The last time I saw Paris

Peter
Peter Jackson
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"The King asked The Queen, and The Queen asked The Dairymaid:

Could we have some butter for The Royal slice of bread?"

— A.A. Milne, "The King’s Breakfast."

 

Two weeks ago, I promised an eyewitness report on the state of the service industry in France. Are French waiters really rude? Are taxi drivers surly?

The answer is no - at least, no more than most places I've been. There are grumpy waiters, yes, but the vast majority are friendly and efficient.

In one rather expensive restaurant, we had several smartly dressed waiters ghosting around us in relative silence. They weren't so much aloof as quietly professional and efficient. Some people don't like this.

I had pigeon there, flavoured with a bouquet of hay. As in dried grass. How could I not? And I managed to extract a genuine laugh when I asked whether it had been snatched off the streets of Paris.

There are, of course, some idiosyncrasies about restaurant service.

First, don't expect butter with your bread.

Why do you need butter, anyway? It is decadent and unhealthy, and an insult to the bread. Besides, isn't there enough in your food already? If you want butter, ask for it. But don't expect an approving nod.

Similarly, if you want water, ask for it. This is not universal; some places bring it automatically, especially in the warmer south. But not always. Usually it will not be especially cool, and will arrive in a wine bottle seconded for the purpose.

The most frustrating part is figuring out how to tip.

First, calm yourself in the knowledge that there is no right answer.

The main thing to keep in mind is that restaurant service is included in the final tally.

That doesn't mean you can't leave a couple of extra euros as an add-on, but realize that 15 per cent of your bill is already going to the service staff. None of them expect you to leave anything.

For other services like taxi rides, coat checks, etc., I've read that it's fair to tack on an extra euro or two, no matter what the cost. And leave a bit of change for the bartender.

In Paris, it's not wait staff who are likely to treat you poorly. It's everyone else.

I've been in many big cities, but never in one with such disengagement between pedestrians. It's not that people are nasty, as such. It's that you are totally invisible to them. They will cut you off or block your path without a moment's thought.

On more than one occasion, I felt inclined to grab someone, like Jean Chretien did when a protester got in his way in the 1990s.

I'd use the same explanation, too: "I don't know. What happened? If you don't know ... it might have been ... I had to go, so if you are in my way, I am walking. ..."

Occasionally, someone will be standing looking at his or her cellphone or watch, and then start walking beside you as you pass. You'll feel like saying, "Why, hello there. Do I know you?" Don't. They don't even notice they're walking beside you.

Again: you are invisible.

That is, of course, unless the person is a pickpocket.

Paris is maggoty with pickpockets. There are warnings everywhere. My wallet was lifted on a crowded subway.

I could feel it happening, but there was no way to tell who slipped it out of my buttoned back pocket when I swivelled around.

In fact, my wife and I were targeted numerous times by scam artists. I was a big, goofy tourist, and looked the part.

No surprise, really.

Regardless, none of these negative elements comes even close to overshadowing the wonder of Paris. It is an amazing, exhilarating city, larger than life, as its millions of annual visitors will attest. I yearn to go back again - soon.

Next time, though, my wallet will be securely stowed in a front pocket.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: @pjackson_NL

Geographic location: Paris, Paris.There

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