Call of France

A Trilogy by Barry A. Whittingham

Category: Expat living in France

French Eating and Drinking Establishments: le Café

Apart from the restaurant which performs a similar function throughout the world (though the French gastronomic version enjoys a unique and deserved international reputation for excellence), France has a plethora of eating and drinking establishments whose various names could create confusion in the mind of the foreign tourist or recently arrived expat as to the purpose they serve and the differences between them – even though distinctions of this kind are becoming increasingly blurred and in many cases the names now used mean more or less the same thing. Let’s start with  le café.

The café is, of course, the best-known of French drinking (and eating) establishments. Its size is extremely variable and can range from the large Parisian café-restaurant, employing several kitchen, service and bar staff, to the small village café, usually owned and run by a local who is head cook, bottle-washer and waiter (or waitress) all rolled into one. But they all provide a place where shoppers, strollers and tourists can have a bite to eat and slake their thirst, and where regulars can meet to share gossip and a joke over an apéro or two. What’s more, a small-town or village café is an ideal place for the expat to meet and make friends with the locals. There may be a certain amount of suspicion at first, but they’ll gradually acknowledge your presence and begin to warm to you. You’ll have to be patient, however, as this can take time. And in many cases – especially in the provinces – cafés are frequently the headquarters for a local association or sporting club. And it’s rare to come across a French café which doesn’t have some kind of terrace where you can relax and simply watch the world go by. The larger ones are capable of accommodating scores, while in small villages they are often limited to just a couple of tables with chairs on the pavement outside.
Most French cafés are licensed to open without interruption from early morning until late at night and serve a wide range of alcoholic, non-alcoholic and hot drinks. And you can always get something to eat at any time of the day. They will serve you with at least a café au lait and croissants for breakfast, and at any other time you can get a snack (at minimum a choice of sandwiches). And even in small towns and villages this can be a more elaborate hot or cold dish and, when there’s a demand, some even serve a full plat du jour (usually at lunchtime), eaten inside the café, on the terrace in summer, or in the small restaurant which is sometimes attached.

Sometimes the café is a bar tabac presse : the premises include a small tobacconist’s and newsagent’s shop which, like the café, is open all day long, and where you can buy, apart from newspapers and magazines, sweets, chocolate, postcards, stamps and nick-nacks of all kinds – and sometimes even bread. Many are licensed to sell scratch cards and National Lottery tickets. And the larger ones are usually licensed by the PMU (le Pari Mutuel Urbain), a state-controlled betting organization mainly centred on horse-racing.

Tu or Vous?

It might be thought that, under normal circumstances, politeness, especially when served up in its friendly form, can only go to unite. But what is less surprising with the French and English (where things are never normal) that it can frequently divide? And what greater damage has been inflicted on Anglo-French relations than that inoffensive-sounding little subject pronoun tu? You know, the Frenchman in us can’t help thinking it’s that same irrepressible desire to get on cordial terms with every Tom, Dick and Harry in less time than it takes to say Jacques Robinson which makes so many Anglo Saxons consider it an open sesame to instant friendship with all. Take the case of Sue.
      Last year, our neighbours, Monsieur and Madame Martin, had a young English au pair girl, Sue. Now Sue had just left school and, before going on to study French at university, she had decided to take a sabbatical year working in France with the aim of improving her spoken language and knowledge of French customs and lifestyle. The problem was that at the beginning of her séjour she systematically used the familiar tu to address all and sundry as a signal that she wished to be on friendly terms with all. Finally, Madame Martin had to take her to one side and explain that, though natural with people of her own age, using tu to address complete strangers, those she barely knew or whose social or professional status, age or even gender created a distance, was little more than misplaced familiarity – a discourteous lack of respect akin to a youngster in England addressing an adult he barely knew by his Christian name. Consequently, to avoid any risk of giving offence, she could only advise her to use the more distantly polite (and also plural) equivalent vous and, as a general rule, to leave it to the native speaker to call the tune.
     But while the more formally-structured codes of French polite etiquette usually require a stricter adherence to prescribed or customary forms with the result that you would normally use tu only to address relatives and friends, this is merely a broad indication and exceptions may occur. For example, in the past especially, but sometimes even today, some parents from the grande bourgeoisie, the upper middle classes, still require their children to address them by vous!  And though we have known my wife’s brother-in-law (as well as two of her cousins) for more than 40 years now, we have always used, and will certainly continue to use le vouvoiement. So, it’s important to realize that longstanding vous relationships of this type will probably be entrenched for life. It is also not uncommon for an older person to use le tutoiement when addressing a younger one (especially someone known since childhood) while the latter continues to uses the more respectfully polite vous.
     To complicate matters even further, though we would normally use vous to address those we’re not on familiar terms with, we can, in some circumstances, be on tu terms with those we hardly know. This is especially the case in a club or association where members are considered to be amicably united in pursuit of a shared activity or goal. So really there’s no hard and fast rule: things may depend on the situation you find yourself in, and/or the nature of your relationship, and it all boils down to a question of what you (and the other person) feel the more comfortable with.
     But, as our Frenchman has to admit, sometimes the choice between tu and vous can be both subtle and complex – even for a native speaker. At our golf club, for example, we sometimes play with a member some twenty years younger than us. When playing together we quite naturally use the tu form to address each other. But strangely, back in the clubhouse over a drink he reverts back to vous – presumably in deference to our age. This puts us in a rather embarrassing position. How do we react? Do we continue to use tu or, like him, go back to using vous?  In cases like this it’s probably better to discuss things openly and come to some form of mutual agreement on the use of one or the other. This is what we did on one occasion while playing a round of golf.
     As we were preparing to tee off on the last hole a lady came up and greeted us with a, ‘Bonjour, Barry. Comment ça va?’
‘Mais ça va très bien!’ we replied, recognizing Geneviève, a lady golfer we hadn’t seen for some time.
‘Et …?’
     We hesitated for a fraction of a second. Were we previously on vous or tu terms? We couldn’t for the life of us remember! So, it must have been our formally polite French part who prompted us to choose, ‘Et … vous?’ The expression of disappointment which momentarily clouded her face said everything. Fortunately, on realizing his mistake, our Frenchman managed to retrieve the situation by saying, ‘Oh, excuse-moi! On se tutoyait, non?’ For the short conversation which followed was full of friendly warmth.
     

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