Tuesday, February 19, 2008


It happened again. This afternoon. In a café on avenue Bosquet, when paying the waiter for my coffee.

In this case, there was a funny misunderstanding about the change he was giving me, and I was trying to explain my confusion about it, in a jovial but somewhat flustered French. The waiter realized that I was not French, although I was speaking to him fluently en français. He then counted out my change and said, "Muchas gracias....Sankyoovarymoch, ahve eh nice deh," and plunked the remaining euros on the table.


The last time this happened, it made my blood boil. I was waiting for a friend in a café on the place de la Madeleine. I ordered, "un Coca Light, s'il vous plaît." That's all I said. When I asked for "l'addition, s'il vous plaît" about 20 minutes later, the waiter said in in fifth-grade English, "Fi-eeve euhros, pleess," with a smug grin and all five fingers up, just in case I didn't understand. I was infuriated. I was fuming. I had spoken to him in very intelligible French. Who cares if he could tell from looking at me (in my French apparel, no less) that I wasn't a native? I had sat there, reading a French book, not being an 'ugly American' in the slightest. But somehow he decided that it was his prerogative to assume that I was an American and thus needed to be addressed in English.

But rather than get angry at him, which would have been pointless, I decided to make up a little script of French snappy comeback lines for waiters the next time this happened. Because it does happen. Ooh, revenge in the imagination is sweet. My lines, in French, were coolly-sprouted phrases such as, "Excuse me. Am I dreaming, or did I order in French?" and, "Oh, since you are speaking to me in American, shall I pay you in dollars?" heh-heh.

I'd been practicing a number of these lines in the privacy of my own appartement, to save in the handy repertoire, au cas où. Fortunately I have not needed to deploy them with café waiters since that episode months ago at la Madeleine. Until today.

Damn. Timing wasn't right for using my perfected Polly-Vous-Français zingers on the café server today, and I was frustrated to feel that that he could have the upper hand in the transaction. All sorts of "why torture the Americans?" thoughts were racing through my mind.

But, then I heard him serving a French couple a few tables away from me. The older woman wanted to pay for the bill for herself and the thirty-something guy with her. Monsieur 30Something said, "Non, non, let me pay," but his female friend persisted. "Non, non, j'insiste." The woman paid.

"Gigolo!" snorted the waiter to the guy.

I cracked up, inwardly and quietly, bien sûr. Hmm. All things considered, I guess I prefer "Sankyoovarymoch," and will henceforth probably keep my trap ...shut. Maybe.

Or, who knows? On the other hand, I may return to that café, where I otherwise soaked up the cool ambiance, and try to out-do the waiter by speaking to him in well-rehearsed French. He's either a jerk or really funny, and I'll never know unless I go back.

This is Paris. I can't explain it. Ultimately, something about that half hour in the cold sun on avenue Bosquet made me adore Paris even more.


Sedulia said...

Hi Polly!

When waiters do this, they usually don't speak English very well. The ones who speak perfect English never do it. So my method is to smile and answer as fast as I can on the lines of,

"OhyouspeakEnglishthat'swonderful,howlong agodidyoulearnitbutsorryIwouldjustlike toaskforanothercoffeeifyoudon'tmindtooterriblyandIappreciatethatyou'retrying tohelpbyspeakingEnglishbecausemyFrench issoslow.CouldyoupleasebringmeanapkinandI'llpayrightnowbecauseIdon't havemuchtime...."

By then the waiter is smiling weakly and will be happy to continue the conversation in French.

I haven't been to visit you for a while. Your blog is one of my favorites and I love your banner image!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Hi Sedulia-- It's so good to hear from you! I'd kind of lost track, but now am putting LA en vie on my links, of course, because I miss Rue Rude so much.

What a hoot, your reply to waiters. I'll add that to my script.

Onedia and Sedulia,

I think what I learned from this episode is that probably many waiters are equal-opportunity insulters. It's easy to think at first that they're mocking just Americans, but clearly some of them like to be opinionated about everything. Something to keep them entertained as they spend an 8-hour shift scurrying from one table to another? And at least they don't come up to the table and say "Bonjour, I'm Dan and I'm gonna be your server today."

