I try not to be prejudiced. Sometimes, however, I make generalized evaluations, which is a trait of being prejudiced. I did that with the French. I had read accounts of rude, snooty people there (especially the waiters) and even heard personal accounts of such action. It is not hard to find people who blog about bad Gallic experiences (click here). True, I’d also heard the opposite from other people (including one of my sisters who studied at the University of Strasbourg for a year), but the most recent accounts were mostly negative. So I crossed France off my list of places to visit. Why go someplace where I wasn’t wanted? I stated to my wife that I would never go to France. I’d rather eat my hat than go there.
Because we use American Airlines air miles, we have to make reservations months ahead to be sure of a seat on the plane. This year we had planned to go to Greece. Then all the economic problems there came to a head. It was a season of elections and plebiscites. There was even the question of whether Greece would go off the euro. With such uncertainty about even what money to use, it did not look like a good time to see the Acropolis. Where to go for the year’s vacation? After a bit of discussion about the various possibilities, I said to my wife, “How about France?” After I picked her up off the floor from a dead faint and finished eating my fedora (Why don’t they make hats out of tortilla chips?), we started making our plans.
Although I was less than gassed by the idea of going to Paris, which I understood to be the headquarters of the rude French and overpriced food, there was no way my wife would hear of missing it, so I booked an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis, which is an island in the Seine River, right next to Île de la Cité, where Notre Dame Cathedral is located. It was a great headquarters seeing the main tourist sites (yes, we did the tourist bit), except for Versailles, which required a short train trip. Don’t drive in Paris unless you are a LeMans champion, have a death wish, are certifiably insane or are all of the above. But that’s true of London and Rome as well. Then again, I feel that way about San Francisco (where I drive as little as possible) and I’ve heard it’s also true of New York City, although I’ve never been there.
Since this is more about the people than the sights, I will only give a quick review of what we saw. Skip this paragraph if you’ve already been there. We went in late October and early November, so the crowds were not as bad as high season. We bought a museum pass, which Rick Steves recommended, but found it really only helped with the line at the Louvre, a definite must-see that not only has great European paintings and sculpture, but ancient art and artifacts from the Roman, Greek, Egyptian and Assyrian cultures. The worst line and crowds were at Versailles Palace, making it my least favorite Paris-region site. Its formal restaurant was good, though. The Hôtel National des Invalides, which contains the Musée de l’Armée and Napoleon’s tomb, was well worth seeing, especially if you like military history. Notre Dame, of course, was wonderful and free. The Arc de Triomphe sits at the hub of twelve radiating streets and has a nice view of much of the city from the top. Well worth it. However, one of the radiating streets is the famous Champs-Élysées and it was a waste. It was packed with crowds and chain stores, with almost no small shops and cafes. Go to you local mall instead. We saw some other sights, but these were the main ones.
What about the Eiffel Tower? We saw it close up, but did not go up. The lines were very long and we’d been advised it wasn’t worth it. So we walked below it and studied it from a nearby park bench. It was impressive. But at night, it was spectacular. It had lights all up the structure and there was a bit of a light show every so often. We also saw it from a bateaux-mouche (meaning “fly boat” because they hosted many of said pests in days gone by) dinner cruise on the Seine. It was pricey and the dinner was one of the worst we had in France, but well worth it for the comfort (we had a private table inside and it was quite cold outside) and the breath-taking beauty of seeing the City of Lights after dark.
