Adrian Hamilton: Feeling down and out in Paris
Monday 01 February 2010
To those who say that, when push comes to shove, a French establishment will always put the foreign client to the back of the queue whatever the prior commitment, I've always said not so. For the French, providing food or rest is "faire le business" and, compared to the British, they are remarkably good at making their customers feel special.
That was until our last visit to Paris, to a hotel, Hotel Saints-Peres in the 6eme, where we've been going for over 20 years for anniversaries and other occasions. We'd made the booking several months before, confirmed it a week before and, to our surprise, been rung the day before by the hotel to confirm. We soon found out why. Arriving the next day we were told by the lady in charge that our room was taken. We could seek a room at a nearby hotel. All said with a shrug of "tant pis".
Where do the French get these iron-faced harpies? They can't all be the discarded mistresses of politicians. And what can one do about it? If we'd failed to turn up they would have taken the full price from the credit card. There seems to be no obligation on the other side. Complain to the appropriately named Esprit de France group of which Hotel Saints-Peres is part? Start a website of French establishments in which the foreigner will always be second best? I still believe the French aren't this way but my confidence in the Parisians is crumbling.
On restaurants – a tip
There are places in Paris, of course, one goes expecting to be insulted. Brasserie Lipp is pre-eminent among them. Great in its past, its ambience is unique, its food is not bad (although not that good). But manners it hath not. Calling in to say that we might be late for our booking, the maitre d' seized the booking sheet, crossed out our name with a flourish, thrust into my face with the words (in French) "you can come later but you will just have to take your chance with everyone else."
We chose instead to do what I think it always best in Paris on your last day, to go to a brasserie (they provide food all day) in late afternoon before the train went... Lipp was quiet. The elderly waiter was charming. The Brasserie, apparently, has been contracted to run an exact replica with exactly the same menu in Dubai, including their speciality, pig's trotter. I wondered. And will they be as rude to the Arabs in the Gulf as they are to the foreigner in Paris?
To cut a long story short
Managed to catch the last day of the exhibition on Byzantium/Istanbul at the Grand Palais. It was packed and had been apparently since the beginning. The French do like history through high culture. And they're not afraid to provide high quality information at a reasonable price. Instead of the heavy, expensive and academic catalogues at British exhibitions, the French provide a short pamphlet with illustrations of the finest items and a summary of themes, all for a couple of quid. Why can't we do the same?
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
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