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.



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!

19 thoughts on “Think literally

    1. Thank you! I will tell the Reader about it, and she will be delighted. I find Ecosia works for most things, but I still default back to google if I’m wanting a more complex search. I will tell the Reader she has a new Reader (…!) to encourage her to post again (too much homework).

  1. “Whereupon I made that rookie error of applying a little bit of logic to the situation.” I’m still cracking up at this complete and utter truth. Also loving the wine misdemeanour by the Germans. However, I’m happy to say that many autoroute stops now stock more than just a factory packaged, plain croissant for vegetarians! I recently had the choice of THREE sandwiches AND three types of reheatable pasta boxes. Strangely, I was flustered by this unusual situation and wondered if this is how non-posh people feel when they’re presented with a menu in a posh restaurant. I just didn’t know what to do.

    1. Tee hee. I had noticed the rise of the re-heatable meals, but have never managed to try one because I am afraid that I will use the microwave in an unapproved manner and get told off… I am pleased to hear that vegetarianism is gaining ground though.

  2. Logic got me a traffic ticket and quite a chewing out by a police officer. There were travaux on the only road into town. It was very backed up. Just before the rond-point leading to a shopping center–where much of the traffic was headed–there’s a road that’s a shortcut from where I wanted to go, to the left. But the road is one-way, coming at me. However, the travaux had forced a deviation for traffic in that direction, so there would be no head-on collisions. I saw car after car head into the one-way road. I decided to do the same–I would be one less car clogging the rond-point. Alas, the police had set a trap farther down the road. The state of the traffic using the shortcut was such that they stopped only one in 12 cars (I had time to count). I explained the logic–surely the cops would want to set up the traffic to take the shortcut and reduce the enormous traffic jam? I got read the riot act, told I would lose three points and face a fine that would require a second mortgage, but eventually left with a small fine for failure to signal.

    1. Oh my goodness. I am still baffled by the adherence to the letter of the law by a populace that is one of the most culturally inclined to rule-breaking that it is possible to encouter. There are rules about the rules you break. Thanks for telling me your traffic tale of woe!

  3. In defence of the cousins on the other side of the Alps, their motorway services are so hopelessly bad that I’d rather have my Christmas dinner at a Little Chef somewhere on the M4.

  4. Glad to see you back Emily! It really does sound odd to have to take food you don’t want and to pay more!
    Thanks for linking to #pocolo

  5. That is a hysterical situation and one that I can picture perfectly. However the Germans not being able to buy wine without dead animal is a first for me! Over all I think French motorway services are pretty good, compared to most of mainland Europe, and awtytravels is absolutely right, Italian services are dire. Having said that whenever we drive on the motorways (one big contraflow or traffic jam) in UK I make sure we stop at services with M&S food and when in France we never actually eat in any of the “restaurants” they are usually too depressing (we try to take picnics or just buy sandwiches). Glad you sorted your blog problem out, you nearly gave me a heart attack when I thought you’d stopped writing! Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

  6. I love “Le regle est plus fort que la logique”! When I shared this with my wife, it brought back several memorable experiences we’ve had with differents “services au client” over the years — thanks for sharing yours! #AllAboutFrance

  7. I loved this post and your sense of humour. As someone else said, the French are usually the greatest rule breakers. I’m still recovering from an experience on the motorway from Toulouse this summer. There was a total traffic jam. No one could move – except for those people zooming down the hard shoulder!

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