Carnet de Voyage: Parlez-Vous Onglet?

Carnet de Voyage: Parlez-Vous Onglet?

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

A lot of water has flowed under the Pont Neuf since I first visited Paris. But just how much only hit me during a stay in a quaint old-fashioned hotel hidden away in Place Dauphine. We were chatting to our young waitress, a bright, pretty girl from Nantes, her raven hair cut in the classic French bob. She hadn’t been in the city long enough to acquire the hard shell of indifference all Parisian waiters are taught at birth. We’d complimented her on her English, and I asked her if she knew the location of a new restaurant we’d heard about. Did I know Paris? she asked. Did I know Paris?! Plumbing new depths of pomposity, I said, “I’ve been coming to Paris since before you were born.” “Oh yes, and how long is that?” I told her. “That was before my mother was born!”, she replied.

Later, I tried to recall those long-lost days of the early 1960s. And the wide-eyed schoolboy hitchhiking through a France blissfully foreign to le Big Mac, le web and le portable. How had we both changed? OK, I now travel by Eurostar and TGV. And the only vehicles I hail are taxis. But France? Well one thing has never changed. My own private war of words with the French.

It’s a war of spasmodic skirmishes with a cunning and battle-hardened maquis of waiters, shop assistants, concierges and femmes de chambre. And from bitter experience, I can tell you, they give no quarter.

I can’t count the times, ordering a beer in a tabac, my pack of Gitanes casually open on the table and my gruffest Parisian accent honed and polished, I’ve nonchalantly asked the waiter for “Un Demi.” The reply? “Pint or a half?”

One time, in a sleepy little town deep in Normandy, we’d stopped for lunch at the imposing Michelin-starred hotel in the main square. In the bar, seated at a table by the window, I could see across the cobbled square to the massive Gothic structure of the local church. Waiting for my first Pastis of the day, I noticed a large, happy wedding party pouring out of the church, flourishing flowers and cameras. The waiter arrived with my drink and, indicating the throng outside the church, I asked: “La réception – c’est ici?” Without missing a beat, he replied in flawless English: “No Sir, Reception is just down the corridor and on the right.” 

In Lille, we’d lunched in an eye-wateringly expensive sea food restaurant, and I’d ordered the bill. I asked the haughty maitre’d if the service was included. “Oui Monsieur, but not the tip.” To be fair, there have been a few (well, more than a few) faux pas on my part. Often, I’m ashamed to say, fuelled by over-indulgence. In the South of France, lunching extravagantly at La Reserve de Beaulieu, flushed with a surfeit of pigeon and a Petrus you could stand a fork up in, I was scornfully corrected by the waiter when I announced my demise with a bleary “Je suis terminé.” 

I once famously caused a rare outburst of Gallic hilarity when, requiring an ashtray, I asked the waiter to bring me ‘an arsonist’. And then there was the time, confusing dessus with dehors, I unwittingly suggested to the elderly but formidable patronne that we have coffee and cognac upstairs.   

But the moment that I finally conceded defeat came when I realised that it’s not just the language that’s different. The French are different. 

Lunching at La Tour d’Argent [in Paris] one Sunday, having somehow managed to secure a coveted table by the window, we were intrigued by the elderly, elegant and distinguished couple at the next table. With his patrician air, silver hair and well-worn but beautifully cut Tweed jacket, he had all the trappings of the Milord. She, elegantly dressed and impeccably coiffured, completed the picture by casually feeding titbits from her plate to a large black Labrador, lolling under her chair. They had to be English.  

Surreptitiously, we tried to overhear their conversation. The man must have noticed because he caught my eye, smiled, and we started to chat. And, of course, they were French. And, of course, they spoke English. In his case, fluently, without a trace of an accent. She had a thick and throaty accent you could cut with a knife.    

They invited us to join them at their table. After introductions, we learned that he was René, le Compte de Chambrun, chairman of Baccarat crystal. He was charming, witty and entertained us with stories of his life as a lawyer, diplomat and president of the Paris Jockey Club. His wife was reserved and spoke little, continuing to feed the dog.  

It was later that we found out she was the daughter of Pierre Laval, the Vichy prime minister, executed for treason in 1945. So it was perhaps her family genes that leapt to the barricades when, made bold by a second Calvados, I asked her about her dog, now sprawled asleep under the table.  

“You must have a lot of clout here.” “Clout? What is clout?” “Well, er, influence. They allow you to bring your dog into the restaurant.” 

 She fixed me with an imperious, icy stare. “This dog has a better pedigree than your Queen!” 

Read our other Carnet de Voyage entries here.

Iaian Bilsland has lived and worked in the US, Canada and Europe, as well as the UK. His career was mostly spent in the advertising industry but he also worked in a steel mill in Chicago, on an oil pipeline in the Austrian Alps and for a brief and inglorious period, a disreputable bookstore in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He lives in London and, inspired by buying and reading the classic children’s stories for his bright and beautiful young granddaughters, he spends a lot of his time trying to write some of his own. 


Lead photo credit : © shutterstock

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