this is a common sight in the bars and restaurants of paris. the calculation of the bill is a long-winded process immersed in etiquette. under very rare circumstances will someone say "well let's just divide it by 4." it's usually responded with a very po-faced "but you didn't have a coffee and we shared that starter." this, along with the still very apparent use of cheques (spanning the spectrum of grannys at the supermarket to twenty somethings in a restaurant all pulling their cheque books out of their marc jacobs bags) is something i still struggle to get my head around. it's 2011! get a credit card! for the country that invented the chip and pin system it really is a little backward.
the misconception that 'service compris' means that the waiters receive a percentage of the total in tips means that even after the perfect evening, most of ze french are unlikely to leave a tip. what 'service compris' actually means is that unlike in the states, where some places don't pay their staff and they live solely on their tips, the waiters in france are paid at least a minimum wage. this is possibly why french wait staff have a reputation for being surly. chances are it won't make any difference to their income if they bend over backwards to please you or don't crack a smile throughout the entire service.
the other lesson that i learnt, and i don't know if it comes from the fact that in most bars there's table service rather than ordering and paying at the same time, but the french do not buy rounds.
i was at a gig of a friend of mine's not long after i arrived in paris. i got talking to a couple in the queue and once inside i asked them what they were drinking. chuffed with the pub prices and a bit surprised that they only sold beer by the half pint, i paid for our three drinks and they looked at me as if i'd just given them the keys to their dream home (take it, it's yours). gig starts, first half pint goes down a treat and they don't seem to be making any moves bar-wards so i ask if they want another drink "no thanks". off i go on my tod to get another half in. that one goes down too, they're still holding their empty plastic cups, so off i go again realising that that was probably the first and last drink they planned on having that evening. when i got back with my third half pint they were all "ooh, you're an alcoholic!" "actually i'm english... it's not the same thing." they then asked the girl who spent her pre-smoking ban tweens at the brixton academy, what they should do with their cups. "erm... chuck them on the floor." what could have been an instant friendship based on shared musical taste was not to be. pint and a half down, alcoholic, honestly!