The rude French waiter – fact or fiction?

As iconic as the Eiffel Tower is the French cafe.  The perfect place to while away time simply enjoying the ambience of Paris.  

But what about the rude French waiter – is he real, a legend in his own lunchtime, or is he a stereotype?  He exists alright.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an entire repertoire of service from pleasant and friendly (très sympa) through benign indifference to downright rude.  I’m thinking that if I put my mind to it I could possibly come up with some sort of grading scale like judges use in the Olympics for ice skating or gymnastics with points for “technical merit” and “artistic flare”.

Let me give you an example that rates well on technical merit.  Sunday morning last week after visiting a small art museum in the 6th (arrondissement) we decided to stop for a coffee at one of the many lovely looking cafes nearby.  Now that we’ve been here nearly 7 months and have read up on the rules of café etiquette (courtesy of Stephen Clarke’s book Paris Revealed) I thought I had mastered the technique of getting a table.  It was late morning, not quite 11.30 so before Parisian lunch time, we spotted a table that hadn’t been set for lunch already -that would have been a no-no.  I had made eye contact with the waiter, said bonjour and gestured that we wanted to sit at the table and I was sure I had seen a just perceptible nod from him.  So we sat down; elbow to elbow with others enjoying coffees and patisserie in the glorious sunshine.

We watched the people go by, trying to guess if passers by were locals or tourists, looking for the giveaway signs like a camera slung around the neck, maps in hand and footwear clues. Ten minutes, maybe more passed.

Our waiter did everything but come to our table; he pointedly busied himself clearing tables nearby, he set tables for lunch, cleared more, gave directions to colleagues and carefully never made eye contact with us.  OK – clearly we were getting the cold shoulder treatment.  What did we do wrong?  We assumed it must have been that he wanted to set our table for lunch and didn’t want us taking up prime revenue earning space while we merely had a coffee.

If his intent was to press us into leaving, it worked.  It was a win-win strategy we moved approximately two cafes along – from the wicker chairs to the purple chairs – found a vacant seat in an even better spot and were promptly attended to by a pleasant waiter. We enjoyed our coffee and croissant and carried on people watching.  No harm done, c’est la vie.

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