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A working lunch

I am eating a sandwich at my desk. In front of me is my laptop, glaring. My free hand caresses the track pad. My other hand brings the sandwich to and from my mouth. My eyes feel gluey and dazzled. Around me I hear the patter of keyboards, the buzz of phones, loud professionalism bellowed confidently down receivers. Dense wafts of microwave drift across from the kitchen: a cacophony of odours — tangy sweetness, heavy grease, peppery jerk, and a whole raft of intermingled sub-whiffs.

I must focus on the task at hand, but the coldness of the sandwich — fresh from a Tesco fridge — gnaws at me, tugging my mind elsewhere.

I think of my twice yearly trip back to France, the train from Kings Cross St Pancras to Gare du Nord. If I get the early train arriving in Paris at 11:05am, the comparison is at its sharpest. I walk down the Canal St Martin and around République, sometimes stretching down towards Oberkampf: a ritual stroll to re-acclimatise.  

The leisurely pace of pedestrians, the heavy diesle fumes, the honking of horns, and a certain type of busy-ness in the streets at this time marks the difference. A slow and contented activity. A collective sense of time.  

The offices have spat out huddles of giggling colleagues for their lunch. The chefs in kitchens are getting ready for the storm: the storm that rages behind closed doors. Heads down — short, sharp hand gestures. Serious frowns. From the kitchen windows or doors opening onto backstreets, the smell of fried onions, garlic and butter floods the capital.  

The owners of the bistros and bars agitate behind their counters: an accelerated bashing of coffee machines marks the transition from the slow morning to the main economic activity of the day — lunch, at an average of €13 a head. Waiters and waitresses don their aprons and pace up and down: double checking, triple checking, polishing the odd blurry glass for fear of the pernickety eye of the demanding Parisien diner, shifting tables and chairs to maximise the profit that the tight space can yield. It is a skilled and precise dance — the smoothing of paper table cloths, the folding of napkins, the positioning of glasses, the filling up of water jugs and carafes of wine. Behind the counter, fresh baguettes are being sliced with a confident speed at the very last minute and covered with a red and white tea towel. The phone rings — “au restaurant La Grosse Mignone bonjour?” — one more reservation. ‘Table 6 for three people 12.30’ shouts the boss to the waitress. Soon the bistros are bursting, full of brash voices, the clink of cutlery and glass, the glug and sloshing of red wine.

But I am here, in front of my screen, reading — the bulk of the cold sandwich has passed through my gullet down into my hot belly below without my realising. Only the cold crust remains, dumbfounded, between my motionless thumb and forefinger.

There is no awkwardness between me and this crust — no fake laughter, no small talk. There is a frankness to our ephemeral companionship. (A cheapness too: it costs £2.99). The crust knows full well that I have little interest in eating it, and I know the crust cares little whether I eat it or not. The same could not be said of my hypothetical Parisien colleagues.  

Things could be worse. Couldn’t they? My greasy fingers scramble over my keyboard. Without realising, I am wading through a google search: “lunchtime work 19th century”. I find this on a dusty blog:

Abraham Whitehead, cloth merchant of Holmfirth and upstanding industrialist, made the following report to a parliamentary committee in 1832: "The youngest age at which children are employed is never under five, but some are employed between five and six, in woollen-mills, as piecers.... I have frequently seen them going to work between five and six in the morning.... They get their breakfast as they work; they eat and work; there is generally a pot of water porridge, with a little treacle in it, placed at the end of the machine.

Things could be worse. The crust, now lying on the desk next to my laptop, shrugs. Several modified search terms take me to a page of photos of workers’ canteens. One shows a long room filled to the four walls with hundreds of women in parallel rows, cozy, their beaming faces looking into the camera. In the third row from the left, the fifth women along looks to be nudging her neighbour in blatant disregard for the stillness of the photograph. The irreverent complicity between the two of them travels down the row from shoulder to shoulder, threatening to undermine the photographer’s authority. Another image shows lines and lines of plates stretching into the distance like soldiers on parade, perpendicular to the line that demarcates the kitchen. Everyone ate at the same time, the clock watching over all. A thousand of them: clinking and chomping, talking and swallowing, all in the same room. Togetherness in all its routine grump and joy. 

But Google will not allow me to wallow in nostalgia. On another webpage I find a description of an American factory canteen by the French worker and trade unionist, Hyacinthe Dubreuil:

It’s lunchtime, for which we are allowed half an hour. I need all my wits about me to adapt to this new environment: no one leaves the factory, even though we are free to do so; rather, everyone goes to the third floor where a canteen has been set up in the corner of a workshop, next to a kitchen, in which three cooks prepare a varied menu, cleverly offering more or less the same choice of dishes as the neighbouring restaurants but at slightly lower prices. Naturally, on my first day, I am the last to be served. One must queue in front of a sort of counter, behind which the cooks stand with the choice of food on display, and then serve ourselves everything we need. Before this, we take an aluminium tray that serves as a means to transport the food to a table. Then spoon, fork, knife, glass (filled with water at the fountain). To eat in such a rapid meal in the middle of all these workers, I felt truly isolated and in another world.

Perhaps Hyacinthe would have preferred popping to Tesco’s whenever he wanted to. A cold sandwich is a small price to pay for freedom. In any case, no one eats together here — I see people skulking off to their little hideaways up on the fifth floor, or to the local park, microwaved tupperware in hand. Others eat at their desks, performing busyness, their flitting eyes occasionally scanning the room. The expensive high-table and stools of the ‘lunch area’ (the brainchild of an eager workplace-psychologist-cum-interior-designer) stand forlorn. The only moment of togetherness is the result of a fault in the design: a small kitchen containing a single, in-demand microwave. That and the organised-fun of the co-working space Christmas dinner.

But I must stop getting distracted — I need to focus on the task at hand.

That task I was doing — the one that has kept me here because I absolutely must finish it by 3pm… The crust is silent. It must have dropped off while I was googling. I wipe the crumbs off my keyboard and stretch my arms up and my head back, basking in neon. I can smell someone’s chill con carne. Maybe I’ll get one tomorrow.

Constance Laisné and Gabriel Oct

Constance Laisné is an artist and a strong proponent of workers' cooperatives. Based in London, she is currently working in theatre in Paris.

Gabriel Oct is a writer.