“What’s your favorite part about France?”
This is a question I’ve been asked many times over the last month as I’ve introduced myself to class after class of English-learning French high schoolers. It’s an easy answer, even if it may be a fudged truth.
After that comes a nod of understanding from everyone respectively, like they’re all thinking about last night’s dinner and going, “yeah, you’re right that is the best part about France.” Then comes another question, a bit more difficult.
“What’s your least favorite part about France?”
It’s harder for me to answer because there might be a few things but I don’t want to offend. So I choose my main complaint, and one that I know will puzzle some of the students.
“I don’t like how nothing is open on Sundays.”
This answer can sometimes prompt a discussion about how one can get anything at any time in America (unless you’re in Coupeville) and how some stores are even open 24 hours a day, seven days a week quelle horreur. But here in Alençon I find my Sundays limited to the Sunday bar–the one bar in Alençon that has capitalized on profits by being the only bar open on Sundays.
I’m not even really exaggerating. Walk the streets of Alençon on a Sunday at 2pm and it is stunningly quiet. All the shops are shuttered (even H&M!), the jazz music that normally plays 24 hours on the pedestrian street is shut off. The only sounds come from the church bells and the occasional scooter or car hurtling down the tiny roads, but even that is not often.
Because of this, taking a walk on a Sunday in Alençon is incredibly peaceful. You don’t feel any rush to be anywhere or do anything other than admire the way that sunlight bounces off the windows of the buildings or notice the tiny bits of moss that grow in between the cobblestones. And then after making your way all around town, which takes maybe 20 minutes in total because it’s small, you make it to the Halle Au Blé. The Halle Au Blé is a rotund dome building where farmers used to sell their grains, hence the name, which means “hall of wheat.” And juste à coté is the Café Du Théâtre, with its blue canopy and old-timey yellow lettering.
Outside the cafe, depending on the time of day and the weather, you’ll find small clumps of people drinking and smoking at the tables. Or if it’s 2pm–that time directly between when lunch is over but before the afternoon coffee rush–you’ll find the bartender solo, standing outside the bar’s entrance smoking and waiting for his next customer perhaps hoping that no one will come at all, or at least not for a good while.
Now that the weather’s gotten colder, I’ve begun to sit inside the cafe, at the tables across from the bar but not directly at the bar. Bar stools are too uncomfortable and reserved mostly for the bartenders friends it seems like. I like watching what he makes because it gives me an idea of what French people like to order. And after observing for about a month now I’ve come to the happy conclusion that there is not a prescribed idea of what one should order in a brasserie. Adults will come in and order a hot cocoa or a diablo (flavored syrup mixed with soda, something I thought for a long while was a kids drink). Yes, the old men will most often get a pint, but other times they’ll nurse a glass of white wine for several hours while reading the newspaper. Fruit juices, espresso, coffee with cream, steamed milk, cider, champagne, beer, vin chaud, rouge, blanc, rosé, and my personal favorite: chocolat viennois, also known as hot chocolate with a pile of whipped cream on top.
The bartender makes all these drinks with ease and a kind of solemnity that gives me the impression that he both values his work and also recognizes the ridiculousness in the way he piles that whipped cream so elegantly. Either way, he’s always there behind that bar except for his smoke breaks and except for Mondays because you can bet a bar that’s open on Sundays will be closed on Mondays.
The man I’ve always assumed is the owner, but who also performs the job of a waiter, is an older man who looks so typically French you can probably picture him in your mind right now. He yells out the orders to the bartender as he gets them in that specific way that French people sometimes speak… like they’re taking pleasure in how their language sounds. He does not know yet that I can speak French even though I order my drink in what I believe is perfect French every time I am there. So instead he communicates with me mostly in mimes, winks, the occasional jaunty dance and by laughing at me. The first time I encountered him I was with the other language assistants–two of whom are Brits–and we all spent several hours drinking beer and chatting at the tables outside. Each time we ordered another round he would express his worry that we were going to get drunk by making various hand signals and over the top expressions that you normally only see in old silent films. I wanted to explain to him that my companions weren’t drunks, just British… but I wasn’t sure how to mime that.
The thing is, every time I’ve been to this bar since that first time, I’ve seen some of the same people there. It’s one of those places that has regulars: the guys with their newspapers, the jokey waiter, the couples coming in for their hot cocoa or beer. I think the routine of it feels so Sunday-ish to me because I grew up with a Sunday routine, a family day.
What would I do on a Sunday if I were at home? Sleep in? Most likely. Eat waffles? If my dad made them. Play with the cat? Certainly. Go to Target or something? Yeah, maybe, why not.
But I’m here on a Sunday, in France. Sans cat, sans waffles, sans family, sans Target. I could lay around. Watch TV, relax, cook some food. Or, I could go for a quiet Sunday walk. Go to the Sunday bar with a friend or a few friends. Or go solo, just to sit. Pretend to read a book and observe the goings on, trying and failing to fit in.