Monday, June 20, 2011

A rude Parisian waiter UPDATED

One of my fellow grad students made a truly brilliant observation: the French Paradox isn't eating cream sauces yet remaining thin and healthy. It's the fact that ATM machines distribute only 50s, while nowhere, not even supermarkets, will allow you to pay with one. Granted I get around this by taking out 40 at a time, and by doing the bulk of my spending at Monoprix (aka groceries), which for whatever reason finds cartes acceptable.

But sometimes I do want to pay for something in cash, and I'm then reunited with the French (Parisian?) obsession with exact change. No question about it, wherever you're paying, exact change will be appreciated more than a tip.

Meanwhile, as someone who does not live in Europe permanently or have a European bank account or anything, I do not have a stash in my room of the heaps and heaps of coins that would allow me to pay exact at all times. I clearly have no business being in Paris.

This evening, I met a friend - another grad student, we're everywhere! - for a drink. The total came to four euros for his beer, and a rather steep five for my glass of wine. (Steep because this is France, and, though Paris, not a touristy or upscale neighborhood.) From the get-go, the waiter at the place made it clear that he was not pleased to have to seat two Americans. Maybe my NYU tote bag was a mistake. Maybe my friend and I - he's also American - dared utter a syllable one to the other that gave off a whiff of anglais. Whatever it was, even though it was a beautiful evening, and there were available tables outside, as well as virtually all tables free inside, we were led to a table inside and in the back. I asked if outside was possible, and lo and behold it was. Similar efforts were required to see the list of wines by the glass. Through all of this, our waiter threw in just enough English words to make it clear: he was onto us.

Then came the bill. We each just had a 10, and again, we're both grad students, and with the current exchange rate, these were not exactly happy-hour drinks, so something at least close to paying for our own drinks was ideal. I asked for change. Non. By way of an explanation, our waiter opened what looked like the book from the check some other table had just paid and showed that there was only one five in it. Meanwhile, this was a reasonably large café, reasonably mid-evening. Really, no change at all?

Suspecting that some misogyny on top of the anti-Americanness might be at work, I asked my friend to give it a go when the waiter returned, and he again insisted that there was simply no change at all, not even à l'intérieur. The fact that after this, we were not planning to tip, was not an issue, not because a tip is never given in this situation (it can be, but is by no means expected), but because it was more important for the waiter to make it clear how his little neck of the woods in Paris was positively ruined by having to deal with Americans, those horrible people who not only communicate with one another English but, as residents of a country with another currency and across an ocean, do not keep massive stashes of European change in their pockets.


In keeping with the theme of Franco-American relations, some recent photos. By way of explanation, most are of a pro-French-language protest. Then there's graffiti that might be evidence of Jewish (like, pro-Jewish) terrorism, and possibly something to do with Freemasons, in what's Paris's non-tourist Jewish neighborhood, that is, not the Rue des Rosiers. The driving-school one is a fun double-entendre, the Vietnamese restaurant one evidence of the extent to which Anglophone hegemony has not taken over Paris. The Alsatian latkes are Alsatian latkes, and strike me - good peddler/usurer-descendent I probably am - as rather steep at nearly 19 a kilo. The ad asking French folk to visit America is from a good number of decades before sneaker-shopping on lower Broadway became the Frenchperson's vacation of choice, before the euro changed everything. The dachshund is a rare example of a long-haired miniature in this land of wire-haired standards.


eamonnmcdonagh said...

Though recently somewhat eased with regard to coins by the introduction of swipe cards for the buses, change remains a whole big deal here too and not just for tourists. Try paying for a cinema ticket, say 30 pesos, for example, with a 100 peso bill and you get the full don't you have anything smaller/scowl/delay routine, and that's in a megabucks chain cinema. It's been like that ever since I can remeber and no one seems to know exactly why.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I don't doubt that actual Parisians are expected to have exact change. There's just a greater chance that someone not leaving soon will have a lot of change. (I'm always trying to get rid of mine, which makes some cashiers very happy.) But more to the point, if they're already annoyed at you for being American - and American = "rich tourist," even if you're actually a grad student who's been here on and off for over a year - then your not having change is all the more unacceptable.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

If you should ever hear of an Irishman jailed for life here for dashing out the brains of a taxi driver who said ¿No tenés mas chico? on being presented with a 50 peso bill to pay for a 25 peso trip then you'll know why the comments from me have stopped ;=)

Britta said...

