Just Above Sunset
January 30, 2005 - A Brit Explains the French, and Our Man in Paris Gives Us the Truth

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Stephen Clarke is the author of A Year in the Merde (Bantam Press, listed at Amazon’s UK site here for £6.99).  Last weekend, in The Observer (UK), Clarke ran the usual numbers on how to get along in Paris with its legendary snooty waiters and rude shopkeepers – and generally bad service.  The book is not available stateside, so the link to The Observer will have to do of all of us stuck here.


How to play the French service game… and win

When it comes to France, it's not so much where you go that matters, but how you do it.

Sunday January 23, 2005, The Observer (UK)


His thesis?


What I've learnt in 11 years of living in France is that getting good service here is anything but a divine right.  It's like learning to play a computer game.  You've got to press the right buttons or it will be game over before you have had a chance to buy a single croissant.


And he posits three levels of what he calls the French Service Game -


Level one: Ignore The Customer


Clarke he spins a his tale of trying to get a cup of coffee at the Café Beaubourg, opposite the Centre Pompidou, the one with the hip Philippe Starck interior, with its round metal tables welded to the floor.  That was the first bad sign.


But there’s a trick in dealing with the aloof waiter whose attitude matched the welded-down decor -


As you should always do with a French waiter, I looked him straight in the eye.  As soon as he blinks in your direction, you have to blurt out your order before he can get away.


But he says he made two fatal errors -


First, I didn't follow my own rule, and hesitated for that millisecond when I had his attention. I let myself be beaten into submission by his withering look. I ought to have got out my 'Bonjour, un petit café, s'il vous plait' in that minuscule window of opportunity between stare and pout.


Second, I now suspect that I was on the wrong side of an invisible border. I wasn't at one of 'his' tables. If this was the case, the other waiter was obviously excused stairs that day… because no one else made any attempt to serve on the mezzanine. Whatever. This kind of thing will happen to Parisians and visitors alike. Don't take it personally. The only solution is to laugh and leave. There are enough cafes in Paris where you can get served. 


But the advice turns general regarding such things as shop assistants who carry on gossiping about their boss as you wait to be served. 


In that case, if you really need what they have on offer, you should interrupt the conversation with a cheery but insistent 'Bonjour!' - which is French for 'are you going to serve me or what?'


The key thing is not to get annoyed.


Not bad advice.  Works over here too.


Level two: Just Say No


Lots of folks have point this out, most notable Polly Platt in her books French or Foe? and Savoir-Flair!  The idea is you will be told you cannot have something or a certain tour or event is booked.  You just keep saying, no, you must have what you want, and give various reasons – and reasons having to do with elaborate emergencies work particularly well.  You’ll get what you want.


Level three: Drive The Customer Mad


Here Clarke’s tales revolve around times he’s noted when one customer has a problem all the clerks and such drop everything and pile on – trying to solve the problem.  Everyone else is ignored.  And you just have to insist you matter too.


Game over: Result: An Honourable Draw


Here Clarke suggests there is good service in France, mentioning boulangeries where folks do wait in lines, politely, and are treated well.  And he recounts a visit to the Jules Verne restaurant halfway up the Eiffel Tower.  There the waiters are good - and Clarke says that until you've been served by a good French waiter, you've never been served at all.  But the idea is to act as mutual equals.


And then Clarke appends the usual advice regarding terms - No one shouts garçon! in a French cafe unless they don't want to get served.  To attract the attention of a waiter or waitress just raise your arm and call out s'il vous plait.  We stateside folks know that was only for American movies about Paris.  And if you are served by an African-American male here, calling him “boy” is rather unwise.


His other terms are the usual – un express is for and espresso coffee, not really un café noir or un petit café  - and knowing that will get you better service, as will asking for café crème instead of café au lait like some Iowa tourist.


But it gets confusing with beer -


The standard beer measure in France is 'un demi', literally a half. That's not half a litre (don't expect the French to make things that simple); it's 25 centilitres, about half a pint. In summer, the Champs-Elysées is lined with foreign visitors struggling to finish two-litre flagons of lager when they rashly asked for 'une bière'. Some waiters are so determined to make an extra euro that even if you ask for a 'demi' they might reply with 'petit, moyen ou grand?' (large, medium or small?). The correct response is a baffled 'mais un demi est un demi, non?'


So drink wine. 





I ran all this past my friend and Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis, and he had this to say -


Ric’s column for Just Above Sunset


A Votre Service

Pretend To Be a Thief

Copyright © 2005 – Photos and Text, Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis


Nothing gets service faster than dressing as a potential thief.  If they don't want their tables, glasses and ashtrays stolen, you'll get quick service.


When the waiter does arrive, say 'bonjour' and then ignore him while pretending to decide what to order, or steal.  If he pretends to lose interest and turns to serve others, yell 'attendez!'  Then ask how they make their double-café.  If you get an explanation, then order a single.  Just before the waiter turns away, steal a tin ashtray. This will ensure rapid service.

