Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In which we are not afraid to make a scene.

We've a fairly busy day today, I mean for us, whose default mode of living ( I don't really like the word 'lifestyle') is quiet, remember.  We have friends coming over who wanted to go camping up on the coast above Erquy.  Their boat gets in at St Malo this evening, and the municipal campsite they were interested in doesn't take bookings, you just have to turn up and see if there's room.  So, to ensure that they had somewhere, we went up this morning to reserve a pitch by putting a something on the spot - a borrowed 'throw-up' tent ( OK, that doesn't sound good but 'instant erection' would have sounded worse...).  Then this eveniing we'll drive over to St Malo to meet them so they can follow us back to the site. We could have had them to stay and taken them up there tomorrow, but there was a not unreasonable level of anxiety about coming over without the certainty of a place, which we sought to allay by promising that we would have somewhere  sorted out by the time they arrived.

Anyway, that accomplished, we set off home again, only feeling a little anxious about whether they'll like it, whether the throw-up tent will get stolen or thrown up on or whatever, and anything else our minds could scout around to get anxious about given a slightly unusual situation and responsibility.

As we'd be travelling this evening, we decided perhaps we could justify eating out at lunchtime and just taking some sandwiches with us this evening, so we thought we'd stop in Erquy, but then we took a wrong turn and got a bit more fraught, but finally we stopped in Val André, found a place we'd eaten at before which was OK, and ordered. Molly was brought a bowl of water, I found a loo and felt much better, and so far so good.

We asked to share a starter, which came after a bit, rather a small plate of grilled shellfish and a small and rather rock-like bread roll)  but then the service got slower and slower.  The patronne, a brusque but quite pleasant woman, it seemed, took our order, but she wrote nothing down, rather having the air of someone who believes themselves to be far too much in control of things to bother with such details, and various other younger women served and cleared.   We sat over our empty starter plates too long, which is always a downer, they were taken away but then nothing happened and nothing happened,  After about 45 minutes we began to think about the little time that we'd have to come home, take a break, sort out extension leads etc for our friends, then set off for St Malo.

I went into the restaurant and asked if it was coming as we were a little pressés, that we could otherwise pay for our starter and drinks and leave.  Young woman #3 disappeared into the kitchen, some muttering of the kind which gave away that we had been forgotten.  I waited, waited, put my head around the kitchen door and repeated that we could pay now...  No, it was coming , there had been a mistake, but it was coming now... 

I sat down, after 10 minutes got up again, but brusque patronne said brusquely 'It's coming out now!'.  ( No, you're right, I am quite familiar with the several ways one can say sorry in French and did not actually hear any of them...),  So I sat for another 5 minutes then cracked.  I ordered Tom to take Molly out, I'd sort out paying for what we had had and we'd go.

In the ensuing fracas (italicised or not? Is it a fully adopted English word, what do you think?) the following arguments were put forward.

'If you were in a hurry, you shouldn't have ordered a starter.'

That from the young man behind the bar who was the first line of defence.  I said that I didn't know it was going to take so long.  Now, I said, we had lost our appetites, which was true.

'You should have said if you were in a hurry.'

I should have said if I didn't want to be still waiting after an hour?  I replied, adding that in fact I did say, about 20 minutes ago.

The patronne is coming, he announced, and retired from the field. 

She said that I had not said 20 minutes ago that we needed to hurry now; she had taken our order and I had not told her ergo I had not said it. 

She said that the magret de canard took a lot of preparation, that's why it took so long.  I said I had been told there had been a mistake and that was why.  Ha!

At this point the food arrived at last, and she said that if we left the food would all be thrown in the bin, was that what I wanted?  

At this point I did begin to weaken somewhat as I do hate waste.  Could it not be eaten here?  I asked.  

By whom? She parried.  No, it would all go to waste!

