Nice. A pavement cafe. We were fresh off the plane. Still in London-mode: fast, buzzy, Alpha. We sat down at a table in the square offset to the left of the cafe entrance. There were a few customers scattered around. It was eight-thirty-ish. Sunny. The gingham tablecloth made up our minds that this was the place for our breakfast.
We sat. We waited. We looked at the menu but we knew what we wanted. I looked at my watch. No one had come over or acknowledged us sitting down at the table. My temperature rose ever so slightly. Still nothing and no one came over. My silent wariness escalated to Defcon 3. I was on edge. I wanted my coffee. Where was the waiter?
The garcon appeared from the interior, tray balanced on his flat palm; he did that half run, half walk thing they do so well. Over to the table…of another customer. He was thirty feet away and over to the left. I raised my hand in a gesture signifying insouciance with a hint of mild irritation. Not a glance. He disappeared and then quickly re-emerged from the dark interior. And arrived, order pad in hand…at a table over in the right hand corner of the cafe’s boundaries. He smiled and nodded at the customers, an elderly couple. Regulars. Order taken, back into the cafe. He glanced over at us. I raised my hand and my eyebrows again. Nothing. Ignored. Invisible.
Six minutes elapsed. My arms were clamped to the sides of my chair and about to hoist my hungry form to a different cafe when the waiter walked towards us, .
“Vouse etes Americaine?”, he accused.
“English. London. “I replied.
“Ah” , he sighed.
“You sink I do not see you, waving your arms up like zis?” He gestured with his arm, fully extended, waving left and right in a ruthless parody of my attempts to get his attention a few minutes earlier.
“I am a professional. I see you. I see you sit at the table. But you are in France. Zere is a way to do sings ee’air. Ea’air, we take our time. Relax. Settle. I ‘ave seen you. I will come. Read ze menu. Decide. You ‘ave time. Zer is no rush, no..” and with that, his arm went up again in the mocking pastiche of my frantic, attention-seeking.
That was me told.
When I tell people this story, most say “well, I would have left – the cheek – typically French”. To which I say he was right. He is right. In the UK, we tolerate any behaviour, however loutish, rude or ill considered. In France, there are rules. Ways of doing things. Protocols built up and refined over centuries. Especially around the manners regarding restaurant etiquette. This wan’t the first time I have been told off for being Anglo-Saxon. The first time was in an Alpine ski resort when I walked up to the proprietor of an open air mountain restaurant and, in my best French, bowled in with: “Bonjour. Avez-vous une table pour six personnes a une heure et demi, s’il vous plait?”
The proprietor took my arm. He walked me back to the wooden perimeter of the open air dining space. I clumped along with him, struggling to keep up in my ski boots.
“‘Ere in France, we start with “Bonjour, monsieur. Ca va? We do not leap straight to ze request for a table. I ‘ave a table. But lentement – slowly. Now. Try again.” And he retired back to where he had been.
Patronising? Yes. I felt patronised, humiliated and…fascinated. He took me off guard. The Brit inside me wanted to stand on my dignity and flounce off. But you can’t flounce anywhere in a pair of Salomons, and you usually trip over your dignity even if the boots don’t get you. I swallowed my pride.
“Bonjour, monsieur,” I smiled. “Comment t’allez-vous?”
“Tres bien, merci, monsieur. Et vous?”
“Moi aussi, merci Monsieur. Est-il possible de reserver une table pour six personnes cet apres-midi a une heure et demi, s’il vous plait?”
“Bien sur, monsieur. Sur le balcon ou dans l’interior?”
“L’exterior, s’il vous plait.”
“De rien. A plus tard.”
Another lesson. When you go into a shop in France – a baker, a hard-ware store, a fruitier or bookstore – it is polite to greet the person behind the counter as if you were entering their home. (You often are.) Not to do so runs the risk of being regarded as rude and ignored. Brits tend to behave on holiday as if they owned the place. They rarely stop to consider that Brit rules don’t hold sway here. Where it is perfectly usual in the UK to scramble for a table and sit down immediately in a busy cafe before the staff have had a chance to clear the detritus from the previous customers, in France, people wait until the waiter has cleared, cleaned and re-set the table. They are shown to the table. The waiter knows they are there and everything is just so, the way it is supposed to be. Everyone can relax. The waiter can do his job; the customers can do theirs and enjoy themselves. Smooth and simple. Rules make it work.
“Attendre!” is the single word cry from parents that most French children are brought up with, and which conditions them to behave patiently and not to demand attention in that thrusty, American-British way. It is why French children sit quietly at table and don’t have to be “entertained” by being glued to an i-pad screen. It is how they learn the art of eating what is in front of them (not just nuggets and fries) and how to converse (because their parents involve them in conversation or they hear grown-ups having conversations). “Wait” is a word we think is an insult in the UK. “Why should I wait? What for? Says who? I am too self-important to wait for anyone.” We have a culture of ‘the customer is always right’; in France, the person who knows the way it should be done is the one who holds sway, who is in charge.
I am an unashamed Franco-file. I love France. I think the French have life right. Righter than most. Righter than anyone, in fact. I want to live in France. Yes, the cussed Englishman in me baulks at being told what to do; but I also admire a culture that has found the best way to do something and brings up generation after generation in that tradition. In our shopping obsessed, screen-nannying, over-indulged, selfish, snowflake society, where no one is allowed to say this is right or that is wrong, where anything goes and rules are scorned, where a paralytic girl vomiting her guts up on the pavement at midnight is a badge of honour, where table manners are a thing of the past, eating is mainly done mindlessly and on the move and where a child’s every want is pampered to obese levels, it is worth a telling off every now and again to be reminded that there is a better way to be.
Leur mode de vie. C’est pour moi.