Now, to the food and people: both were a delight. Did we have any rude waiters in Paris, the so-called City of Snub? No. True, your waiter won’t come up and say, “My name is Damon and I’ll be your server, sweetheart. I love that sweater. Are you a Leo, too?” Being a waiter is an occupation, not a job, so they try to be professional and polite. We had two that were rather aloof and some were just average, but none that were rude or gave really poor service. Outside of Paris, many were even better. Now, it’s not like our chain restaurants where the idea is to get you in and out as quickly as possible. Waiters would think it rude to rush the diners. Simply say L’addition, s’il vous plait, and they will bring you your check. But slow down and enjoy the experience of dining rather than just eating. It’s a different philosophy. And don’t always expect it “your way,” but order what is listed on the menu. We didn’t try to mess with the menu the way you do in California, asking for multiple changes to what we ordered. I did ask them to hold the crème fraîche on my salmon galette (savory buckwheat crepe) and that was not a problem, but did not make substitutions. That’s simply not the European or British way. Live with it. On the bright side, we had very good food for very reasonable prices by avoiding the “tourist trap” places and the high-cost restaurants. Salads never had iceberg lettuce and the ubiquitous French dressing was made with shallot, Dijon mustard, salt, lemon juice, red-wine vinegar and a bit of olive oil, not that sweet, ketchup-based garbage I remembered from my childhood. Food was no more expensive than a restaurant of the same quality here and wine was cheaper. The most expensive meal we had was at a nice restaurant in Reims, which cost 85.40 euros, or about $93, including wine. I’ve spent far more here for worse food and drink. Since tax and tip were included in your restaurant tab, it was often cheaper than here.
I’ve mainly covered Paris, but Paris was not one of the high points for me. We rented a car at the airport and drove over to Reims, down to Troyes in the Champagne region, then over to Amboise in the Loire Valley, across to Pontorson near Le Mont Saint-Michel, up to Bayeux in Normandy, over to Rouen, then back to the airport. We used those cities as bases of operations to see the areas around them. I did a lot of driving and was ready for the rude drivers to cut me off or go so slowly in front of me that I would scream. I’m still looking for them. I’m sure they were in Paris, but I didn’t drive there. The ones I encountered were far more polite that those I see on my trips down Interstate 5 to SoCal three times a year. Not only that, truckers never pulled in front of you just before you passed them! The highways were better than many in California and, I have to admit, so were the drivers. Europe and the UK drivers don’t seem to have adopted, “I’m more important than anyone else” philosophy.
But what about people other than waiters and drivers? In Paris on Saturday, after seeing Napoleon’s tomb we were looking for a place for lunch, but some were closed in that area. I was standing on the sidewalk, trying to find a place with my smart phone and a map, when a fellow in running gear came up to us and said something in French. “I don’t speak French,” I said. “Do you need help?” he asked. “We’re trying to find a restaurant,” I told him. He laid out all the options and told us of a nearby recommendation. We went there and had a good meal. A Frenchman took pity on a couple of obvious tourists. In Amboise, I went into a boulangerie, or bakery, in the early morning to buy breakfast. The man behind the counter did not speak English and my French was not much better. Using charades, I made my selection and pulled out a 5 euro note. Since I could not understand the price he told me, I figured that was safe. He said something and pointed at a small tray on the counter. It had the hours for the boulangerie. I checked my watch and, yes, he should be open, so I again offered my money. Again, he pointed at the tray. After a moment, he took my money and put the change in the tray. The elevator hit the top floor and I realized he was trying to tell me I was supposed to put the money in the tray, that there was a proper way to pay. But he had given in to my ignorance. I touched the side of my head, showing it had finally gotten through, and nodded with a grin. He laughed and nodded back. I was in his country unable to speak his language and not following the normal procedure, but he took it well and we laughed together. That was far from rude.
What’s my take on all this? The French are not rude. I am sure there are rude French, just as there are rude Americans. I am sure there are French who have a strong dislike for Americans, just as there are Americans who have a strong dislike for the French. But when you meet people one-on-one and don’t “cop an attitude,” it’s surprising how nice they can be. I went to France knowing that it was their country and they did not have to be nice to me. I tried to be polite to them and was surprised at how they responded. I tried to fit in as much as possible, struggling with the few words of French I knew, and they seemed to appreciate that. I even took up the scarf (no, not berets) that so many Frenchmen wore because I liked it and was several times taken for a Frenchman by the French. Until I spoke, that is. A good friend gave me a sound piece advice: when you go into a store, always greet the shopkeeper with bonjour (if it’s daytime, but bonsoir) and say au revoir when leaving. It’s the polite thing to do and all the French do it. If you’re going to France, don’t be the Ugly Americans (whom we saw a few times on our trip) and expect the French to kiss up to you ( a French kiss?), but realize it’s their country and you are merely a visitor. You might be surprised at how well you are received. I was.