Fortunately Tom then swung in with reinforcements.  Too bad, he said, no we would not stay and eat the food,  Indeed, to have slunk back to our seats, stuffed it down and paid up would have been ignominious and unacceptable.

Brusque patronne then offered a compromise.  And if she were to pack the food as take-away so we could eat it at home later?

I conceded and said we would pay the price of take-away, which I guess we did, because the bill was smaller than it would have been, and food and face were more or less saved on both sides.

Brusque patronne offered Tom an 'au revoir' as we left, to which he replied, 'Ah non!', so I guess we had the last word.  We drove home feeling considerably better than if we'd just put up with it, despite the rather uncomfortable heat of a pizza and a plastic ice cream box of magret de canard and its garniture on my lap.

However, I don't really fancy eating it now. 

Pizza anyone?


Unknown said...

The only time that I have known the word "pressé" to be understood in a French restaurant it is in association with "citron".

Jean said...

Oh dear, this kind of thing leaves a bad taste, doesn't it? (perhaps not the best metaphor) You did quite right. Hope you have an excellent time with your friends.

The Crow said...

Good for you, Lucy, and for Tom! Cheeky owner, if I ever heard of one.

Hope your visit with friends takes away the unpleasantness of your lunch.

Zhoen said...

You were much more patient than I would have been. Cash would have been left as I walked out, no back talk from them acknowledged.

Did the tent thing work out?

HKatz said...

How many other customers were at this restaurant at the time?

I liked this characterization: rather having the air of someone who believes themselves to be far too much in control of things to bother with such details

zephyr said...

Good for you, standing your ground.
BTW: your "throw-up" or "instant erection" tent makes me laugh. Here in the states, the term is "pop-up tent"

Catalyst said...

Bravo for the "Ah non" from Tom. I, too, would have thrown down some francs and walked out. (Or is it euros now?)

Roderick Robinson said...

I hope my pedanticism hasn't hung over you, Damoclean fashion, interrupting this fine Franco-psychiatric case study by forcing you into unwonted italicisation. Inevitably you have put your finger on the weak spot of this practice: whereas patronne is a valid candidate, doesn't en route (which I faced in the novel) look the teeniest bit fussy? It is of course the weak spot in any style guide that attempts to be definitive - sooner or later the benefits start to look hard-won.

I feel I'm taking a ride in the autobus (I take it you're all up to date with Tour de France slang) by observing that the two elements of your story are strongly linked. Of course you saw this, that's why you wrote the piece. In both instances you left the real world and entered a fantasy. The tent was not a real tent in that it was never intended to provide accommodation: it was, if you like, a tent voucher. The concept is fine so long as it remains unarticulated. But having to explain this to the camping ground gauleiter (Parens justified here, I think) would cause most Brits acute embarrassment. But then perhaps by now you have merged with the scenery.

As to the restaurant, the $5 question is: How long would this state of affairs have endured had you not raised the point? Were you, in fact, on the brink of another fantasy where time ceased to matter.

The resturant story is beautifully told (with its precise to-ings and fro-ings) and it evoked half a dozen similar occasions for me when I've had to wrestle with the growing belief that such treatment was all down to the fact that I was a Brit. That way genocide lies.

Fire Bird said...

oh bloody hell, i hate that sort of to-do... hope the campsite works out better...

Lucy said...

Thanks all for the moral support!

I have worked in enough kitchens and restaurants to know that these things happen. But an apology costs nothing. I know that to some extent we were feeling a bit fraught anyway, which made us less patient, but still, as BB implies, who knows how long it might have gone on if we hadn't done anything.

To some extent, though I don't generally enjoy confrontation, having a row with someone, with a reasonable sense of justification, was quite a helpful release of tension anyway. I was on the point of feeling a bit guilty of taking my prior mood out on people in this way, but I think they deserved it.

I think there probably were quite a few spectators to the scene, but I become oddly focused to the point of solepcism in these situations and rather cease to notice much around me.

