In the UK we grow up with a love-hate relationship with our Gallic neighbours. We love to hate them, and tell countless jokes at their expense. I’m fairly sure it’s mutual. Travelling to Paris several times in my teenage years, the stereotype of the rude arrogant Frenchman was reinforced, as we were looked down upon and offered the worst in service.
But in recent years we’ve visited France many years and have come to appreciate the fact not only does it offer so many great places to visit as a tourist, but the people are actually, well, very hospitable.
Having just returned from a few days in Normandy, I was once again impressed by the high standards of service and the warm welcome that we received at every stop. There are certain things that are worth remembering. Firstly, I’ve found that it always pays to make an effort at speaking in French. My ability to converse in French is very limited, but for restaurants and hotels I can get by without too much difficulty. Once you’re seen to try, invariably you’ll be greeted cheerfully with a fluent English reply.
Secondly, remember that it is almost obligatory to greet the staff when entering a premises. Even if you are just browsing, it’s polite to offer a Bonjour to the assistant. Do that, and you’ll start on a good footing.
I always thought that the English were obsessed with courtesies and etiquette, but was surprised that the French seem to out-do us in this regard. As a recent example, we sat in a restaurant in Honfleur on the Normandy coast and were the only non-French diners during the whole evening, although the others were also tourists. We sat and observed as each diner got up to leave and bade farewell to everyone else in the restaurant. Indeed when it was our turn, we offered our Au Revoirs and Bon Soirs, and were cordially sent on our way by the staff and remaining customers. It was very nice to observe. I’ll try that in Pizza Express next time and see what reaction I get.
We’ve encountered similar hospitality in other parts of France, and it leads me to think back to my teenage years and whether it’s the French that have changed or whether it’s me. Yes, I’ve heard others say that the reception given to foreign tourists has improved over the years, but I am sure there’s more to it than that.
To receive hospitality you have to be wanted. In some parts of the world the fact that you have $$$ is enough to be wanted, but this was not the case here, where the tourist market is 90% domestic French. An effort at fitting in, a tacit acknowledgement that you are a visiting guest and a little bit of respect goes a long way to ensuring a warm welcome. I am sure that I got the welcome I deserved in my early years.
Will I cheer for the French when the World Cup starts? No, of course not. Some rivalries are just meant to be. But for anyone thinking of visiting France for the first time and concerned about a reputation for surly and unhelpful service, I would put your mind at rest. The welcome in France is as warm as anywhere else in the world; it’s up to us to behave in the right way to receive it.