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I wondered why my son came out of school with still the other half of his lunch still uneaten all last week. When I asked him how his first day went, staying at school for lunch, his face fell and he told me he didn’t like it. This response didn’t surprise me as his first week in the state school in Paris last year was similar: he didn’t know where to go, was unaware of les règles for lunch at the canteen, when he was permitted to go to the playground… Many moons later I found out that during his 4-course meal, lunch room supervisors had to sit with him or find another student to coach him to EAT FASTER (surprising, as French culture encourages one to sit and savour one’s food for as long as it takes you). He was surpassing the minimum half hour allowed to dine in the cafeteria. I also think that one lunch supervisor took the new foreign student under her wing and tried to teach my son the French way of doing things, like trying everything on one’s plate, where to place the bread bun and so on. I never had the opportunity to see the canteen but I imagine it to be exercise in French dining: socializing in hushed conversations with everyone seated properly at the tables, cutting their meat with real knives under the watchful eyes of the lunch attendants. Children are highly encouraged to lunch at the school canteen so they can practice French etiquette in a proper dining environment and try typical French fare with the occasional introduction to traditional foods from regions like Basque or Alsace. Imagine my grimace when America was represented by cheeseburgers and fries…

Now we are back in Toronto where the public school that my son attends discourages the students to stay for lunch. I suspect this is due to limited space as they are rushed into the gymnasiums to gobble down their packed lunches in 10 minutes and then play outside for the remaining 55 minutes of lunch time. The first day my son had to eat on the gymnasium floor (not enough tables) under the ear-splitting commotion of excited kids and shouting lunch room attendants (instructing the kids to hurry up and eat). We had it so good in Paris.

***Upon reflection, all that hassle we went through at the mairie (=town hall) to get my kids registered at the canteen in Paris, was worth it. My kids were exposed to a variety of healthy food choices free of fast foods and sugary drinks, plus I gained a few days a week of complete freedom to myself IN PARIS.***

Ironically, my hubby and I had gone through a similar hassle with the Toronto public school here upon our return. But instead of uncomfortable confrontation highly marked by French/English miscommunication and not enough documentation/red tape (as in Paris), the school here just stopped communicating with us: unanswered phone calls,  the principal moving schools without notice and misplaced documentation. So ignore my ranting about the red tape in the French school system because it appears to be just as tricky here in Toronto.

The back of my children’s school in Toronto. A grassy field for soccer, baseball diamond (sandy area in foreground) plus climbing apparatuses and separate playground for the very young grades (not in view).

On a happier note, at least my kids can play in a spacious playground with grass and play structures. The Paris courtyard seemed like an enclosed prison of cement for the 1.5 hours of play time after lunch!  Is it typical that the French focus on meal time while in North America, play time appears more important than eating?

The children’s school playground/courtyard in Paris last year. The space is maybe 1/15 of our Toronto playground with less than 1/3 the student population. Outdoor washrooms(!) are located to the right.