Think literally

Over the years we have spent in Lyon we have tested every means of travelling to the UK: plane, Eurostar, Eurotunnel, and ferry. When leaving France, they each have their particular advantages and disadvantages, but upon coming home, the plane wins hands down. Why? Well, all three other modes of transport require us to have some degree of interaction with French customer services during the return journey, and after a few days abroad, the shock is usually more than we can bear.

Take the start of this year. Our ten-day sojourn in the land of our birth had been no idyll (a particular highlight was getting into an altercation with a woman on a bus, which resulted in her intoning loudly, “it’s the children I feel sorry for”… don’t ask). However, one thing that we could be certain of was that, upon walking into some emporium or other, the rules of the transaction would be readily apparent (there is a menu, you select something from it, the food arrives, you pay, you leave).

As we drove off the ferry and steamed southwards, we applied as much acceleration as was consistent with the law in a desperate attempt to make it home without stopping. Finally, though, we reluctantly turned into the Langres-Perrogney service station on the A31 near Dijon. It was past 19h, and, this being France, only a small window of time remained to us if we wished to eat.

At Langres-Perrogney, the restaurant, as it insisted on calling itself, was one of those ones that has a formule for children. Your child picks up a clear plastic box containing some piece of plastic junk and a fruit compôte; they collect their mini boisson; and then they proceed to the main serving hatch where some unsmiling woman asks them what they want in a manner bordering on aggressive. Aggression or otherwise, the Curly One loves a plastic box and a portion of indifferent steak hâché frites, so she was in her element. It was the Reader who caused a problem.

I am immensely proud that the Reader has an environmental blog, and goes around our house turning off lights before we’ve finished using them. In this spirit, at Langres-Perrogney she decided that she did not want a plastic box, still less the plastic junk or the compôte, and that she would simply take the mini bottle of water and the greasy main course. As we were making our way with this feast to the till, the dame who had served us (there is no verb to convey what it was that she actually did, so “serve” will have to do) bellowed at our retreating backs: si vous prenez ni de boîte ni de compôte, ce n’est pas un formule enfant et vous allez payer plus cher.

Regulation meal for the Curly One, with plastic box and no wine.

Whereupon I made that rookie error of applying a little bit of logic to the situation. In my best French I explained, as patiently as I could, that it was a win-win situation. Madame got to keep her boîte, jouet en plastique, and compôte, and therefore to re-sell them, theoretically at least making a tiny profit, whilst we did not have to encumber ourselves with things that we did not want or need. To no avail. The woman shook her head. After several volleys of this, we gave in. We would pay 3€ more if we didn’t take the box, and so we took the wretched thing, and she smiled in a self-satisfied manner, knowing that she had done her boulot despite the best efforts of her lawless customers.

Needless to say, as soon as her back was turned, we snuck back into the self-service area and replaced the plastic on the shelf from whence it had come. Sometimes I wonder whether the national motto should be less Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and more Le regle est plus fort que la logique.

As we were muttering to ourselves about French literal-mindedness at Langres-Perrogney’s finest formica table, we espied a hapless German couple enter the premises. They embarked upon a tricky conversation with our friend behind the counter about what was on offer (they didn’t understand French or the system of formules, and explaining what andouillette was in German was beyond the serveuse). Eventually they settled upon a bowl of soup each (I didn’t blame them). Then the male half of the couple retraced his steps and made the terrible bêtise of picking up a tiny bouteille de vin. Non, non, non, she was heard to shout, vous ne pouvez pas acheter ce vin. They turned round, perplexed. Our ears pricked up. Why could they not buy the wine? Had they not picked up the correct box? Vous ne prenez pas de viande, the woman explained, donc ceci n’est pas un répas, et vous ne pouvez pas acheter du vin sans répas.

Silly me! Everyone knows that it’s not a meal unless it’s eaten at 19h, accompanied by a plastic box and consists largely of a huge slab of dead animal.

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Thank you to everyone who had noticed that I have been quite quiet for a while. Life has been rather busy. I have ten times more paperwork than you do… but I’m back!