The French Café Experience: A Game of Chess

You may think you can simply enter a French café and order a coffee, but you will most likely have to do a little song and dance before you get served.

On an outing with my mother-in-law, husband, and two-year-old son—when I was 8+ months pregnant—the last thing I wanted to do was a song and dance. I wanted to wedge my un-chic, un-French body into a too-small chair and drink a decaf coffee, dammit!

Our party of four naively wandered into a neighborhood café and sat at a four-person table on the enclosed terrace. The table was half-set: two sets of cutlery, a salt and pepper shaker, and two menus. It was 11:00 am and the place was empty. We’d beaten the lunch crowd and arrived after the early morning crowd.

It still took 5 minutes for a waiter to even come over.

“Are you here for lunch or just drinks?” he asked.

“Just coffee,” my husband answered.

“Oh, then I’m sorry,” he said in a tone that indicated he clearly wasn’t sorry, “but you’ll have to move over to the other side of the terrace.”

Was he serious? The place was empty! We would certainly finish our coffee before the lunch crowd arrived. Why couldn’t we stay where we were?

“Monsieur, I understand,” my husband said, “but is there any way my son, pregnant wife, and mother—who has a sprained ankle—could stay here?”

“No, sir, I’ll need you to move. These tables are already set for lunch.”

We relunctantly got up and started the trek across the terrace.

“He calls these tables set? Ours was half-set at best,” my mother-in-law muttered under her breath. Of all the things to be mad about, she seemed most chuffed at this waiter’s definition of a set table. But she had a point.

As we waited for the waiter to take our order, a creepy drunk dude stumbled in to the café. The waiter rushed to greet him and showed him to a table right next to us. He took his order, then FINALLY came to take ours. Glad to see the neighborhood drunk gets better service than us.

Drunko lit a cigarette, the smoke of which blew directly our way. This really annoyed me, on top of everything else that was annoying me. See, smoking is banned in all indoor public places in France but you can smoke outside on the terrace. However, this cafe had a “real” open-air terrace and then this pseudo-terrace which was technically on the sidewalk but was completely enclosed by windows. So to me that doesn’t really count as “outside” if the smoke can’t ventilate. Why couldn’t Drunko sit on the real terrace? The waiter thought it was super important for US to move but he wouldn’t make this guy move?

Our friendly waiter arrived with a tray of drinks, serving Drunko’s espresso first, then splashing our coffees down on our table. We finished them in a hurry, eager to get my pregnant belly and asthmatic son away from the chain-smoking drunk.

What really gets me is you just know Drunko is going to sit there all morning, nursing his espresso and smoking until his cigarettes are gone, leaving no tip and earning the cafe €1. Meanwhile, our total was €8.20 and we stayed for five minutes (not counting wait time).

My husband went inside to pay as the rest of us packed up. He handed the waiter a 10-euro-note and the waiter did the classic move of hustling and bustling around behind the bar as if he had other stuff to do, in the hopes that my husband would leave before collecting his change. Nice try pal, but tipping is optional in France, and we were certainly not tipping on that crappy service (and even more certainly not upwards of 20%!).

I must say (my love for my adopted country is getting the better of me here) that most café experiences are actually quite good in France, so I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of the rude French waiter. But this guy was pure douche, and therefore needs to be called out. And of course, we’re now officially boycotting that café. Which means we may have to walk further to find a cup of coffee, but we’ll probably still get served faster.

Vicki Lesage proves daily that raising two French kids isn’t as easy as the hype lets on. In her three minutes of spare time per week, she writes, sips bubbly, and prepares for the impending zombie apocalypse. She lives in Paris with her French husband, rambunctious son, and charming daughter, all of whom mercifully don’t laugh when she says “au revoir.” She penned two books, Confessions of a Paris Party Girl and Confessions of a Paris Potty Trainer, in between diaper changes and wine refills. She writes about the ups and downs of life in Paris at VickiLesage.com.

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