Snobby French waiters: myth or reality?

Peter Jackson
Published on July 3, 2013

Just so you know, this column was written in advance. I am in France right now.

(Confidential to “Saturday Night Live” fans: there are no coneheads in France.)

France is not a country I’m familiar with, although I’ve been there before. The first time was 1973, when my father took a sabbatical and brought the family to the Netherlands for the winter. Holland in winter (then, at least) was like June in Newfoundland — rainy, foggy and cool, but rarely any snow.

At one point during our stay, we took a short sojourn to Bruges, Belgium and then across the border to Lille, France.

The Dutch name for Bruges is Brugge, and my mother only knew we were going to some city with the latter name. It’s only when we arrived that she realized we were in Bruges. She was thrilled, because Bruges is the home of a famous sculpture by Michelangelo called “Madonna and Child.” It’s a rather small sculpture, barely life-sized. In it, Jesus is not a babe in arms but a toddler sliding off his mother’s lap, about to depart on his fateful life’s journey.

Bruges was fascinating, even for a 12-year-old. Lille, on the other hand, was not so appealing.

Lille is the fourth largest city in France. Its economy used to be based on mining and textiles, but those were in decline at the time we were visiting.

The hotel we stayed in was an economy hotel, not very clean or comfortable. On top of that, my parents sensed it may actually have been favoured by working girls, if you get my drift.

A true comedy of errors awaited us in the restaurant. French service staff — let alone the general public — have always had a reputation for being rudely aloof. This was especially true in those days.

My father was attempting to use broken French, but couldn’t quite get the message out. When we ordered drinks, one of us wanted orange pop and another wanted milk. Even though it was supposed to be a drink order, the waiter took the order of “un orange” literally and brought an orange on a plate.

The milk was even funnier. Powdered milk was all the rage back home; my parents used it a lot as a cost-cutting measure. So my father felt it was important to order fresh milk. Unfortunately, he used the word “fraise” instead of “frait.” So one us ended up with a glass of strawberry-flavoured milk.

The waiter, rather than trying to firmly establish what we wanted, took everything on its face. Snooty doesn’t begin to describe it.

Before my wife and I embarked on our current trip, I expected France 2013 would be a new and improved experience for visitors, one in which the tourism industry — like that in Newfoundland — had worked hard to boost hospitality standards. Then a friend sent a story from Britain’s Guardian:

“One of the world’s most visited cities but also famous for its rudeness, Paris has embarked on a campaign to improve its reputation and better cater to the needs of tourists,” the paper reported.

Not a good sign, I thought.

“Waiters, taxi drivers and sales staff in the French capital all too often come off as impolite, unhelpful and unable to speak foreign languages, say local tourism chiefs, who are handing out a manual with guidelines on better etiquette.”

The “manual” is only six pages and contains a few basic greetings in foreign languages. It also gives tips on how to treat people from different cultures. Apparently, the British want to be called by their first names, while Americans need to be assured about prices.

The Guardian adds that France is the world’s top destination for foreign tourists, with Paris hosting 29 million people last year. So, one would suppose they must be doing something right.

Your humble correspondent will be sure to file a report upon return.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor.