, tuna) and introduced them to the joys of using a napkin as a plate and of choosing from the various flavours of crisps.
On the second day of the first meeting in France, the (English) chair looked at his watch around 12:30 and said to everyone “Ok, shall we have lunch now and start again in, say, half an hour?” “QUOI???” The French were revolting. This time, they were on their home territory. After painful negotiations, they settled on an hour and a half lunch break. We were taken to a lovely little restaurant where we settled down for a gorgeous three-course meal. We sampled the local delicacies (maroille cheese, flammkueche) and I watched with envy as most people were sipping wine or local beer. I thought interpreting when slightly tipsy would produce funny results, so I abstained.
One myth I’d like to dispel about food and England though: one can eat beautifully on this island. Although the working lunches were always fairly simple, the French partners (and me!) have been treated to fantastic restaurants for their evening meals during their stays. Because there isn’t really a national cuisine (except fish and chips, pies and the like), other cuisines have been adopted and integrated and thrive here. The wealth of restaurants from around the world is amazing, especially here in Brighton, and progressive new British cooks love experimenting with all sorts of exotics ingredients and recipes, much more so than in France, in my opinion.