I feel unjustifiably ungrateful.
I’m so lucky to live in Paris with its rich cultural, artistic and architectural heritage, but returning from Cape Town, the most obvious features are the disagreeable interactions with the natives and a confrontational undertone to many situations. It’s strangely miserable here. What’s going on?
Perhaps it’s the climate, or maybe something to do with the city itself, but in Cape Town I felt as though people were genuinely happy to be there. When someone would serve me a drink in a restaurant, drive me somewhere in their taxi, give me directions in the street or say goodbye after I’d paid at the counter in a shop, they’d always leave me with a positive impression. The same cannot, regrettably, be said of most of my recent experiences in Paris.
The icing on the cake was at the various airline and security counters at the airport, as I was leaving Cape Town. The check-in agent was cracking jokes about the weather I was heading into, and suggesting I’d be better off staying in South Africa, the security guys at the X-ray machines were friendly and helpful, and the immigration agent who looked at my passport was in such a good mood I had to wonder if he’d just won the lottery.
Compare and contrast with Paris. I can’t make eye contact with wait staff in a restaurant for love or money, and when I finally call out to them (politely, mind you), they take on a very offended and disapproving attitude, as though I had infringed some unwritten rule that says I’m supposed to stay in my seat and watch my life pass into history until they feel like bringing the bill. My leaving a tip results in a deadpan “merci monsieur” with the emotional content of a 16th century executioner talking to the condemned.
So many interactions here result seem to have the potential for some form of confrontation that I have to wonder whether the people who work in the service industry in France are just profoundly offended at the very concept of having to provide a service to someone else. A nascent theory in the back of my mind says this is probably all backwash from the emotions originating in the French Revolution: They threw off their chains and rose up against the ruling classes, and they’re bloody well not going to serve anyone ever again, so if you’ve paid them to bring you a croissant and a coffee, then that’s what you’ll get, but the smile costs extra, and respect and a pleasant attitude are unfortunately not on the menu. Sir.
Of course it’s not always like this – there are plenty of pleasant people in Paris, in all walks of life, but they stand out all the more because you can’t take it for granted here. You never know if the staff in this particular establishment (shop, theatre, parking garage, restaurant, etc) is going to be pleasant until you’ve sat down and tried to order.
Another strange attribute is that, after treating any number of clients with a sort of sullen resentment, one of these unhappy service industry employees will meet up after work with a few friends, and metamorphose into an absolutely charming individual. I’ve seen this happen when drinking in a bar patronised by some of the people who work in the local businesses. You can barely recognise them when they’re laughing and smiling, but they are the person who gave you that sneer as you mentioned that you’d actually ordered a chicken salad, not a poached herring.
My purpose isn’t really to criticise the average French person working in Paris, since that’s far too much of a generalisation, but more to illustrate the massive contrast between a less mature economy in a warm climate, like Cape Town, where everyone is grateful for the jobs they have and proud of the level of service they provide, and … what? Colder north-European countries? Developed nations where people believe they deserve better? I’m not even sure what the problem here is.
Let’s face it, South Africa’s got nothing on France. Not the buildings, nor the history, nor the art. South Africa has a bunch of problems at are very present in the form of shanty towns, electricity supply problems, chronically high unemployment, the legacy of many years of apartheid and the complexes it’s left the country and its people. France has small problems compared to this.
Perhaps it’s just the weather. Perhaps it’s that people here can’t abide having to “serve” someone, even if they’re paid to do it. Perhaps its because the French have grown so tolerant of shoddy service that they don’t even notice when the waiter drops the coffee on the table with a clatter and walks past your table seven times pointedly ignoring your attempts to get his attention. Perhaps I’m just in the wrong neighbourhood, and the huge number of tourists has poisoned attitude of staff in the more popular cafés and bars. Perhaps it’s the recession. It certainly happens less often than I think, but I’m so surprised every time I experience it that I feel like it happens all the time, and it does happen with a fair regularity.
I hope that spring brings a renewed sense of Parisian class and style to the city, because Paris doesn’t feel like the city of love at the moment!