I had arrived in the Port of Caen in the middle of the night, exhausted from a long drive and having already missed a ferry back to the UK from Bilbao. After a few hours sleep, I woke up just as the time for the morning Fajr prayer was entering.
Driving past the Port terminal to a nearby hotel, I parked my car and walked into reception, intending to ask if I could use their toilet facilities before continuing on my journey. However, before I managed to utter a word, a middle aged French receptionist had risen from her seat and started walking towards me. The look on her face told me – we may have a problem.
Luckily for me, verbal expressions quickly replaced the need for deciphering facial expressions.
‘Non! Non!’ she began, ‘Get out!’ The fact she was now standing next to me and pointing at the door suggested I was the intended recipient of this verbal assault, but it certainly wasn’t the ‘Good morning, ça va?’ I had been expecting.
Verbal soon became physical as the woman began to literally push me towards the entrance, all without me having had said a syllable. The shock of the situation stinted my French linguistic abilities, basic at the best of times, so I chose ‘Tu parles anglais?’ as my opening gambit. ‘Non!’ the woman replied, quite forcefully, and continued to push me outside. In terms of upper-body strength, I’m not the weakest person on the Brittany coast, but it didn’t seem socially acceptable to get in a physical fight with a woman in her fifties. Anyway, by the time I had realised what had happened, I was outside and she was sitting back at her desk.
As you can imagine, I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the outcome of the encounter, but time was of the essence. I needed to pray Fajr before the sun approached the horizon, so I went to the Port terminal to confirm my ferry ticket and to use their bathroom instead. Finding the staff far friendlier and aggression levels much lower on this side of the car park, it wasn’t long before I was ready for breakfast.
But I couldn’t let Hotel-gate pass without some kind of response. At the front of the Hotel was a café, and through the window I could see that it was being run by the same woman who had been staffing reception just half an hour earlier. Moving with ninja-style speed to take a table before she had detected my presence, I quite deliberately arranged my car key, British passport and a twenty Euro note on the table in front of me.
The receptionist-manager-waitress spotted me from a distance, and smoke gently began streaming from her ears (or was it the coffee machine behind her) as she stormed over to my table with the same mixture of fury and determination that had marked our earlier rendezvous.
As she got closer and noticed my table arrangement, she slowed her pace. ‘You’re… you’re British?’ she asked. And guess what? She had mastered the English language in my half an hour absence.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘And, you’re just waiting to get the ferry to the UK?’
‘Right again. So, it’s a buffet breakfast right? Could I have a bowl of corn flakes, some toast with chocolate spread, a couple of those mini croissants and a some fruit please. Thanks so much.’
Being a person with what some comedians like to call a ‘disability’, I’m quite used to having such enthralling encounters, but apparently I’m not the only one to enjoy the joy of French hospitality recently. Uthman, aged thirty-one and born in Paris, tells me of taking his pregnant wife and younger brother to a luxury ski-resort near Chambéry in the Alps.
‘We arrived in the evening, just as dinner was going to be served, and I had paid for the evening meal as part of the package, he begins. We were all really tired from the journey, so decided that we would go straight through to eat. Then, the manager of the hotel came through to reception and said that it would not be possible.
The question of why hadn’t entered my mind yet, so I just asked what exactly wouldn’t be possible. I didn’t even understand what he was referring to. He said it would be better if we ate in our room instead. I was beginning to get the gist. We’re French, we’re white, I was wearing European clothes, I didn’t have a big beard, but my wife was wearing hijab.
‘We don’t allow hats in the dining area,’ the manager continued, pointing directly at my wife.
‘But that’s not a hat,’ I replied, ‘it’s a hijab. Is it our religion you have a problem with?’
‘Yes,’ the manager replied, raising his voice. ‘It’s your religion! It’s your religion that’s the problem!’
When Muslim women walk on the street in France, people spit on the pavement in front of them. When they go to the supermarket, people barge into them with their trollies. So yes, it’s getting quite hard.’
It’s strange that for a hundred years of occupation, France saw Algeria, and other Muslim-populated colonial possessions, as part of France, but today, Muslims born in Paris are not.