You've heard the rumors about French servers' dislike for tourists, and just as you feared, you see that your server, dressed sharply in a black uniform, has a scowl as tight as her crisp bow tie. She passes directly in front of you with deeply glazed eyes, ignoring you. In your cloak of invisibility you sit down and hide your Paris guidebook in your bag and take out your cellphone even though you have no reception.
Finally, your thirst overtakes your shyness and you crane your neck around, smiling broadly, trying to make eye contact with her as she laughs with her colleague by the bar. She accidentally catches your eye and moves slowly to your table, her smile vanished.
You are determined to win her over, so you work up your best French (first mentally rehearsing your guttural r's) and correctly order un grand crème avec un verre d'eau, s'il vous plait. She looks like she's in pain, and indeed, you've just assaulted her ears with your accent. When she comes back she says in English, "Here you are. A large coffee with milk and a glass of water."
You try another tactic: "What a beautiful day!" Maybe she wants to practice her flawless English with you? Her frown puckers tartly and she turns on her heel to the next table, which is packed with Australian backpackers.
"Hello!" They greet her and ask if she speaks English. "Non, je ne parles pas anglais," she responds, so they give their long order by pointing out things on the menu and wildly miming.
You feel relieved. It's not just you.
And, in fact, I've learned, it's not just tourists. Even Parisians get the same cold treatment initially, but the difference is, they know the ritual of how to soften even the most taciturn of servers.
The proper way to order at a café has been explained to me by a Frenchman:
- Initial eye contact should be brief. A lingering stare could be interpreted as a demand.
- Smile, but not too much. You are amiable, not overzealous.
- You're a guest at their establishment. Would you ask a hostess for something without creating the proper rapport?
- Go about your business until they decide to approach you.
- You will then give your order as if you were making the biggest imposition imaginable. Your wording should demonstrate deference, honor and respect.
- If you've performed the ritual correctly, you will notice their icy exterior melting. The painful expression might transform into a smile, and by the time you leave, they might be chuckling at your joke and lightly touching your shoulder in appreciation for your good customer-hood.
I said, "That's quite complicated, I don't know if I'll ever pick up the nuances."
"Oh no," he assured me, "there's no way an American could ever get it right."