The notion of customer care in France is a pure euphemism; coming from the US of A, where for the mere fact that you might spend you’re greeted with red carpets, it is quite a shock for any foreigner to set foot in any French bank and daring to ask information about opening an account with them! The impression you have, is that THEY are the client, and YOU have to win them over. This attitude ranges from a mere gestual, body language level to some pretty absurd verbal exchanges which often degenerate in altercations. I have had my share, and it is in France that I learnt the art of screaming in public, something I would have never imagined I was even capable of.
Some silly episodes follow to illustrate my point:
- I enter a travel agency and, after waiting duly for my turn, I ask the agent some information about a trip they advertise in their window; I ask the availability within a month time frame. Reaction: the lady rolls the eyes, begins emitting one of those typical French puffs, and without saying a word, she types nervously on the computer. She suddenly turns around, looks at me straight in the eyes and blunts: “No, it’s not available.” Period. I wait a few seconds, expecting her to probe and find another date or proposing another solution, but nothing, she just stares at me, with an obviously unfriendly attitude…I ask the questions myself, then. She looks at me definitely bothered by my presence, she looks at her watch and then she vomits me the following sentence with the same lucidity of an assassin: “Look, lady, in 10 minutes it’s my lunch break and I have no intention of missing it.” She just failed to add Get Lost!
- Rude waiters are legendary in Paris, from slamming the food on the table to ignoring patrons etc. The best I had was late on a summer night, out in the center, in a chic but deserted terrace of a trendy cafe; my beau and I sat next to one another. The waiter came as fast as an hawk, not to take our order but to harass us to seat in front of one another, because we were occupying too much space!!! So we left.
- My favorite moment of negative karma is the weekly cold treatment I get from the cleaners where I drop off my boyfriend’s shirts. They have a subscription system where you can get a discount if you buy a certain number of slots of services. The thing is, they give you these paying vouchers which group the shirts by two. As a result, you should drop off and pick up shirts always in an even number, if not their system collapses and the cleaners’ people go nuts. Needless to say that there are 5 working days in a week…So the first time I went to pick up the 5 shirts I had dropped off, the lady literally screamed at me that it was nonsense and that I should have known better. I tried to argue and find an easy solution, she just kept getting angrier and angrier at me. I was in disbelief, I looked for sympathy in the eyes of other patrons present at the scene, and everyone looked away! Ever since, despite my efforts to keep the drop-off items in even numbers and be as polite as I can force myself to be when I enter the shop, that lady barely says hi or thank you, just handles the transaction as fast as she can without making eye contact. I sent my beau once and apparently she was very nice to him! I know what you wonder, why don’t I simply change venue. Price and location are still two good reasons to suck it up and take their rudeness.
- Some musea in Paris are very child friendly and even organize children happening and art intro activities (Georges Pompidou, Gare D’Orsay, Palais de Tokyo to name a few), but some others are simply a kid-busting party-pooper venue (and I will mention them: Jacquemart André on top of the list, followed only by the Museum of Modern Art and the Grand Palais). Although these institutions do not mention anywhere in their website or publicity literature that small children are not accepted (it would be too easy), they make children and parents visits a hellish souvenir. The strollers are not allowed in, so you have to check them in and carry your 15-20 kilos of joy all the way. Guards in every room are ready to scold the kids before they even think of approaching the fire extinguisher (currently Milo’s passion) or if they dare climbing on the seats/couches with their shoes on. If kids dare expressing their appreciation of the art verbally (Milo is not shy about screaming “Ooooh, wow !” in front of bright colored canvases), it’s the parents that get dirty and insisting looks, together with a nasty ”Shhhhh!”…and if you think of keeping your toddler calmer by supplying him with a snack or fruit while visiting the galleries, forget about it: "No, No, No!" screams the guard, running toward you alarmed as if you just leaned against a Modigliani!
Some of these interactions are plain surreal; the best one occurred this week at the park: I was sitting on a bench with another mum and we were chatting away as out two sons were playing with a truck and a shovel not too far from us. The sand box was about 100 mts away from where we were sitting. A park guard came by and uttered: “Sorry Ladies, but the kids are not allowed to play with the dirt here.” We looked at him puzzled, not understanding what he meant…since when it’s forbidden to play with dirt in parks ? Also, the park was filled with kids everywhere… “They should play in the sand box, because we just re-landscape the park and they risk ruining it.” explained the park guard. We barely contained our laughter…I did not even bother arguing, such nonsense it was…but upon leaving we did ask the kids to put the grass back straight on the lawn and to pick up the leafs that had fallen from the tree and try to put them back on the branches!
This one won the gold medal for the Parisian Negative Karma Aggressive Public Behavior, which I hold responsible for the generalized Parisian gloomy atmosphere and for the fact that Parisians are stereotyped as snoddy, rude and not much fun. As a foreigner it is hard to come to terms with that: either you succumb and start acting the same way, replying aggressively and living every single day some sort of confrontation, and entering this karma circle where you receive the negativity and you put it back into the environment; or you build an emotional iron curtain to protect yourself and decide to just laugh about it, which after a while it’s simply very hard and eventually the snoddyness simply gets to you and you find yourself rumbling and nagging most of the day ; either way, it wears you out after a while…unless you resort to irony:
Same park, two days later; an old lady joins me on the bench, with her book. She delves into it and reads. Milo and his friends are running back and forth from the bench to the slide, screaming and making a lot of noise, as the other 500 kids in the park at that hour. The lady turns around and snaps:
"Can you please make your kid to saty silent?"
"Why would I do that?! We take him to the park so he can play!" I reply, calmly.
"I come to the park to relax and read and it is very very hard!" snaps back the French lady, obiously oblivous of the surrounding!
"Well, in that case I advise you the library, it's a much better place!" I said smiling back.
I didn't even have to get mad!