Chinese people also like change, though are (usually) slightly more polite about lack of change. Ticket ladies on the bus are extremely rude, but I think that is part of their job. People at major businesses don't seem to mind at all if you don't have change, it's more small businesses or taxi drivers, etc. And certainly, if it's between them getting you change or not making a sale, people will do their damndest to get you change, even if it means running around to neighboring businesses or even stopping people on the street to make change (though only after looking through your wallet to make sure you don't have smaller currency that you're hoarding). What is also funny though is in China the largest denomination of bill is 100 yuan (about $15). Since China has undergone crazy inflation in the past 20 years, this is not a particularly huge amount of money even in China, and you're expected to pay for almost everything in cash. So, say, putting down a 5,000 yuan deposit for an apartment, you'd have to bring 50 100 yuan bills. I can't imagine what paying for a car (about 130,000 yuan) would look like--you'd probably need a wheelbarrow.

I personally love paying in exact change, something IME that Americans find annoying and anal. Plenty of baristas try to look happy when I give them $1.35 exactly for coffee, but really they're annoyed because I've just stood there counting out change, and the likelihood of a tip has gone down since they will not be giving me back coins that I will drop in the jar.

France sounds ridiculous, but from what I hear Germany sounds like the perfect in between, where people are also really anal about getting the correct amount of change but also businesses are fine with giving you change. (My friend tells me in Berlin they just automatically assume separate checks, and the waiter walks around with a pouch full of change and collects from each person separately).

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...




"Plenty of baristas try to look happy when I give them $1.35 exactly for coffee, but really they're annoyed because I've just stood there counting out change, and the likelihood of a tip has gone down since they will not be giving me back coins that I will drop in the jar."

Precisely. I also am a fan of paying exact, which can indeed lead to awkwardness in the tip-ambiguous set-ups.

As a matter of principle, I prefer the service-included system. But a situation like this evening... I mean, what if my friend and I had been at two separate tables, and had each needed to pay with a ten? Would we have just each gotten our drink for free? Obviously this establishment - L'Endroit in the 17th 75017, Googlers - has some system for procuring change. No doubt, there was change in that restaurant at that very time, but hey, the waiter/establishment had been paid, and because no tip is assumed, there was no incentive for the waiter to provide any more service, especially since we were so obviously tourists and not likely to return. (Little did he know that my friend and I were in the area because we've both rented an apt. nearby, one that as academics studying French we might well rent again for long stretches for years to come. Not that this really matters, though. My influence on who goes to which Batignolles cafés is near-zilch.)

What's bizarre in Paris - and maybe, or maybe not, in the rest of France - is that this is not something unique to, say, tiny cheese shops, market stands, etc. It's entirely possible they'll get annoyed at the Target-esque Monoprix. I'll be in Germany soon, and will report back if I notice anything interesting change-wise.

Anonymous said...

Most important questions: Who picked up the tab? Were you able to shake this smuck down for the one stinking Euro?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Confusing comment, but to finish the story, ultimately we did both pay just for our own drinks, because we were able to get change elsewhere.

PG said...

So far Spaniards have shown themselves willing to give change, with the exception of a taxi driver who couldn't change my 50 euro bill; I dashed into a nearby bar and bought a bottle of water, and the bartender had no trouble giving me change.

I have a (possibly obnoxious) desire to retain my American habit of tipping because I fondly believe it will make American tourists more popular. Of course, I don't do it in Malaga at the 20% level expected in NYC; usually more like 10%, especially since service standards here seem to be correspondingly lower. I reviewed my Spanish phrase for requesting the bill with a language teacher recently, and it appears to be correct technically. I suppose I'm just committing the cultural error of wanting to leave before I've had some dessert, or another glass of wine, or even drunk the free-but-Robitussin-tasting little snifters of Godknowswhat.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"I have a (possibly obnoxious) desire to retain my American habit of tipping because I fondly believe it will make American tourists more popular."

I wouldn't count on it. If anything, it makes servers disappointed when American English is not followed by a hefty tip.

My sense is that the notion in Europe of Americans as walking moneybags - a holdover from the postwar era - is only made worse by the exchange rate, because it's assumed anyone American who'd come to Europe now must be prepared to spend $5 on a coffee. Which a lot probably are, but if you're in Europe for some other reason (studying France, being married to a Belgian, accompanying your husband who's studying in Germany, etc.), you're always up against this. Probably time to kick that caffeine addiction...