167 – Victor Hugo, Ice Creams, and Lyonnais Waiters

The Bordeaux tourist guide quotes Victor Hugo on its front page:

‘Take Versailles, mix it with Anvers. You have Bordeaux.’

I know nothing about either town but from what I’ve seen here there seems enough good cheer and sparkle to go round both of them with some to spare. Furnish Lyon with a bit perhaps?

Of course a lot has changed since 1843 when Hugo wrote it down. They didn’t have thirty storey cruise ships floating in from Bahamas for one, or Segways (yes, they’re here as well) disguised as bottles of wine (yes, really!). But the city has retained most of its original architecture, history and culture – ridiculously large ocean liners and their equally large human cargo excepted.

What’s most impressed me most though is its people. I bought an ice cream from a vendor by the quay on Sunday afternoon and I’ve never seen such a big smile on the face of a man. It said to me: ‘Relax my friend, you’re looking uptight, you’re in Bordeaux, take it easy.’

He even brought me out a bottle of water free of charge as I sat outside his shop licking my cornet. True, he may have been buttering me up so that I came back, but that’s fine by me. I used to run a bookshop and give away bookmarks with each book. Nobody ever came back and it eventually closed down, but I still remember the look on people’s faces when I popped a bookmark inside the bag. Like a child getting an extra orange in his Christmas stocking – or the modern equivalent. So a smile and a free gift still gets my vote any day of the week. Even a Sunday.

Furthermore I’ve been waited on in the bars, cafes and restaurants like I was a special guest. An ambassador from the planet Service With a Smile to check up on good service on Earth. I’ve hardly been able to sit down and flash my 40 watt NHS Dentist smile across the courtyard before some eager beaver waiter is offering me the dish of the day and a glass of Medoc.

I realise of course, like the ice cream vendor, that they’re all eager to take my money. But at least they want it. In Lyon I sometimes had to wrestle waiters to the floor simply to get their attention. As though merely walking through the door was some massive inconvenience. Having to take a break from texting their girlfriend the time or what they were doing at that precise moment: ‘Fuck All!’

I’m impatient I know, it’s one of my worst traits, but I hate waiting around when I’m trying to put money into someone’s pocket. I’ve been a waiter too, so I know how soul destroying the job is. And true the money rarely goes into your pocket unless you own the place. But that ice cold beer at the end of your shift in 15 hours time isn’t going to come around any quicker by sulking in the corner pretending you’re not there. Trust me I’ve done it.

But that was Lyon. This is Bordeaux. They don’t play the tortured waiter role. They get on with the job. Deliver the bread. Bring out the wine. Take the money and say goodnight. Maybe that’s why Victor Hugo liked it so much.


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