A Brand New Novel
Josephine Baker, the early-20th-century African-American dancer, comic, and singer–hugely famous in Paris. Did you know that she was also a spy for the French Resistance during WWII?
Last night, we dined in peace. Our waiter took our orders, brought our bread, wine, and water, and walked away. Later, our soup arrived — discreetly. Now you don’t see it; now, you do. We were deep in conversation about a serious subject. The air between us fairly hummed with thoughts and emotions. We held hands. We ate our soup and laughed together, then resumed our talk. The soup disappeared. The entree appeared. And never once did anyone interrupt our tender discussion to ask, “How is everything?”
We should have felt outraged. What kind of place was this, anyway, not to interrupt our personal. obviously intense conversation to inquire about the quality of our meal?
It was a European place, that’s what kind it was, with European service. And, frankly, I prefer it.
Have a meal in an American restaurand, and chances are you’ll find yourself stopping mid-sentence — and even mid-chew — to answer the question, “How is everything?” As if you wouldn’t have flagged your server down if something were wrong. Intrusive service, not bad food, is the biggest problem at the restaurants where I dine.
Who trains these people? What makes them think that popping by again and again to ask me inane questions constitutes good service? Nothing makes me grit my teeth more than, “Still working on that?” As if dining were hard work. Or, “Still picking?” I think of my mother, harping, “Don’t pick at your food.”
Here in Paris, the servers do not intrude. They watch from afar, waiting for you to place your fork tines-down on your plate, or for you to push it away. Then they will slip in ever so discreetly and ask quietly for permission to take it. And then, unless you ask for the check, they disappear. No one tries to hurry you out the door. Allowing you to digest your meal and to enjoy your experience take precedence over turning tables.
Once I told a friend of mine, who is Parisian, about a server who argued when an American, non-French-speaking young woman complained of being served pink wine when she’d thought she’d ordered red. “Doesn’t she care about her tip?” I asked.
Jacques scowled. “We pay our servers a good wage in France,” he said. “We don’t need your tipping system. You’ve created a servant class with it.”
That must be it. Not over-eager to please, like panting puppies, and not anxious to move us out the door so they can collect another tip from the next customer, European servers can relax, secure in their wage, and can allow us to do the same as we dine. It’s better for the digestion that way. Maybe it’s time we in American got rid of our “tipping system,” and started paying our servers a fair, living wage.