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Patrick, Café-Tabac La Corona, Paris

If a place, like the Café Beaubourg, has nothing to steal it is a bad sign.  They probably have nothing else you want.

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Bonus tips - good cafés are never 'almost empty.'  Waiters do not need to declare tips as income, so clever waiters make more money by being alert and providing friendly service.  Most waiters are in it for life; it's not something they do while waiting for their break into movies.

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'Non' Is for Other People


Basically you can't have whatever it is you want.  The way around this is to guess what they don't have, ask for it, and add that it's for your mother who is dying of cancer, and you need it right away because your flight back to Chicago leaves in two hours.  Then, if they have it, it's unacceptable.  Which will result in what you really want being available, possibly at a discount, with free one-hour delivery.  Ask for the salepeson's name so you can send a 'thank you' postcard.


Drive Them Crazy


There's nothing you can do about the situation of all the postal workers gathering at one workstation to sort out a thorny customer problem, unless you are that customer.  If you are third in line you are out of luck.


The easiest way to scramble a post office is to have a variety of cards, letters and parcels to send, and then ask for the special stamps, such as the series with all the French fire trucks or the poison mushrooms series, or a mixture of both.  Nobody ever questions why you want these.  The stamps are loose in folders and the postie will hold them up for you to choose.  You can discuss them.  Then a certain amount of calculations have to be done, money handed over, change returned and then the stamps need to be affixed.  It all could take half an hour or more.


Another place to try this would be a portable phone boutique, one that sells many brands of phones and has options from all the operators.  If you ever get to talk to a salesperson, ask for the 1-euro deal.  This will come with the club sandwich of a phone.  Ask for it without the mayo, without the meat and without the salad.  Just thinking about all the options you could play here is making me ill.  I'm sure you get the idea.


It's All Attitude


These days many service people who deal with the public are working for the new economy.  This is bad news because the 'new economy' is a sham.  The tens of thousands now working in portable phone boutiques are going to be unemployed before long, just as soon as they've hustled the last fourth-generation phone out the door.  There will be a fifth-generation phone but the numbers of phone users upgrading every four months is going to diminish.  Certainly some of these phone people will recycle into digital television reception sales, but in five years this will be saturated too.  It's a rat race.  The people are as expendable as last year's phone.  Small wonder that they are ever civil.


The attitude to have is one of total indifference.  Ignore it all.


In For the Long Run


Meanwhile, many little shops aren't going away.  In France many people who work in these are in them for years or for entire careers.  This goes for waiters too.  A good shop or a good restaurant is a place you'll likely be back to - possibly for the personal contact more than the goods or the service.  If they are mostly good you can be tolerant about the rest.  Nothing is perfect.


Magic Words


It can be surprising how well 'magic words' work.  They work better when they come automatically, when you say them a bit too loudly, or not loudly enough.  In a crowded café at lunchtime a growled 'Express!' can get you one before you can undo your scarf even if other customers are two-deep at the bar.  Wait for when the bar is less crowded to say it too quietly.  Watch the barman lean closer if he hasn't guessed, listen to him ask, 'Express?'  A nod will do it.

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A Glass of Water


It might be since the heat wave in the summer of 2003, but it is pretty common these days to be offered a glass of water to go along with an express.  If not offered, asking for one produces it instantly.  It's usually cool so there no need to ask for ice too, although most bars have it.  Some places are too forward, and you get ice without asking for it.  If you don't want it, getting rid of icecubes isn't a normal problem.  You are stuck with them.


'Un Demi' Deafness


This is a quarter-litre (0.25 cl) of beer in a glass.  It is half of a half-litre, and a half-litre used to be called a 'formidable.'  At Easter when there are too many Germans making short visits in Paris, a 'demi' can become a half-litre, which costs twice as much as a regulation 'demi.'


Waiters in Paris know what a 'demi' is but firmly believe no German wants one.  They do not know that the German 'halben' has shrunk to 0.4 or even a miserly 0.3 of a litre.  Although shrunk, it is still poured correctly; which is very rare in Paris.  Even good beers are usually treated like swill here.  No amount of willing service can make any difference to them.

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Other Myths


A lot of people expect Paris to be intimidating, near perfect, and full of snooty Parisians.  In fact the charm of Paris is its tendency to anarchism.  Most of the time everything goes along at 85 percent 'according to the plan.'  But without warning the trolley unhooks and the script blows out the window, and the life becomes slapstick.  This is what becomes memorable.  Imperfection.


In a way it is anti-American.  You can't trust a McDonald's in Paris to be without surprises, although I wouldn't recommend patronizing them in the hopes of random action.  You can't trust any colorful brochure.  You can't plan ahead for the 'meal of a lifetime,' because some goon rapes a ticket controller on a train and everybody goes on strike and shuts down transport for three days, and the cook is stuck at La Rochelle.


In France, unlike America, merde happens.  All the time.  You don't ask for it but you get it all the same.  It's like a free bonus.  It's better than life in the waiting line for a mall.

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French DYI Service


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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