Some of my best friends are French. So you can probably guess what is coming next.
As we are packing our car to finally leave lovely Biarritz this Monday morning, the hotel receptionist de-activates the keycard to our room. She knows we are not ready to go because we have not paid our final bill, but she does it anyway.
And then she lets me and three-year-old James walk across the reception of a deserted hotel and up to the second floor to discover that she has de-activated our key card. We go back downstairs and get it re-activated.
There is not even a glimmer of an acknowledgement that it might have been better if I’d not been obliged to navigate two extra journeys up and down stairs with a toddler in tow.
“Vous avez toujours un compte a regler,” we are informed. “Oui, je sais,” I reply.
“Madame (Tissy has just turned 40, so I guess she is a a Mademoiselle no longer) vous en a parlé tout à l’heure,” I add to drive home the point that, no, we were not planning on doing a runner.
The receptionist gives me a look that says, in the great tradition of French service, “Screw. You!”
The good thing is, I suppose, that there is no discrimination, no preferential treatment involved in this novel approach to customer care.
The day before, around the same time, I’d witnessed the same receptionist’s exchange with a French fellow Dad who wanted to know if it would be possible to delay his family’s check-out until 1230. (For context this was a Sunday morning in a hotel that had been virtually empty all weekend).
“Check-out’s at 1100,” he was told. And that was that. No mitigating, “I’m sorry but the cleaners need to get into the rooms.” No softening the blow with a ”I’m afraid company policy is … “.
Just pure miserable ‘computer says no, so f*** you, and can you get out of my sight’. Poor bloke was left hanging in humiliating, slightly open-mouthed fashion in front of his little girl, to the point that all he could think of to say was: “Ok. Oui. Ok. Je comprends. Merci.”
Merci beaucoup and thanks very much for the memories. I often wonder if the people who seem to have a vocation for misery realise the damage they do to the national brand.
That the French are rude is taken as read on the other side of the Channel: Most holidaying Brits are convinced that waiters pretend to misunderstand their mangled Franglais just to be annoying.
And on the other side of the Alps, there is a similar perception of innate Gallic arrogance that a French TV correspondent nicely summarised in a tweet during the recent Franco-Italian diplomatic spat.
L’amitié franco-italienne est asymétrique, et ce n’est pas nouveau.
Les Français aiment l”Italie et les Italiens, sans bien les connaître d’ailleurs.
En revanche, les Italiens n’aiment pas trop les Français. Ils nous trouvent hautains et orgueilleux. Ce qui est assez vrai…— François Beaudonnet (@beaudonnet) February 7, 2019
My thoughts: By any standard, our receptionist this morning was rude, and miserable. But in my experience she is far from representative of the people of France, or of its culture.
Most of the administrative staff I’ve worked with over the last three decades have been cheerful, helpful and hardworking. People can be reserved, but generally everyone gets the same courteous and efficient treatment, which is different from my experience in Italy, for example.
It is just that there is an elite core of misanthrophes out there who seem to have wheedled their way into positions where they can do maximum harm.
Although now I come to think of it, maybe it is a clever marketing trick: As in, ‘we’ll deliberately do everything we can to piss you off and while you may end up hating us, you won’t forget us!’.
Having breathed deeply on my way past one dragon, I assumed that was it for the day. But it turns out the receptionist at the hotel has a spiritual cousin working at the Volvo garage, where our limping XC90 is to be checked in for rehab while we continue our journey in a “like-for-like replacement” Renault Scenic.
It is quite a skill to be able to studiously ignore adults while simultaneously scowling with ostentatious disapproval in the direction of their children being mildly boisterous around their knees.
The Volvo receptionist managed this trick with aplomb. She must have been to frosty demeanour finishing classes: the Archbishop of Bantsbury, she was not.
But we manage to get past her and, finally, sort out what is happening with our wounded car. Fatigued, we find a nearby place for lunch with the idea that we will fill up before, finally, hitting the road for Spain.
The place is lively, the staff are warm and friendly. The food is okay but, once again, no vegetables available for the children. And as I chew on an overcooked lamb chop, I lament the seemingly inexorable decline of standards in the average French restaurant.
I’m 52. The France I fell in love with 30 years ago was still the France of beetroot vinaigrette. My kids also love beetroot. It is a winter vegetable, it is delicious and it keeps for ages. So why have the restaurants we have been to on this trip been unable to produce it, or any other vegetables for our kids?