Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Three lessons for Freo from my parents' trip to France

Mum and Dad
Mum and Dad have recently returned from three months of gallivanting around France. They visited Paris, spent time hanging out in Brittany and then journeyed down to the Pyrennes before subjecting themselves to the Tour de France crowds up north. I'm chuffed to report that they had a great time, so much so that I often wondered whether or not they'd return home.

Although they enjoyed themselves, I didn't get the impression that they wholeheartedly converted to the French style of cooking. My mum's approach to food is traffic engineer-esque (very risk adverse) and, largely due to a morbid fear of accidently eating duck, she lived on crepes (breakfast and lunch) and omelettes (dinner) for the majority of her trip.

My dad is one step up from a traffic engineer in gastronomic matters. He was slightly more adventurous in his tastes, sampling local specialities and even trying a morsel of duck, to my mum's disgust. However, a little bistro somewhere in the Pyrennes turned out to be his undoing.

Only two words are necessary to paint a picture of what happened next: steak tartare.

When he placed his order in his strident Australian accent, alarm bells obviously started ringing for the waitress who nobly tried to warn him that it was a taste he was likely to be unused to. But Dad, who is one of nature's most stubborn creatures, ignored her and insisted on going ahead with the steak tartare.

I can imagine him doing his darndest to hide his initial surprise when the waitress (probably with a wry Gallic grin) presented the dish complete with one huge, wet, orangey egg yolk resting in a crater of raw mince. 

My dad was shaking so much he couldn't focus

Now if you've read my article on the Sunken Cost Fallacy (click here) you'd know that many people would have persisted with eating (or hiding) the dish they had stubbornly ordered in the face of so many warnings to save embarrassment. Not my dad. He sent it back to get cooked.

Mum and Dad have been back for a couple of weeks now, so they've had plenty of opportunities to regale my wife and me with all their stories. Most of them sound very interesting. (I'm a little tired of hearing about crepes though. Seriously, my mum has turned into that dude from Forrest Gump who liked prawns.)

Listening to their stories, I've discerned three lessons from my parents' trip to France.

Without further ado here they are:

Lesson 1: Good ambience and simple manners go a long way

One thing my parents really came to appreciate travelling around France was the ambience of the restaurants and cafes. Mum and Dad comment over and over how pleasant it was dining in the many restaurants, bistros and cafes they discovered. Listening to their stories, I picked up on that they were made to feel welcome and comfortable. The music was never too loud, the service professional and attentive, and the interior cosy and well cared for.

Another aspect of the whole welcoming thing that they also noticed was how retailers, restauranteurs and cafe operators would greet them with a friendly "bonjour" and farewell them with a hearty "au revoir" without fail.

I can't help but get the feeling that this is an important lesson for Freo's traders, restauranteurs and cafe operators. Western Australia isn't really known for its outstanding service, certainly not compared with European standards. Maybe Freo's traders can buck the trend and make this part of its point of difference?

Lesson 2: Plenty of space and patience for cyclists

Mum and Dad are avid cyclists. Over the years I've slowly learnt to live with the image of my father in his brightly coloured lycra bicycle pants. Mum has developed a 'Rain Man' like knowledge and recall of each of the riders who compete in the Tour de France.

For my parents, cycling around parts of France must have been akin to me travelling to an awesomely kick ass Parisian bistro and tucking into my fair share of french onion soup, duck confit and steak and frites - a dream come true.

Mum doing her best Cadel impersonation in Brittany near Brest.
Normally Dad's lycra pants are more colourful.

Pedalling on their bikes around France, Mum and Dad noticed a big difference between French motorists and Perth motorists. They were given ample space on the road whether or not there was a bicycle lane. They came to appreciate the patience that French motorists had for them as they pedalled along on their way.

This lesson really goes beyond Freo and can be applied on a much broader level. Next time I have a cyclist pedalling away in front of me in my car, I'll think of Mum, Dad and those patient French motorists. Maybe us Freo motorists can be at the vanguard of treating cyclists (no matter how silly looking or somewhat annoying they can be) with a fair degree of patience?

Lesson 3: Paris is really a bunch of little villages

Initially my dad planned on spending only a couple of nights in Paris. I'm thinking that he was a put off by spending too much time in a big city. What would be the point of dealing with the noise, people, traffic?

Fortunately for my dad, he has a pretty cool strategic town planner (and budding placemaker) as his first born son. Over a couple of months, a little like the way the City of Freo's website breaks you down to the point where you can't be bothered checking it out any longer, I managed to convince him that they would enjoy a week in my favourite city.

Mum and Dad really enjoyed Paris. My dad confidently declared "Paris really is just a bunch of little villages" when he described what he enjoyed about his stay. Mum and Dad both responded to the pedestrian scale of Parisian streets. Walking around Paris was a pleasure. They enjoyed the interest that comes from walking and having street-level interaction. They even liked the consistent quality of the classic six and seven storey Parisian residential buildings.

Mum and Dad liked the pedestrian scale of the Parisian streets.

I reckon there is an important lesson for Freo that lies in my dad's description of Paris. Two million people reside in central Paris. It is a city that has built up to six and seven storeys. It is also a tourist city. And yet it has retained its distinctiveness. For my parents, Paris was a city with soul.

So what about Freo? The good news is that change or development doesn't have to signify the end. What is crucial is that new development - whether it's Kings Square or the Woolstores Shopping Centre - must retain Freo's distinctiveness. I would prefer that when people come to visit or live in Fremantle, that they know they're in Fremantle and not anywhereville Perth.


  1. I love Duck and I love Steak Tartare. It is always served with an egg yolk in the centre and high quality raw meat is excellent, as is sashimi quality raw fish. It is something many Australians find abhorrent, but close your eyes and taste it. It's YUM!!

    Roel Loopers

  2. I think the idea is to mix in the yolk with the meat.

    It looks quite yummy.