Friday, 20 December 2013

They order these things ... differently in France

Every few months, when our stocks of wine are growing perilously low, Danielle (occasionally with me in tow) heads off for a day trip to Calais to stock up again.

French wines still offer unrivalled variety and impressive quality, and it
’s advantageous to buy them in France. As a mid-week day-return crossing is stupidly cheap, it becomes a bit of a no-brainer, down here in the South East, where the run to the coast is easy (apart from the traffic).

Danielle took the ferry yesterday with our friend Moira. It all went swimmingly (it didn’t involve any swimming) until they came to travel back. There were high winds in the Channel, though for once that had nothing to do with our worthy ConDem ministers whipping up yet another storm of hot air. 

The boat was delayed by an hour.

Now during our ten year residence in France, we were occasionally struck by the slightly different attitude towards service in the country from what’s regarded as the norm (not, by any means, always achieved) in the Anglo-Saxon world. France has a wonderful system of employee protection in place, a system which in principle excites my envy – I’m after all a salaried employee myself – but occasionally it does make things rather more oriented towards producers than consumers.

‘Is there anywhere we can get a bite to eat?’ Danielle and Moira asked, ‘while we wait for the boat?’

It turns out that each of the blocks that contained the toilets also had a coffee vending machine that served quite reasonably priced hot water the colour of mud, and in some cases another that served overcharged crisps.

‘What about a proper meal?’

That was only available from one of the designated cafés, or the restaurant in a building right down at the end of the harbour area. Ten or fifteen minutes walk away. But Danielle and Moira decided it was worth the slog.

‘Hold on, hold on,’ called the official they’d been questioning, ‘don’t forget your tickets and passports. You can’t get back here without them.’

‘It’s a passenger restaurant and it isn’t accessible from the passenger area?’

He gave a Gallic shrug.

‘Certainly it’s accessible. But not without papers.’

They set off. They tried a couple of the cafés which turned out to be just small counters in the usual toilet blocks, without exception shut with their steel shutters firmly, forbiddingly down.

Cafés with a less than inviting aspect
So they kept going to the restaurant.

Which was massive and well-appointed. Probably room for 150 clients. With not a single one present, though several hundred passengers were waiting for their boat. 

A restaurant to kept with pride.
Though presumably hardly at a profit, for customers or owners
It even had a games area, which suffered from none of the problems of noise or overcrowding so common in such facilities. 

Anyone for pool? Apparently not
Amazingly, the place was, however, staffed. By a waitress who was somewhat less than rushed off her feet though she might have been if some of the other waiting passengers had been there.

‘Do you have petits pains au chocolat?’ Danielle asked. That’s pretty much a standard in any café/restaurant associated with travel.

‘We have only cakes,’ they were told.

Some other customers – would-be customers – struggled in. They looked through the menu, deciphering the odd spellings. Corn was shown as ‘mais’ in French, which actually means ‘but’ (the correct word is ‘maïs’), and had been translated into English, with complete though baffling accuracy, as ‘but’. 

'But' on the menu. But nothing the customers wanted to eat
Unsurprisingly, the English clients weren’t particularly attracted to the idea of making a meal of a conjunction (I suppose only astrologers do that sort of thing). None of the other items that caught their fancy was available, so they ordered drinks instead of food.

‘Could we have some ice?’ they asked.

‘No ice,’ they were told.

Put off by their experience, they pulled some food out of their bags and started to eat it.

‘What are you thinking of?’ The waitress came down on them like an avenging angel. ‘You cannot make the picnic here. This is a restaurant.’

They looked at her, astonished. It couldn’t serve them a meal from its menu, or even ice for their drinks, but it was still in some sense of the word, a restaurant? But there was no arguing and the irate waitress marched them off the premises.

She explained to Danielle that it was the Calais Chamber of Commerce that was holding back the development of the port area as a business. Which rather suggests that the word ‘commerce’, like ‘restaurant’, means something different there from what we
’ve come to expect on this side of the Channel.

At least it explains why Napoleon thought that England was a nation of shopkeepers. Certainly, if the port of Calais is anything to go by, the contrast with France is pretty stark.

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