I am a self confessed morning person. I am at my best – physically, intellectually, and emotionally – well before noon. I try not to be one of those evangelical advocates for early morning exercise, meditation, work, activity, and thus the recipient of scorn, growls and muttered abuse from almost everyone I know. But I love the early morning – when the sunlight is bright, the world looks clean and fresh, my mind is alive and active, and the promise of the new day full of interest and enjoyment is about to be realised. I am alone in my family; everyone else greets the dawn with groans, sighs, and thinly disguised grumpiness, and only become cogent and able to do much of anything after about 10 am. They have a theory that the world is geared for morning people and life would be much better if everything started a little later and gave them (the non-morning people) the opportunity a fair deal. Welcome to France. Not wanting to make sweeping generalisations after only a month, but it seems to me that France is a nation not of larks, but owls. Shops open later, on my morning walks I see only very occasionally another human being, and whether in Paris or the countryside things really don’t seem to get going until after lunch.
I’ve just finished reading Alex Quick’s entertaining book, “How to be French” with illuminating chapters on food and drink, attitudes, behaviour, language and entertainment. Pisser dans la Rue, for instance, which helped me understand, although still be appalled by the many un-selfconscious and unashamed men, who “relieve themselves against walls, under bridges, on stairs, or even in the metro, although not usually on the live rail.” Apparently, despite the intervention of the government in the provision of free unisex toilettes in cities, and the instigation of fines for micton sur la voie publique this exercise of personal freedom (for men at least) to pee with impunity continues unabated. Also the chapter Smoke yourself to death, which made the point that, “passing up the pleasure of a cigarette just because you are afraid of a painful death is not very French.” It is illegal to smoke in public places in France, but the law is widely flouted, because the care factor for most of the population is lower – more than 30% of the population smoke. In Australia, where the rate of smoking is much lower (about 13% of the population according to the 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Survey) smokers mostly huddle in ghettos, carefully measured for their distance from public places such as restaurants and shopping centres.
But there was no chapter on French people not doing mornings. The fact that most boulangeries and patisseries do not open until 8:30 (horreur!) and I was hard pressed to find a cafe open at 8 am on a Monday morning on my way to a cooking class seems to bear this out. The tantalising whiff of baguettes baking was the closest I could get to my very late breakfast until opening time. I was instructed to go early if I wanted to get the best produce at the local markets, but 7 am was way too early for many of the stall holders who were just setting out their wares, and in reality, “early” was about 9 am. On numerous occasions I have found myself walking mid-morning around a silent village, wondering if perhaps everyone else has been abducted by aliens.
But it is not all bad news. Being a morning person in France ensures that queuing for entrance into museums and galleries is not a concern. At 9:30 when the Musee d’Orsay opened I breezed in without a whisper of a queue. Five hours later, just after lunch, when I exited, the queue filled the entire square. And an quiet, early morning walk along the Seine seeing the sun rise over the bridges and bring the golden monuments to glorious life was spectacular. If I could just get my breakfast baguette via the back-door of a boulangerie my happiness would be complete.