In 1990, my husband's work took him to Aix-en-Provence, a 17th-century city in the south of France. We moved with our three children, who were 3, 6, and 10 years old at the time, to live there for a year. The lessons learned and experiences shared have stayed with me ever since.
All three of my children were in culture — or "school" — shock as they adjusted to new classmates and rules. Everything was different, from the long hours (8:30-5:00) to the high expectations (cursive in first grade?). I thought they would starve when I looked at the school's menu: Roast rabbit with ratatouille — about as appealing to my kids as raw chicken livers. On many mornings, as one or the other of the kids cried on the way to school, we wondered if we were doing the right thing. We were. They survived.
Ah, but the most profound lesson arose out of a Sunday. In the south of France, you don't shop or go to the office on Sundays, nor book playdates. The business of the day is to be with family, with much of the day centered on the family meal.
We came to appreciate the fact that Sunday was a day for pause. We began to fill it up with family activities — hikes and sightseeing, restaurant meals and picnics in the countryside. Often, we'd start the day with a trip to the outdoor market — the only "store" open until 1 p.m. We'd pick up a rotisserie chicken, some chèvre, and a baguette and pile into the car to explore someplace new.
Those Sundays left an unforgettable impression, and we began eating most of our meals en famille, like the French. There was always a fresh baguette, candles, and conversation. We came to love our new home-away-from-home routine, and we kept it up when we returned to Boston, no matter how busy we were. We'd plan dinner around everyone's schedules, which some nights meant eating as late as 8 o'clock if someone had play rehearsal or soccer practice or if one of us had a late meeting. Mealtime was when we connected and came together as a family.
My children, now in their twenties, say their memories of Sundays in France are instant and clear. They loved the long lunches on the terrace of our apartment, the mountain hikes and day trips to hillside towns, and especially the delicious picnics. We all learned about the importance of family Sunday. For me, that was the best French lesson of all.