In my life in San Francisco, back in the U.S., I always knew what I could do on Sundays. Mainly because: one, it is a large city; two, there’s always something new that’s happening each weekend; three, it’s the U.S.. When reading this it’s easy to guess the first two, though with the last one, “it’s the U.S.”, what do I mean by that? Well, looking back at my life in the States I have to say that it’s an aspect of the U.S. that places more often tend to be open on Sundays than in France. I don’t mean every place–if you want that it’s certainly Monday through Saturday–but I mean that maybe six to eight times out of ten depending on the size of the city you live in a random place is open when you pass by, whether it be a store, restaurant, or coffee place. For Sundays in France, it feels like one or two times out of ten the place you’re looking for is closed (though you’re privileged if you’re in Paris…more on that later). It is in this way that France feels quite different, yet in others it is the same.
Let me just say from the start: when a foreigner or Frenchman/woman says that everything in France is closed on Sunday, it truly does feel like everything is closed on Sunday.
When I first arrived in France, I woke up at around ten in the morning, hoping to go explore, and basically found the entire city to be dead. The traffic was gone, the crowds in centreville were gone, and the only thing I saw alive were the pigeons. The 12th largest city in France truly feels dead on Sunday. What struck me the most is that the library at my university closes on Sundays, which really struck me as different because the one at my home university is open 24/7–something I took for granted. This feeling is not exclusive to Reims, not at all, but applies to basically the whole of France.
I’ve been to Chalons-en-Champagne, a town of 45 thousand people, and it felt completely dead; I’ve been to Lille, a city of more than 200 thousand, and it felt mostly dead; and I’ve been to Paris, with more than 2.2 million in the city proper, and I was shocked that it felt dead relative to the other days of the week, seemingly kept alive by just the tourists.
It’s common that if you actually do find a place that is open each day of the week here, it advertises it in the windows a large “7/7”, France’s equivalent to the U.S.’s “24/7” in windows.
While it is true that France feels dead on Sundays, it is not actually dead.
In Reims, all of the grocery stores are closed with just two or three that I know of that are open, yet just until 12 or 12:30, then it’s done. Basically all of the restaurants are closed, but you can always find that one family-owned restaurant that is open. And of course, if you are that desperate (or just love it), McDonalds (we say “McDo” in France) is sitting there happily waiting for you to make a visit. In Reims, there is also one street (provided though, it is just one street) that never closes that hosts the popular bars. I also know that here in Reims there is one alimentation generale is open basically 7/7, 24 hours of the day. One time I passed by it at four in the morning on a Sunday and it was still open to my surprise, and even delight. If you live in the typical French city of around one-hundred thousand people (that’s most of France) or less, this is most certainly the case that you can find several places open on Sundays, however, if you live in a larger city such as Lyon, Marseille, or Paris (many say jokingly it’s the only real city in France), you have much better luck a finding your favorite spot open. Of course, it is still not the case that everything is open or everything is actually dead, but it’s just that in the large cities there is simply more places and therefore more that are open on Sunday.
What is universal in France, the primary reason why not everything is closed on Sunday is because of the museums.
I don’t know why, but I have never found a museum to be closed on Sunday...and I’m saying this after having visited more than twenty museums throughout eight cities in France. In fact, Sunday (alongside Saturday) is the most busy day of the week for the Louvre, just to give an example. Also the churches are open on Sunday, of course, so France truly cannot be dead. Me, I’ve attended mass in the Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Reims, the location of the coronation of the Kings of France, which I personally found as an amazing experience for a Sunday.
(As you can see, spending a Sunday in a museum, especially the Louvre in this case, will be far from dead)
Paris is more often times than not one the city of exceptions in France and it certainly applies on Sundays. Not everything is open on Sunday, that is for certain, however, there is a relatively huge number of places still open. Me, I blame it on several factors: one, it is the largest city in France; two, it is the epicenter for virtually everything in France, thus business doesn’t and cannot stop; three, the constant flocks of tourists. To illustrate, in Le Marais, for example, on Sunday it can be busier than even the downtown of my city on a weekday, the 12th largest in France. While Paris is certainly more quiet on Sunday, it trumps any other city in France.
If you’re reading this article from the U.S., think of this facet of France as being quite similar to the small towns of the States of around five-thousand to twenty-thousand people, such as little Ukiah, California where I attended the final three years of highschool. Yet, the difference is that while this happens in the really small towns in the States, it’s as if the cities of France are these towns on Sunday, or, to better get the point across, it’s the small towns of the States that feel like that the towns and cities of France.
When I first arrived in France I complained quite a lot about “the Sunday problem”–I think it is certainly a form of culture shock when coming from the States to France.
Though as time has gone on–and certainly now after spending seven months in France–I have learned to really appreciate the Sunday quietness and integrate it into my weekly routines. Sunday is truly the day here in France that people can truly relax. Me, I enjoy walking through Reims in the quiet atmosphere, taking a psychological break–it forces you to accept and feel peace.
Brian Olinger, ex Campus France e-ambassador