Lunch and Culture Shock

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.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:21+00:00 December 19th, 2003|Interpreting|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Isabelle December 19, 2003 at 12:20 pm

    On s’y croirait !!!
    Sais-tu que tu as beaucoup de talent et que tu devrais te lancer dans l’écriture (pas dans la traduction, je crois que tu fais déjà tes preuves). En tous cas, j’ai pris un grand plaisir à te lire !!!

  2. Geneviève December 19, 2003 at 5:49 pm

    C’est vraiment plaisant de te lire, cela passe tout seul – même après une journée de travail.
    Et je suis d’accord avec toi, on peut très bien manger au Royaume-Uni.
    Geneviève 🙂

  3. Elizabete W. December 19, 2003 at 6:12 pm

    I really enjoyed reading your text about the differences between English and French at the table (and in general). I’m Portuguese, married to an Englishman, and live on and off between Portugal and England (near Brighton by coincidence), and I’m always quite amused, and sometimes a bit baffled too!) with the cultural differences between both countries!
    Well done, Céline.

  4. Dominique December 20, 2003 at 5:02 pm

    C’est exactement ça ! J’ai travaillé 2 ans à Londres dans une entreprise anglaise qui venait de fusionner avec une société française. J’ai accompagné mon boss (un Anglais pur jus) à plusieurs reprises en France pour des journées de travail – j’ai oublié de préciser que je suis informaticienne et nous mettions en place une méthode de travail commune entre les 2 directions informatiques. C’était fantatisque ! J’ai toujours pensé que j’aurais de quoi remplir un livre d’anecdotes sur la bouffe mais aussi les relations de travail.
    Tu me donnes des idées, je le ferai sans doute un jour.

  5. Andréas June 15, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Indeed, Céline, your post is very well written and a joy to read!
    I certainly agree with what you are saying . I relocated to France from England two years ago and the appreciation of food and wine is something that I adore about the French culture.
    I love the fact that every other shop is food-related and eating is a normal part of going out.
    In terms of work, I moved from an environment where sandwiching in front of the monitor was the norm (I despised this but it was part of the company culture) to one where any excuse is used to justify a two-hour lunchbreak at a restaurant .
    In England, people rapidly label you as a ‘foodie’ if you take more than a passing interest in what you eat.
    However, growing up in England has left some traces. For example, if given the choice, I would opt for a full English breakfast rather than a croissant! This is the sort of statement that leaves the French flabbergastered.

  6. céline June 17, 2004 at 8:57 am

    How about a full English followed by a croissant? What a perfect way to start the day.

  7. Andréas June 17, 2004 at 11:29 am

    Actually, no, but I might consider a croissant filled with eggs and bacon and lashings of tomato sauce.

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