Thursday, November 12, 2009

C'est La Vie

When I first arrived in France, I queued up at the supermarché where the line was growing exponentially by the micro-second. The one and only cashier called for backup. The new cashier, who was supposedly coming to our rescue, ambled to her post as though she were on a Sunday stroll
in the Tuilleries. Before opening the register, she grabbed some plastic grocery bags and as the line was growing ever more rapidly she separated a few of them from the larger at a time...and as slowly as humanly possible. She said her bonjours—not to those of us waiting for her—but to the other cashier, as they both discussed the important matters of the day. Then she looked underneath her register, perhaps to make sure her garbage can was there. Five minutes later the new cash register was open for business.

Mon Dieu! I frankly wasn't sure if I should scream at her or laugh at the ludicrousness of it all. Of course, I am the guest in this country, so I kept my mouth shut.

Meanwhile, to top it all off, after waiting in this line without an apology or even a simple hello, the cashier waited rather impatiently for me to bag my groceries before serving the next customer. You see, in France, the employees do not take care of the bagging. Instead, they sit comfortably in their chairs (yes, chairs are provided for them here) and you, the paying client, must bag your own sacks. And boy, did I feel the pressure! All eyes glowered at me as I haphazardly threw my food as best as I could into various bags. What can I say, it was my first attempt at bagging.  It takes a few times to learn to ride a bike and it takes a few times to learn to easily pack up one's groceries too.

As the scenario was unfolding, I had visions of being allowed to work in a retail store in France just for a week, so they could see a customer service goddess in action. During my college years, I managed different shops and could not only ring up people faster than the scanner could, I could actually ring up two people at a time on two different registers (the thing is, I am not exaggerating!) I greeted all customers with a familiar smile and chatted with them about their daily lives. In fact, I treated all clients as though they were friends and besides, the customer is always right. Well, at least they are always right in America—that is not the case in France. Here, the customer is rarely right and how dare they speak up and ruin a worker's day anyway!

Then this morning, as my own story was stirring in my head, I picked up Stephen Clarke's book, Talk to the Snail, where the author shares in the very first chapter similar mishaps with French customer service. You mean he noticed it too?

In the meantime, back at the apartment, my roommate wondered if the internet was now working. We received all the equipment, but were waiting for France Telecom to turn on the phone line. My roomie fervently continued to check every few minutes to see if it was turned on. Living here longer than he had, I knew how things worked around here. Much to my chagrin, I explained that it was a holiday and never in a million years would it be turned on if it is a holiday.  His repsonse? "But it's just a matter of flipping a switch. We have already waited a week!" Unfortunately, the only thing I could do was empathize with him.

I then tried to explain the French work ethic. I knew of someone who didn't have their internet working for months. Each month they racked up bills that they paid, but always had to leave their home to check their emails! In addition, you have to actually pay (by the minute no less) to talk to customer service. They spent over one hundred euros speaking to someone in Africa who couldn't help them! When I asked why they just didn't switch providers, the French person told me it was because their provider was the best—ah, bien sûr (of course), why didn't I think of that? How could I have been so foolish?

I then told him how I had once scheduled an appointment with a Darty repairman to install a part in the refrigerator. He was to arrive on Tuesday between 10 and 2. I waited...and waited...and waited some more. He eventually showed up…six days later! No phone calls. No explanation. He was just suddenly there. C'est normal!

So, in conclusion, if you are a tourist, you hopefully will be so enthralled with being in Paris you won't even notice the lack of service. If you are a resident expat, well, what can I say? We must take the good with the bad. Try not to have a lot of expectations with the customer service in this country, because essentially, it does not exist. If you just move about your life with a smile and not let this cultural idiosyncrasy get to you, life will be grand in this beautiful city.

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!

PS. If you are an expat, you already know what I mean...If you are French, I sincerely apologize. Despite our differences, I truly do love your country!