Dining, Not Eating Posted on March 16th, 2012 by

According to the great philosopher Douglas Huff, where there are two words, there are two meanings.  Early in this French excursion, I encountered two words that clearly had two entirely different meanings for the French, but whose subtleties quite deftly escaped my baffled American brain.

During one of our first French classes, one other student was recounting her preceding evening, and said that she ate at home with her host family.  Our French professor stopped her.  “You ate with your host family?  That doesn’t make for very pretty French.”  Instead of eating, she insisted on using the word dine.  Dîne instead of mange.  

At first, this seemed ridiculously nitpicky, and potentially pretentious.  There are pretty and ugly ways to say that you had a meal last night?  I didn’t understand what the big difference was between eating and dining.  So I wrote it down, and waited.  Now that I have fallen into the pace of life here in France, I think I see why our professor impressed upon us the difference.

I could say that after high school, I went to Gustavus to study.  Certainly, this captures the core mechanic of Gustavus as an institution:  it is a place of higher education where people study in classes and for classes; then, in exchange for thousands upon thousands of pieces of green paper, we receive a large piece of white paper.  This is driven by studying (or madness, I’m not yet sure).

But being a student at Gustavus is about so much more than sitting in the library pouring over books or memorizing dates (which is good, because I don’t know a single one).  Gustavus is also the place where I have encountered the strongest community spirit of which I’ve ever been a part.  It has helped me figure out who I am, and how my life before Gustavus has lead me here.  It has opened my eyes to so much of what is ugly in the world, but also helped me discover so many of its wonders.  Most importantly, it is where I have found many people whom I love dearly, and who have shared in this adventure.

Now that I’ve taken you on this theatrical detour of propaganda for why I love Gustavus, we return to the table.  Studying drives college, just as eating drives a meal;  but in France, the meal is a time to commune, a time to pause.  It is a time not just to break bread, but to break it with people.  When you dine, you come together, find out about everyone else’s day, talk about yours, share your thoughts, take a break, and eat food together.  Yes, here I use the word eat because it is a part of the meal.  But they’re not interchangeable.

I’ve been very busy these past week, and have not always spent time with someone while eating lunch (or lunching, if you will).  But the other day, I took my lunch with me and sat with a French student who tutors for us.  We talked about politics, history, France, and the United States.  We communed, conversed, and laughed.  And it felt like a meal, because it was about more than just eating.


The lunch at the university usually isn't bad. It's cheap, it's fairly generous, and a good place for conversation between classes.



  1. Amanda Hochstatter says:

    I greatly appreciated this blog post as a recent Gustavus grad for many reasons:

    1. The mention of Professor Doug Huff.
    2. Knowing the same love and community I felt at Gustavus is still felt by others who are studying there.
    3. The discussion on the difference between dining and eating.

    And more importantly that Gustavus “has opened your eyes to so much of what is ugly in the world, but also helped you discover so many of its wonders.”

    It’s the true spirit of a liberal arts student. I love that.

  2. Eric Halvorson says:

    Amanda, that’s so good to hear! I’m glad I could give you a little window into both France and Gustavus. Thanks for reading.