The first few cafes Kim and I sat at here, the service was awful. Really crappy.
It took forever for someone to come around, they were gone for long stretches at a time, and when we were done, it took an age for them to come. Both times, we gave up waiting for them to come with the bill; we finally got up and asked for it. Frustrating.
And, of course, we were being silly.
We weren’t wrong to be frustrated maybe, but the source of our frustration was the two of us carrying our expectations of how service should go, learned in the US, with us into France. Not shitty service.
This is such a subtle thing, you don’t even notice it. What’s normal for you seems normal everywhere, right?
Here’s what I learned somewhere when I was young: when I sit down, I want prompt service. Someone attentive. I want them watching me eat; when my drink is low I want them to magically appear to fill it. When I’m done, I want them to magically re-appear with the check, so I can leave and get on with living my life.
Everyone would want this, yes?
My own description of what “good service” is ( above ) might resonate with you, but it’s rooted in my American upbringing, to be sure.
I have serious expertise in cultural anthropology, and yet it didn’t occur to me that maybe what I was experiencing in France was not shitty service. When all this was going on, I didn’t throw a stink like some people might; I just sat and stewed a bit. Ugh, what lousy service.
I brought with me an underlying assumption we’re taught pretty early in America. At least in the Midwest: be economical with your time in a restaurant or cafe. Take as long as you need, but don’t loiter. Loitering is bad manners; it keeps the table occupied while the server could be earning tips from someone else, the place could be charging someone else for food and service.
This isn’t your mom’s place – eat and GTFO.
Meanwhile, in the French cafe-goer’s mind…
Of course, in France, the whole idea here is different. There’s a entirely different fundamental assumption, and there are different norms in play.
Knowing this makes life clearer, and better.
The French don’t want to be hurried. That feeling I loved at my favorite coffee shop back home in Lihue? The French want that -everywhere- in France. They demand it.
They want to sit, relax, loiter, veg, meet with friends, take three hours if they have three hours to spend. And they want this at all cafes, not just the “home” cafes where everybody knows their name.
This is normal, and expected here.
French service is based around these norms and expectations. The waiter/waitress will give you serious leeway by default. They won’t be on your every few minutes. There is zero expectations of rushing, or moving through so more people can sit in your current seat. Take your time.
Don’t rush. Enjoy life.
A French server wouldn’t dream of hassling you with the bill, or breaking your rest with constant visits. It would not be respectful.
And if you’re on a schedule… just mention this.
“Excusez-moi monsieur,” you say. “I am a rushed American and I have tickets to this one French Thingy. Can I get my bill when I’m served my meal?”
“But of course.”
That’s it. If you want to not wait, to not loiter, just ask. Of course they’re cool with that.
The thing is, it was really easy to not even ask. It was very easy to instead just feel like the service sucked.
And from there it was easy to jump to all sorts of dumb, in-retrospect-embarrassing conclusions. “It’s probably because they know we’re Americans,” and so on.
This was wrong. And BS. And childish.
One thing I really, really want to work on this trip is being in tune with my assumptions and expectations, and how much these and my own frame of mind contribute to my stress. And the fundamental understanding that this point of view is a choice.
I choose to be affronted, offended. Just because I don’t know what’s going on is not an excuse or an explanation or rationale. If I begin and end at feeling stressed, insulted, and affronted… this is because I have made a choice to be.
This starts and ends with me.
Here in France, all most people really want to do is smoke, and treat you well.