France is my favourite destination on earth. I love the food, culture, history, language — you name it. I adore Paris. But be warned: as with many European countries, if you’re looking for friendly service, it’s imperative to choose restaurants and cafes with care. There are, I’m afraid, some shockers out there.
My recent experience bears this out. I’d been dining at an eatery near Notre Dame, central Paris, had settled the bill and was about to leave. Only then did I realize I’d neglected to ask the waitress for a receipt. So I called her over. It was a modest enough request, you’d have thought. Apparently not. She looked outraged, as though I’d just called her an ugly sow with big buttocks. She stared at me, angrily babbled something, then marched back towards the till shaking her head, huffing, puffing, and gesticulating. She returned to the table, slammed the receipt down, stared at me again, this time from a distance of about six inches, and spat out, “Ça va?”
Okay, that was pretty extreme. But the truth remains that we in Europe have a way to go before matching the excellent standards of service that Americans are lucky enough to take for granted.
That said, the first time I visited America, in 1986, age 18, I got off to a bad start. About halfway through the flight across the Atlantic, and never having been outside Europe before, I was thrilled to see land below me as I looked out of the window. With youthful innocence, curiosity, and excitement, realizing I must be seeing North America for the first time, I gestured to a passing hostess and asked her what region of what country I might be looking at. “I’ve no idea,” she snapped, “and shut that blind — people are watching the movie.”
That told me, didn’t it? It was the first time I’d ever spoken to an American, and, at that moment, I assumed all 250 million of them must be incomparably horrid.
Ever since then, of course, on countless visits to all parts of the States, I’ve been overwhelmed by how caring and professional the service is, in restaurants, hotels, and elsewhere. To British visitors, used as we are to surliness, sulkiness, and dismissiveness, it can all come as a shock. In fact, American service is so helpful and considerate that some Brits mistake it for sarcasm. It’s an easy error to make. Imagine a British couple arriving at their hotel in New York City after a long, arduous flight across the pond:
Hotel receptionist (sporting a big smile with faultless white teeth): “Good evening. Welcome to you both. How are you today? My name’s Raymond and I’m here to make your stay as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. If you need anything at all, any time of the day or night, please just ask. Let me get you a coffee, and take your coats. And welcome to New York City, by the way!”
British man: “Are you taking the piss?”
Of course, I can only sympathize with Americans traveling the other way. A typical scene might play out like this: a businessman enters an overpriced London hotel, having traveled through the night from Chicago, followed by a grueling cab ride from Heathrow:
London hotel receptionist: “Yes?”
Chicago businessman (looking exhausted): “Good morning. I’ve got a room for three nights. The name’s Wilson. I need a non-smoking room, please, and I hope I’m not too late for some breakfast if I may.”
London hotel receptionist: “Breakfast’s finished, sunshine. There’s your key.”
Yes, yes, I exaggerate a little. It’s rarely quite that bad. In fact, service in Europe can be reasonably good these days, as businesses have begun to realize that if they treat their customers respectfully, they tend to prosper. (Some here in Britain struggle with that concept.) And it varies from country to country. Ireland, for example, in my experience, is every bit as good as America.
You can still find Basil Fawlty horror stories, however. For instance, there’s a good but expensive restaurant near my home in Kent that’s rumored to be getting a Michelin star. But regulars all say the same: it has a waiter whose manner is appalling — aloof, condescending, passive-aggressive. He treats you as an inconvenient dolt, and you just know he goes into the kitchen and badmouths every single diner. All of us are wary of him, and all have our own war stories. He wouldn’t last two minutes in America, but his job, here in the UK, seems as safe as a Swiss bank vault.
Yet even that guy is peaches and cream compared to the owner of a village pub a short drive from my home. Quite simply, this man is most colossally rude and aggressive human being I’ve ever encountered. On our one and only visit there with another family, he was hostile (almost physically) to both sets of children, who ended up in tears. He’s got a terrible reputation locally, it transpires, but seems not to realize there might be a link between his attitude towards mankind and his empty parking lot.
At least, these days, we can get our revenge on TripAdvisor. My scathing review of his establishment has notched up nearly a thousand views so far. Not that he seems to care, or show any remorse. In his comment underneath my review he calls me “a lying numpty.” How classy.
So, we in Europe still have a lot to learn about how to treat customers. That nothing-is-too-much-trouble culture in the States translates all too easily to an if-I-really-have-to attitude over here, or even a don’t-push-your-luck-or-I’ll-chin-you sort of feel.
My advice to Americans visiting Europe for the first time is to prepare for the worst. Then, with luck, you might end up being be pleasantly surprised. And if you really get scarred, you could always channel your disgust into creating a London-based customer-service training company. You’ll earn a fortune.