Recently I was lucky enough to hear Stephen Clarke speak about his new book, “Paris Revealed” at The Oxford Literary Festival at Christchurch College with a group of my fellow writing buddies. Entitled “5 Things you don’t know about Paris” his talk covered far more than five of his own observations about Parisians and Parisian life.
Having lived there himself now for many years he has grown to love the city and its people; learning the complex cultural tips and tricks of how to get by as he went along. Parisians are often tarred with the same brush of being rude and arrogant but Stephen said you just need to understand them and avoid some common blunders and you can rub along quite nicely and enjoy your time in Paris.
One thing that stuck in my mind was one of his observations about Parisian waiter’s reactions to certain questions and words.
Parisian waiters are a breed unto themselves and would be mortally offended by questions about vegetarian options or allergies. They would be feeling deeply offended that you are questioning the quality and provenance of the chef’s cooking and ingredients and would probably think you were being rude; he wouldn’t understand that your allergy could be life threatening.
I’ve been in this situation before in France (not Paris) whilst on a skiing trip with a vegan in our group. Luckily for me my clever husband speaks pretty much fluent french so is able to ascertain which meals I should avoid (nuts and dairy allergy) and order a meal ‘sans’ allergen. We’ve come unstuck a couple of times, for instance, in France, ask for a meal with no nuts and you could very well be served a meal with noisettes! The astonished and unapologetic reply to questioning being, “Well they’re only little bits of nut!”
However on this occassion our poor vegan friend, armed with his phrase book and having gamely attempted his own stumbling food order, was then subjected to what can only be described as downright rudeness. Embarassing for us, he, being Australian had little clue he was being taken for a ride but my husband was telling me what the waiter was in fact saying under his breath and I shant repeat it here.
It is a shame, especially when the victim in question is embracing the culture, albeit not the meat loving aspect, and has tried to speak French. No surprise then that his meal was covered in cheese when it arrived. Sending the meal back sent the waiter into a spitting frenzy which was quite impressive to watch.
Stephen suggested ordering things you know you can eat like simple salads or steak and chips, requesting the sauce or dressing on the side. Another useful word is ‘sans’ which means without. So you could order a salad “sans fromage” to avoid cheese.
Obviously this is not safe for those with severe food allergies but gives you some insight into the attitudes and workings of this unique breed of servers.
All in all though, a very interesting talk, and it did help me to see that what I had previously taken as rudeness and arrogance is perhaps misunderstood, and with a bit of knowledge and Stephen’s new book you can tame even a Parisian waiter.
Have you had similar experiences? Ever mentioned the words ‘food’ and ‘allergies’ in the same breath to a Parisian waiter? Was he spitting feathers? I’d love to hear your experiences of ordering food abroad for an allergy free diet.