Wednesday, August 14, 2013

"It’s like going on safari": A few pointers for tourists in Paris

I thought I’d give a few pointers for tourists
writes Stephen Clarke.
They’re the kind of things I talk about in my books, especially Talk to the Snail, which has a whole chapter about getting served (or not), and Paris Revealed, my insider’s guide to the city. (You see, the self-plugging instinct needed to express itself somewhere.) So here are some bullet points to help visitors avoid taking a hit or shooting themselves in the foot.

First and most importantly, begin every conversation in Paris with a smile and a loud “bonjour”. This will eradicate at least 50% of all known problems. In the evening it’s “bonsoir” of course. Even if the other person doesn’t say it, you should do so cheerily and it will show them that you are a well-meaning and self-confident person, and that kind of person usually has a good time in Paris.

• If you want a latte in Paris, and you aren’t in a Starbucks, ask for a café crème bien blanc. If you want a cappucino, you can try, but it’ll cost you, and you might be better off settling for the simpler  and cheaper “un crème, s’il vous plaît.”

• If you want a small beer, ask for “un demi”. This is 25cl, about half a pint. They might offer you “une pinte” – half a litre – yes the French still love imperial measures, whatever they might tell you. Note that there is no such thing as a “grand demi”. A demi is a demi. The waiter will list the beers and you have to watch out for pronunciation. Kronenbourg is “kron-on-boor”, Carlsberg is “karlsss-bear-k”, Heineken is “ay-nay-ken”. The slightly taster beers on tap are Grimbergen (“greem-bear-gain”), Leffe (“leff”) and Affligem (“aff-lee-game”). Worth a try.

• Have a close look at the wine menu. Sometimes, a bottle of wine is the same price as six glasses, in which case you might as well order by the glass.

• Be aware that soft drinks, including mineral waters, cost a fortune. The French almost force kids to drink coffee and alcohol to save money. If you’re offered water and don’t want an expensive bottle just say “une carafe”. They’ll bring you one. And you can ask for a refill at any time. (The same goes for bread, by the way. You can ask for more at any time – within reason, of course.)

• Never break the two rules of a French café. Don’t order a coffee at the bar then go and sit down. There are two different prices, and two different tills, for these orders. And don’t go to a table laid for lunch or dinner and order just a drink. You’re wasting everyone’s time.

• At a café you can go and sit at any free table (while obeying the above rule). In a restaurant, always find a waiter or waitress and ask. There might be a waiting list or reservations.

• Don’t try to order until everyone has decided what they want, or has prepared the key questions that will help them make their decision. Waiters are busy and haven’t got time to stand about while people um and er.

• Don’t mention the word “végétarien”. It will only cause unnecessary panic. They’ll usually have something veggie without realizing it. If not, simply ask for one of their salads “sans le jambon” or “sans le poulet” (without ham or chicken). Just don’t try and be swanky and go off menu. You’ll only annoy the chef.

Tips. On most French menus there’s a 15% service charge, so tips aren’t compulsory. For a drink at the bar of a café, leave 10 cents. For a sit-down drink, 50 cents or a euro is fine. For a good lunch or dinner in an ordinary café or restaurant, three or four euros is OK. In a smarter place, you’re going to have to leave paper money. Up to you how much you want the waiter or waitress to love you.
So there you have it. It’s like going on safari. You don’t provoke the lions, do you? Obey the rules and you will get excellent service, unless you come across a real rogue beast who short-changes you or brings you two litres of beer when you only wanted 25cl. In which case, avoid confrontation by complaining calmly, as if you’re an old hand at all this; don’t go there again; and make sure via Twitter or elsewhere that everyone else knows about the danger.

The biggest dangers in Paris aren’t the waiters, anyway. They’re the pickpockets and bad drivers. But that’s another story…