Friday, 25 July 2008

French Culture: Café Edition

So the weather is hot, the sun constantly shining, and the windows open letting in the usual traffic and people noises that living in Paris brings. Who ever knew I might miss the damp, rain, and silent evenings of my old neighbourhood in Glasgow?
Paris is certainly different. Go to any Parisian café and you'll find a multitude of differences, the main one obviously being that sitting outside is possible more often than in Glasgow. A typical café in Paris is the true test to distinguish the tourist from the French (or true Francophile). Any café within viewing distance of a monument is generally designated by the French as a tourist site (with the prices to prove it). The French shun these cafés, so if you really want to go to one (which seems to be a guilty pleasure non-French Paris residents sometimes take) it's best to leave your French ami at home (along with the laptop). Unlike America, and the UK, the only place you really see laptops is in Starbucks. This is slowly changing as more café's begin to offer WiFi, but many do require you to create an account (which you can use city-wide at other café's with the same provider) and these generally require you to pay as well. Still, there are some places other than Starbucks that have free WiFi, you just have to keep your eyes peeled. On the whole however, if you want to be as authentically French as possible, save the laptop for Starbucks. In your average Parisian café there is yet another way to designate yourself as either native or tourist. If you have to consult the menu to choose your drink you are probably a tourist (seriously). This also goes for ordering "une Bier" or "un café au lait" (the second can be ordered, but only in a breakfast scenario). In café lingo a beer is "une demi" or "une pression" (25 cl) while a coffee with milk in it is "une crème." A "café"will always be an espresso, a "double express" a double espresso. Café allongée is watered-down espresso. There's more...! Asking for water will always bring a bottled variety, while asking for a carafe d'eau will give you the complimentary tap water you actually were looking for. I heard a new story about this the other day. While dining at a restaurant, a friend of my father's asked for the carafe of water. The waiter then (somewhat cheekily) proceeded to ask whether he preferred bottled or municipal. Of course you could also get the waitress I got today, who somewhat snobbily rephrased my "carafe d'eau"into an "It's-actually-une-verre-d'eau!"
Next topic? Ordering! In terms of ordering (which should probably read: getting what you want) there are several obvious things (that would be the same anywhere else, hopefully!) The use of the word "please" (french equivalent: s'il vous plait) will get you far, as will your attempts to speak French. Although many friends of mine say that they are always responded to in English when they speak French, it is important to make the effort. The French resent people who attempt to make their way across Europe with English only. Even if you only know three words, use them.
A couple of things to note. One: gratuity is included in every meal in France. Tips are not really necessary (or common practice), although rounding your bill up to the nearest euro when paying with cash is normal practice. Two: See next bit on pricing system in cafés.
When you are in a café there can often be two separate prices for your beverage. You would never notice it, but then again, when was the last time you sat in two seperate places in the café? Confused? Allow me to explain. In a café the cheapest place to have your drink is standing at the bar, the most expensive the terrace. I've heard rumours that some cafés have more than just the two different prices, but since I have yet to have seen it in action I cannot claim it until I have further proof.
A final tip. The true French person has one thing a lot of tourists don't: confidence. If you sit in a café and watch people (which is part of the largest appeal of sitting in a café!) you will begin to pick on the subtle (and not-so subtle) aspects that make the French French. When French people order in a café they are confident in a I-am-here-to-eat-and-will-be-served-accordingly. It's different from the occasional loud, bossy I-am-the-customer-I-know-best-so-serve-me-damnit! True waitstaff (in either a café or bistro) are professionals in their own right. Even if they aren't the sort of people to ask your life's story or give you a free digestif, they know what type of silverware you require to eat what, when which course should arrive and how it is meant to be cooked, amongst many other things. If you treat them with respect and try not to be too nervous you should end up with a good experience. This is when it can help to shy away from tourist-friendly areas and branch out. Often touristy café's attract waitstaff who walk around with a permanent grimace and seem to disapprove of your mere presence (especially if they have to speak English). Obviously there are exceptions and like any restaurant you can have a bad experience everywhere. Most importantly of all? In the end do remember that it's a meal and meant to be enjoyed!

Bon Appétit!

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