We were having lunch at the Thai restaurant in Cénac this past Sunday, and my wife Jan headed into Sawadee first, while I parked the car.
When I reached our table, she tilted her head at the two couples who were dining across from us and whispered to me: “They’ve just ordered a basket of bread.”
“Ah,” I replied, “now that’s French!”
If you’ve had Thai food, of course, you know that the dominant starch (by far) is rice — so the idea of having a slice or two of French bread with a stir fry or curry seems downright silly or unappetizing, at least to me. But not to the French.
Quite simply, the French love their bread, and apparently they regard a basket of bread at the table as part of their birthright.
If you’ve been to France, you know that most French people are able to walk only five or 10 steps after leaving a bakery, before they start nibbling on the end of the baguette they’ve just bought.
I’ve found that servers in a restaurant are dumbstruck when I turn down a basket of bread, which they’ve offered for me to enjoy with my cheeseburger (which of course comes with a bun) or pizza (which of course includes an awful lot of dough).
Thinking about this French love of bread has made me reflect on a few other truly French traditions or habits, and hence this blog posting. So here are a few more, starting with “man’s best friend.”
The dog under the table. In France, a common practice is taking your pet dog to a restaurant with you, and placing it under your table. More often than not, Jan and I will see a dog emerging from under a restaurant table, as its owners prepare to leave. and realize that we had no idea the pet was next to us. The amazing thing is that we have never, ever heard one of these dogs let out a single yelp or growl. Somehow, they know to stay quietly at their owners’ feet.
The greeting on the street. As a rule, the French are certainly civil. Thus, it’s quite normal to hear a simple “Bonjour” as a stranger passes you in the street. This is usually accompanied by a slight nod of the head. Word to the wise: Be sure to say Bonjour when you approach a staff member in a store or restaurant; do not simply start in with “Where is the mayonnaise?” or “Can I get a table for two?” If you do, there is a good chance you will be ignored.
The greeting to various rooms of people. When we entered a waiting room in Toronto — say, at the doctor’s office — the practice was pretty much to avoid eye contact. Not here. Whether the waiting room is at the doctor’s clinic, the dentist’s office, a hospital, or anything similar, it’s normal for the person entering the room to nod slightly and say “Mesdames, Messieurs.” It’s a polite way to acknowledge the ladies and gentlemen waiting with you.
The quiet good-bye. This is a variation on the Bonjour greeting, and it’s quite subtle. In fact, Jan and I didn’t notice it until we had visited France several times before moving here. It’s a quiet (almost unheard) “Bonne journée” that’s said to the entire restaurant you are leaving. Related to that is a “Bonne journée” or “Bon dimanche” (“Have a good Sunday”) which is said quietly to a table of strangers, if you have made eye contact during your meal, or are passing quite near the table as you leave.
Any more? If you know one or more additional French customs, those that amuse you, please send them to the blog, using the comments section. Merci beaucoup, et bonne journée.