forget it jake, it's chinatown

Forget it Jake, it's France.

At the end of the movie Chinatown, when things have deteriorated into yet another confusing mess, Jack Nicholson’s partner offers the following explanation, “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”
Which means, of course, that there is no explanation for why things don’t turn out as you expect.

That’s how one should approach France, especially if you’re an American.

For example, we were at a Christmas market food stand in Colmar a few nights ago. First, it was one of very few stands that was selling food, despite the fact that there were hundreds of people milling around, many of whom were probably willing to spend a few euros on a snack. The fare at this stand was corn and herb griddle cakes topped with your choice of melted Emmental or Brie cheese. There was a line of several people waiting for these delicacies.

The woman running the stand had two griddles going, but each one was only half covered with the cakes. She would wait until you got to the front of the line, then she’d take your order. Then she’d dip into her bucket of batter and start as many cakes as you’d ordered. Several minutes later, when the cake was cooked, she’d then top it with your choice of cheese and wait another few minutes for it to melt and then serve it up on a paper plate.

Once you’d been served, the next person in line would get to place their order and the process was repeated.

So, being an American, I thought to myself. “What the hell?”

She’s only serving one basic item, with two possible choices of topping. She has a line of people waiting to order them. And she has open griddle space. Why doesn’t she have cakes filling both griddles, and when the cakes are done, why not top half with Emmental and half with Brie and get them started melting? That way, when a customer gets to the front, they get a hot cake of their choice with no waiting. The vendor gets to serve more customers and make more money, and everyone is happy.

Not the way it’s done here.

christmas market colmar

The Christmas Market at Colmar, France. Jewelry you can have right now. If you want griddle cakes topped with cheese, you'll have to wait.

Then there’s lunch hour. It only took us a few days in Paris to learn that French restaurants have lunch hours and dinner hours, with about five hours in between during which everyone who works at the restaurant probably sits around and smokes cigarettes.

For us, who never plan what city we’re going to next, much less when we’re going to have lunch, that presented a problem. But, after a bit, even a puppy can be trained, and we learned that if we wanted to eat lunch, we should do so between 11-2, and not a minute later.

That was reinforced one day when we had lunch at a nice restaurant in Colmar. We entered the establishment at about five minutes after one. There was only one other table occupied, and after a few minutes of waiting, a woman walked desultorily out of the kitchen and told us to sit anywhere. Another five minutes of so later, she returned with our menus, dropped them on the table and walked away. Another five minutes later, she returned to take our order.

It was good food, and we enjoyed it very much. While we were just being served, the other table finished their meal and left, leaving us alone in the corner in the empty restaurant. As we finished eating, I looked at my watch. It was now two minutes after two and I reminded Kris that it was now time to go to the museum we wanted to visit, which had symmetrically been closed for lunch. Just as I said this, the door opened and a young couple walked in.

This time, the woman who had taken several minutes to come to seat us, rushed out of the back without delay. “We’re closed,” she told them. “We close at two.”

The young man looked at his watch and said, “It’s just two now.”

“We’re closed,” she repeated. “We open again at seven,” as if the couple were going to sit on the steps and wait for the next four hours and 58 minutes.


The trains in France are quite nice really, and run on time. The conductors on them are especially courteous and almost never stop the train so they can have a smoke. So, it seemed a little odd to us that when we got up to the Colmar station ticket window to make reservations for our trip to Bern, Switzerland, we were greeted with a sign on the window that said, in essence, “Please don’t insult the ticket seller, we’re all in this together.”


I spent a few minutes trying to explain what we wanted. (And, I should say in all modesty, that my French is plenty good enough to do that. How hard is it to say, “The 9:23 train for Basel and then the 10:31 train from Basel to Bern,” anyway?)

“And we just need a seat reservation. We have First Class Eurail passes.” And I showed them to her, just in case she didn’t understand.

“You have to pay for seats. The reservations for Eurail passes are all gone,” I was told.

“Are there seats on the trains?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but you have to pay for seats and reservations.”

“Do I need reservations, or can I go without and just take an empty seat?”

“If you want a reserved seat, you have to have a reservation.”

“But, can I just sit in an empty seat? Without a reservation?”

“If you want a reserved seat, you have to have a reservation.”

By this time, I should mention, we’ve got a new ticket clerk involved who speaks English.

I repeated, “Do I have to have a reservation for this train?”

She repeated, “If you want a reserved seat, you have to have a reservation.”

I repeated, “But are there empty seats on the train?”

She repeated, “If you want a reserved seat, you have to have a reservation.”

Twenty or so minutes later, I understood why I’d been asked politely to not get angry. Two clerks later, we got our tickets, and I paid for them, although it turns out I didn’t have to because there were plenty empty seats on the train. And first class seats, too. With tables where I can set this computer while I’m writing this.

So, Eurail works as it’s supposed to, it’s just the French component of it that’s screwed up.

But that’s not the whole story of how we got to the train. We came down for breakfast at our Colmar hotel at 7:45 am, more than an hour and a half before the train’s scheduled departure. At that time, I asked the desk clerk to please call us a taxi for 8:40. (The station was at most a 15 minute ride from our hotel.)

“Oh no,” she said. “You’ll never be able to get a taxi today. It’s Sunday.”

“Can you try?” I asked. “We have an hour to find one.”

To her credit, she did try. She flipped open the reception notebook to the list of taxi numbers and started calling. A few minutes later, she walked over to our breakfast table and said, “Sorry, it’s impossible. You should have asked me to book one last night for this morning.”

“Would we have got one this morning if I’d asked last night?” I asked.

“Probably not,” she said. “But there would have been a better chance. It’s a small town.”

A small town in France.

As we quickly gulped our breakfast, threw our bags together, and walked/jogged 30 minutes to the train station, Kris said to me, “If I were a taxi driver in Colmar, I’d work Sunday mornings. You could charge more. There would be no competition. You could clean up.”

There you go, thinking like an American again, Kris.

There was a taxi sitting in the taxi stand at the station when we got there, by the way. The driver was leaning on the car, smoking a cigarette. There were no fares in sight.

Forget it Jake, it's France.

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