Monday, April 6, 2015

Nurse the Hate: Paris Cafe

The perplexing actions of the French waiter...

One would think that in an industry that is 100% service like restaurants, the key attributes would be to generate warm generous hospitality in an ever watchful state.  This is not the case in France.  I have never had the horrible encounters that one hears as cautionary hushed tales at cocktail parties.  I have always suspected these to be mainly the fault of the story teller.  An amazing trait Americans have while traveling is to be stunned when things aren't exactly as they are back home.  One would think that the whole point of traveling would be to surrender to a  new culture and way of doing things, but it seems that the continued rudeness of the French people for daring to speak French in France is a sticking point.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard people tell me about how rude the Parisian service employees were when they failed to respond to the storyteller's demands in English for having something done in a way that it is typically not done in France.  Change a few key details.  Make this a story about a French guy visiting New York.  "So I'm in Brooklyn at this pizza joint and ask for a slice of pepperoni in French.  The guy behind the counter starts yelling at me in English because he can't understand me (things like "This is America!  Speak in English!").  I couldn't believe how rude he was being.  You know they all know how to speak in French.  They just pretend they don't know how just to fuck with you.  They are all so rude there.  Why can't they just speak French?"

I have always gone with the idea that I am a guest in another country.  If I can't speak the language, that's on me.  It is a bit much when the French think that if you set foot in their country you should be fluent in French, as I don't think I could absorb Italian, German, Flemish, and French via Rosetta Stone the next time I pop over to Europe for a tour.  Maybe they can give visitors some flexibility?  The move is to keep it simple.  Apologize a lot and hope for the best.  Most Americans when frustrated by the cultural gap in France will then go to the "you'd be speaking German if not for us" card.  That usually warms everyone right up.  They love that shit.

The stereotype of the French waiter does have truth though, as most stereotypes do.  I had the experience of walking into a cafe in Paris in late afternoon.  There was one other table seated.  I asked if it was OK if I took a particular table.  I got the nod of assurance.  The waiter goes back into the cafe by the bar area and starts screwing around with the chalkboard menu.  I sat.  I sat some more.  15-20 minutes go by and he doesn't even drift out or once glance in my direction.  I'm the only person there.  I don't have a drink.  Why else would I be there?  My frustration has been explained to me as a cultural misunderstanding.  While I thought he was ignoring me and failing to do the absolute bare minimum for actually even being considered employed, my new French pals assured me that he was being considerate.  See, the culture is to not make you feel rushed.  Take your time.  Relax.  Wait for your friends.  We don't want to rush you.  We will come to give you service.  Eventually.

This sounds great until you factor in that the customer probably wouldn't have sat down in the first place if they didn't want a refreshment of some kind.  There is a different place where you can sit without getting service.  That's called "the park".  I have a sneaking suspicion that the idea of keeping the goal for good service low is a result of diminished expectations.  Being at a cafe in Paris is like being over at a stoner's house.  "Dude!  Do you want, like?  A beer?"  Then the waiter guy wanders off, maybe grabs a smoke, remembers you wanted a beer, and then attempts to bring it over to you without getting occupied with some other distraction.  A typical French waiter in Paris will take as long as someone named "Gary Starshine" to bring you a beverage.

Another way to think of them is like difficult women.  She will do what she wants to do when she wants to do it, but not before the moment when she is ready.  The service will come.  You must wait.  When that moment finally arrives appreciate it like the attention of a popular and head strong woman.  She has many options but she has chosen you.  You are lucky.  Bask in the attention.  Appreciate the moment.  Play it cool.  You may just get her attention again if you play your cards right.  If you slight her?  Oh, you are dead to her then.  You will die in that cafe seat with an empty glass.

So I sat at the cafe watching the mysterious Parisian girls walk by, just like little cats.  They wear almost no makeup, hair natural, just pulled back.  Each one of these beautiful little creatures are so unreachable, unknowable.  They move with grace through the city, aware that they are being observed.  Little flowers that open only when they have decided, a precious treasure.  We have no common ground.

A great mistake I made while a young student was not to study here for a year.  The immersion in the culture would have been good for me, but the experience of being handled by one of these women would have been ideal.  I would have been so hopelessly outmatched by these cooly indifferent girls.  I can picture myself standing outraged in a tiny battered apartment as she sits calmly in an uncomfortable looking chair.  She is smoking with heavy eyelids, bored with me.  "Yes.  I made love to Claude because I love Claude.  I love you too.  But not like Claude.  But I am with you.  Not Claude.  It meant nothing but he gave me pleasures that you could never know.  Ever.  Now stop being a child.  We will go to the cafe.  I love you.  I hate you."

It would have been great.  But it was not to be.  And now I sit at the table watching the parade of people.  My table is empty.  I try to get the waiter's attention.  He ignores me.  I will have to wait.  He will come.  Eventually.


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