Rachael Hutchings said...

Polly--this same thing happens here in Japan and it drives me crazy! They automatically assume that you are a "dumb foreigner" and even if you are speaking to them in perfect Japanese, they will answer back in horrible English. I've had experiences where you can sit there and ask tons of complicated questions in Japanese and have them say to you "I'm sorry, I don't speak English." Sometimes I wonder if they turn their ears off as soon as they see you're a foreigner?

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Fuji Mama,

Interesting that it happens in Japan too! And a friend who lives in the Middle East has had the same thing happen: villagers repeating "I don't speak English" despite being addressed in fluent Arabic.

Maybe we can trace it to Americans who preceded us in our journeys?

And does the inverse ever happen in the US? I may be guilty of having done that, actually: speaking French to someone when I hear their accent. But usually to strike up a conversation, not to say "I don't understand you."

laroseanglaise said...

Hi Polly,
If its any consolation its not just Americans, it happens to me too and I'm British. I used to take offence too but generally I realise that it is more about them practicing their English and less about them being insulting. The funny thing was that after three years of living in Bordeaux, I spoke to everyone in French and they ALWAYS spoke back to me in French. But on the weekends when I would come up to Paris now and then, when I simply said "un café s'il vous plait" as French sounding as possible, they ALWAYS replied "yes, straight away" or something else in English.
You can't really win, on the one hand they complain about tourists coming to France and just speaking English but on the other hand they reply to those who do speak in French, in English!
Bon courage nonetheless!

rhino75 said...

This is one of the few things that doesn't bother me. My French is completely fluent, much more so than that of most waiters. On the rare occasions this happens I, therefore, presume that they are being friendly/wanting to practice. I don't you think you should really feel insulted by someone making the effort to speak to you in your own language!! :-)

Jay Livingston said...

C'mon Polly. Suppose you were still living in the US. And suppose you had a brief interaction with someone who had a trace, maybe more than a trace, of a French accent. Wouldn't you be tempted to respond to them in French?

Maybe you actually did do such a thing in your stateside life once or maybe twice. Or more.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Roseanglaise, It definitely happens more in Paris than in the provinces, though it did happen a lot when I lived in Aix en Provence.

Rhino, Yes, I think it is often the case that someone wants to practice English, even if only a few words.

Jay, Yes indeed. See my comment to Fuji Mama above.

Jay Livingston said...


The Japanese react as though they assumed that Japanese is an extremely difficult language, so difficult in fact that if you say anything in it – even a simple konnichi-wa – they’ll compliment you on your Japanese (“Nippongo o jozu des’”) even if the conversation is occurring at 8 p.m. They probably also think that they are being gracious and courteous in trying to use your native language.

As for not understanding what you’ve said, that’s a common complaint of foreigners. We think we’re speaking near-perfect French, Japanese, or whatever, and we’re sure that the natives are being deliberately obtuse. But I’ve seen the same thing happen here in the US, where a foreigner is speaking what she thinks is good English, and the Americans can’t understand most of it. Ask American students about their math and science professors.

anna said...

I'm English and when in the States I've had Americans looking at me as if I were speaking complete gobbledygook! (especially in the South).

Jay Livingston said...

BBC America offers the Catherine Tate Show, and at the beginning, there's a graphic telling you how to set your TV for closed captioning. And for good reason.

Victoria said...

great post Polly, i've definitely been in the same situation before in Paris! (but for me it was a hotel concierge) I just kept responding in French

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments. They have helped me reflect a bit more on this scenario. Another post will be upcoming on communication...maybe in a week or two.

Autolycus said...

I remember a café near the Musée Marmottan, a summer Sunday, about noon - but all I wanted was my morning cup of coffee, and although there was plenty of room I thought it might be a bit close to lunch. So I said to the formidably moustached waiter "Je ne prends qu'un café, il y'a place?" The "NON" was so magnificently grumpy that if he hadn't been gesturing to the empty tables, I might have taken him seriously.

(Catherine Tate subtitled?! How do they cope with "Nana Taylor", I wonder? The asterisk key must be worn out)

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