The prospect of travel seems as distant as ever. In the meantime I am trawling my archives. On 17th April 2007 I was in the delightful French City of La Rochelle…
“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making them understand their own language.”, Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
It was still very warm when we walked back into the town and found the restaurant that had taken our eye earlier. It was called Les Camediens and was situated in an inviting little side street running back from the harbour and behind all of the expensive front rank eating places.
Now, the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and this place was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us. It is a feature of French Restaurants that waiters often think that some customers (especially English customers) don’t actually want to be served at all and this place was no exception.
The wine list was interesting because in France there is massive in-built prejudice in favour of French products. We were presented with a list of about twenty pages of wines – all French except for three, listed under a section generously entitled “wines from the rest of the world”.
The French are proud of their culture and especially their language of course and their reluctance to communicate in or even simply acknowledge English gives me the opportunity on holiday to demonstrate my fluency in everyday essentials and I had to use all of that knowledge here:
‘Vin blanc sil vous plait’; ‘Vin rouge sil vous plait’;’ bier grande sil vous plait’;‘bier grande vite’ and so on and so on.
Actually I would try harder but language is an area where the French are really quite rude.
The paradox that they have created for themselves is that whilst they would like visitors to speak French and visitors would like to speak French they stop them doing so because they mercilessly take the piss out of us when we make a mistake – so it’s hardly surprising that rather than be subjected to ridicule we stick to pointing and shouting.
I remember an incident in a hotel when I was trying to communicate in French. The receptionist quickly lost patience, looked down her nose at me, sneered and said “Shall I speak English, it is easier”.
It was easier I concede but I was trying, I really was trying. In Spain and Italy and Portugal and Germany they never behave like that.
Sorry but I am going to say it. The French consider themselves superior in almost every respect. They assume, routinely, that given the chance, everyone would live in France, be French, eat French food, eat stinky French cheese, drink French wine, watch impenetrable French films, visit the French Riviera and enjoy the Tour de France.
It gets worse the further south you go which is why when I go to France I generally stay in the north,
When he finally condescended to take our order I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight and I had been really looking forward to mussels.
We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments. He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them one by one in what little French we knew while he kept up a bulwark against improving international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us. We progressed past salt and pepper but got stuck in a cul-de-sac over vinegar. Now the French for vinegar is vinaigre which most people would agree isn’t too dissimilar but he was determined to make this difficult. He totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments one at a time but never any vinegar. I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying seeing us struggle.
We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip (Mon Cul, as the French would say) and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again that week and left with a single backward ‘You should have been more helpful” sort of glance.