The French love their summer traditionsnotes Stephen Clarke
– the Bastille Day parade, for example, when the Champs Elysées is covered in tanks and soldiers and the air overhead rumbles to the sound of jet fighters, while, down in the residential marquee, arms buyers from all over the world note the serial numbers and hand in their orders. Another one is the annual attempt to break the record for the longest-ever traffic jam, when almost everyone in the nation gets in their car and tries to drive along the same stretch of autoroute at the same time, having a quick rest in the south of France and then repeating the record attempt in the other direction.Stephen Clarke’s book Paris Revealed is full of handy hints on how to deal with the French, and explains why Parisians act the way they do. It also contains tips on where to see great art without queueing for hours, how not to choose a hotel, and how to use the Métro without getting elbowed in the ribs.
A lesser-known summer tradition is the regular campaign to suggest that the French, and the Parisians in particular, need to be nicer to tourists. Every year, newpaper articles and TV shows do shock-horror features about unfriendly waiters, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers and shop assistants. I often get to join in the fun. Several times over the past few years I’ve been invited by French TV crews to go out and prove that Parisian waiters are all bastards. When I object that they’re not, the TV people say, “don’t worry, we’ll find some”, or “you can annoy them so much that they turn bad”.
Once, I agreed against my better judgement to sit down at midday at a table that was laid for lunch and order a coffee, an act of folly that will usually result in the waiter asking me to sit elsewhere, preferably in another café. I used to get annoyed about this, but now I understand.
… This year, the city of Paris has decided to annoy all its waiters, receptionists, taxi drivers and sales assistants at once by sending them a booklet explaining that they have to stop being nasty to tourists. This will almost certainly be counter-productive. Those who are generally nice to tourists will take offence, while those who aren’t will take revenge.
… The thing is, the Parisian waiters and taxi drivers who aren’t nice to tourists aren’t nice to anybody, ever. They’re genetically grumpy and you’re not going to change them. As for the others, well, tourists simply need to be aware that the concept of ‘the customer is always right’ doesn’t exist here. The rule in Paris is that the tourist is usually a badly informed idiot. Which is, after all, the basic nature of the tourist.
… Anyway, visitors to a country are by nature going to be ignorant to some degree about the country they’re visiting, and this irritates the naturally impatient, stressed-out Parisian waiter or waitress who has probably been up since dawn, sweated their way to work on public transport and been on his or her feet for hours. The same goes for taxi drivers, who spend their whole careers dealing with other Parisian drivers, a fate rather like spending your life in a fish tank of piranhas.