Yes, a bit of it is feeling that we're being given second class treatment because we're foreign - I'm not sure that if this does happen Brits, Dutch, Germans, Americans etc don't all get lumped together - but I think it's partly a bad attitude in tourist places, that they don't really care because they assume you won't be back anyway. Also in this case arrogant bad management in not writing down orders and not making each table one person's responsibility. I didn't feel it was in any way personal, they were pleasant enough to us at first, and my French is usually up to creating a reasonable rapport - it gets better as I get angrier. I do get a bit chippy sometimes and in some places that a quiet middle-aged couple and dog in a corner get overlooked in favour of big noisy families.

Anyway, the campsite thing was fine, I think. The token tent arrangement wasn't a problem per se; in fact the campsite themselves had suggested it when I phoned them a while back, it seems to be fairly standard practice and we observed that someone had even just reserved a place with a tarpaulin and some rocks. It was good that we did it as it was full by the evening.

We met up with our friends in St Malo just fine, shouted and waved and jumped in the car crying 'Just follow, OK!', and the route between there and Erquy was pleasant and quick. They seemed happy with the place, and we even succeeded in taking the throw-up tent down and getting it packed away - another source of mild anxiety earlier, as these structures are notoriously easy to get up but not so easy to get down again.

Then, while the real tent was going up, Tom, Molly and I prospected the local creperie with the youngest of the party, where the very brisk and cheerful young staff quickly made up a take-away of ham and cheese galettes and chips, which with some cans of pop and bottles of beer outside on a foldaway picnic bench in lovely company more than made up for the earlier debacle (which might or might not need italics, certainly needs an acute and a circumflex, but I'm too lazy to work out the HTML or get the character map out. Perhaps if I don't do the italics I don't need to do the accents...).

I've just eaten half the reheated pizza for lunch, and allowed myself to enjoy it, as I have rather low tastes with regard to leftovers, and I'll send a quick text to the campers now and go up and see them again tomorrow.

Dick said...

I was once coached extensively by Parisian friends on how to deal with the French if you're English. A tricky business at the best of times, but I think they'd have given the thumbs up to Tom's tant pis and ah non. A points win, at least.

Crafty Green Poet said...

oh how annoying it is when that happens, well done for remaining firm with them!"

Nimble said...

Your "throw up tent" is making me snicker. I suggest "pop up tent" as a more cheerful alternative!

Glad to hear the visitors got their site and a jollier time was had in the end.

rb said...

Oh dear. Is it not always the case? When you want service to be slow because you want to linger and be romantic, they throw your dishes at you at breakneck speed and then when you have an engagement to get to, the food fails to arrive. Sigh.

I am very laid back if I eat out and don't notice delays but I have been in many places where people I have been with have needed to get away (probably from me!!!) and needed quicker service.

Loved Tom's riposte.

Setu said...

Your adventure in that restaurant could have been the beginning of a short story by Julio Cortazar: a couple waiting for a meal and the “patronne” saying “it is coming!” and hours pass, then days go by, then years… and the 110 years old and completely decrepit “patronne” uttering her last whisper: “it is coming right now”. Or maybe Buzzati could have written such a story, this time not the “The Tatar Steppe” but perhaps “A step from the canard”. ;-)
Anyway, I think they didn’t do it on purpose because you are British. They are unprofessional, that’s all. I could relate a few stories about stupid restaurant or hotel owners I had to cope with, at a time when I was sleeping and eating in a different (cheap) place every two days (I was involved in soil surveys then and would stop at night in a village according to the progress of my mapping). A first tome would be “Disaster meals in Western France” (boiled tinned peas, rancid butter, waitress arguing with the cook, etc.), the second one would be “How to ruin your nights in Western France” (Alsatian dogs barking all night or the “patron” threatening to kill the “patronne” in the room next door). But fortunately, there are quite a lot more places where the “patron” or the “patronne” is lovely and where meals are so good and cheap you come back with pleasure.