I have been meaning to write this essay since my family lived in Paris — a period in my life that today seems like a hundred years ago. When we first moved there in July 1999, Simon’s company put us up in pleasant one-bedroom apartment in a typical 19th century Haussmannian-designed building in the 8th arondissement – near to La Madeleine and just around the corner from the big name departments stores – les Printemps and Galeries LaFayette.
Across the road from our apartment building was “Square Louis” (pronounced “skwahr” in French). In the early hours of one summer evening, I’d made the grave mistake of walking around this charming little Square with Baby Seb (now a teenager) in stroller to pass the time until Simon got home from work. Every single park bench was occupied—which I’d found unusual given that during the day there were always at least a few benches available.
The most striking feature of the park, however, was not the lack of seating but who was occupying those seats- very much couples only. And from the suspicious and tense looks I received that evening, I quickly understood that I’d intruded into a clandestine atmosphere and broken some unspoken French rule about when one shouldn’t stroll with one’s child in a secluded square. I later learned that this rule, dubbed nationally in France as “le Cinq à Sept” – (5pm – 7 pm) are the hours when lovers get together before duly returning to their respective spouses. The looks of consternation were those of paramours who had mistaken me for a woman in search of her husband and the identity of his mistress.
But that jarring lesson was only the beginning of my journey into the cultural shock of adjusting to life in Paris.
It was the notorious Parisian (note: I did not say “French) “Service Clientèle” that threw me for a six. Naturally, I will preface this piece with some disclaimers. The accounts I detail are focused on Paris exclusively—and occurred over 8 years ago now. I would hope (!!) that things have since changed! I’m skeptical since when I told a friend the other day that I was in the middle of composing an essay on French customer service, she flung her hands up in despair and said, “Don’t even get me started! It’s why we stopped going to Paris. Period!”
For those of you who smirk with smug indignation at my personal follies of Parisian customer relations and perhaps even attribute my unique experiences to me not being French, rest assured this is not the case. I am a Francophile and my love of that country runs deep. I have had far more heartening, positive experiences with the French then negative ones but writing about that would be dull…
The most flagrant skewering I witnessed while I lived in Paris was that of Frenchman-to-Frenchman. But I’m not the only who’s taken note. There is a pre-movie ad that used to air at the cinemas in Paris, just off the Champs Elysées. A guy comes up the stairs to his apartment and steps in dog poo (I will refrain from comment about this as a national malaise). Disgusted, he hops on one leg to the doormat and wipes all the poo off his shoe. He walks across the hall and enters his own apartment. The voice-over then says: “Don’t be a typical Parisian! Show courtesy and turn off your cell phone during the film.” To this day, just thinking about that commercial makes me laugh.
In this essay, I highlight my top three most memorable customer services experiences from France– the country that despite everything, I still hold dear to my heart:
Example 1: August 1999
I had stupidly assumed that my credentials of having spent a year as a student in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France and now being (fairly) capable in French (four years at university in Montreal plus a stint at the French Trade Commission in Vancouver) meant that acclimating to a fully-French life in Paris would be a piece of cake. Alas, no.
Not too long after we arrived in that great world capital, Baby Seb wasn’t feeling well so I decided to take him to the neighborhood doctor’s office. At the office, I was greeted by a surly forty-something year-old receptionist who pulled out a new folder and the accompanying paper work and asked me for my child’s name: “nom” in French.
I started to say “Sebastian” with every intention of giving her our family name next when she immediately cut me off –eyes narrowed, eyebrows knitted and her mouth pursed into a tight knot.
And then like one of those cartoons where the lion is roaring and the person being roared at has her hair illustrated stick-straight back as if caught in a direct wind, the receptionist blasted at me, “I DID NOT SAY FIRST NAME!!! I SAID FAMILY NAME, MADAME!!!!”
And just as unexpectedly, she took the file folder she was filling out on my behalf, flung it up onto the counter, but missed. Instead it flew past my head and all its contents fluttered about me onto the floor.
“YOU CAN FILL IT OUT INSTEAD!” she shouted before turning abruptly to her computer. She then assumed an air of artificial calm to continue her day in unbelievable serenity. End cartoon.
I stood there for several minutes trying to process what had just happened. It’s all still a blur to me. Sebastian, who was fast asleep at the time, woke up screaming from the receptionist’s wild roar. I was young and intimidated (I know, an amusing thought to those who know me well enough today) and eager to have Seb seen by a doctor so I swallowed my pride, picked up the papers and filled out the necessary paperwork through the blur of stinging, angry tears. I don’t remember the actual doctor’s visit itself. I do recall getting home and calling Simon straight away at his office to relay my story with huge sobbing gulps and barely comprehensible sentences. I regretted doing it because then I had to convince him NOT to come over there and do something that would get us deported.
A week later, I took Seb back for a follow-up at that same doctor’s office (do note that this was August in France when the entire country is on a holiday. Paris in August is a veritable ghost-town and this was one of the only medical facilities open in all of the 8th). I cowered in terror of what Madame “I SAID FAMILY NAME!” might (literally) throw at me. I was beyond relieved that there was no one at reception when I arrived. Maybe there was a nicer, sweeter receptionist on duty that day? No such luck. Queen SCARY appeared without warning from behind the high counter. She’d been on the floor retrieving something (no doubt something she’d thrown at herself in the absence of an actual client). I actually screamed in fright and backed away.
Nonplussed by my strange behavior and apparently suffering from amnesia to boot, Queen SCARY smiled broadly upon seeing me and said “Bonjour Madame! How can I help?”
Without thinking, I blurted out nervously, “ZINGER! ZINGER!! MY LAST NAME IS ZINGER!!!!”
Example 2: February 2000
By September of that same year, we’d found a lovely house to rent in Les Yvelines- a suburb west of Paris known as the birthplace of the Impressionist movement. Rentals in France come with nothing but the kitchen sink. I really do mean nothing– no kitchen counters, no cabinets, no appliances, no light fixtures and no light bulbs. Fortunately, the previous tenant was kind enough to leave us light bulbs in a few sockets around the house and clever enough to sell us his kitchen cabinets (at a hefty profit, we later discovered.) We still had to buy all the appliances and light fixtures, mind you.
So several months later, tired of looking at the bare light bulb on the ceiling of my “salon” (living room/dining room area), I schlepped into Paris with Little Seb (in stroller)–up and down and back up the escalators and stairs of Le Métro–to buy a chandelier-type thing. (This was well before internet shopping had really taken off.) And then I schlepped my newly-purchased light fixture all wrapped in a great, big box AND Little Seb-in-stroller back down Le Métro and up again and all the way home. Just like Little Piggy went to market…
Back at the ranch, when I unwrapped the package, I discovered the metal frame that held the glass shade was broken.
As expected, I was back at that same store the next day. Here’s a transcript of the unforgettable dialogue between me and the customer service manager (CSM):
Me: Very sorry to disturb you, Madame (that’s what the book I was reading on adapting to life in France – “French or Foe” — had said was the most prudent way to address employees at stores in France), but might I pose a question? (Sounds nicer in French, btw)
CSM: Oui Madame! But that’s what I’m here for!
ME: I bought this chandelier yesterday and as you can see the frame is broken. I was hoping to replace it for a new one.
CSM: Bien, NON! It’s broken!!
ME: Yes, I realize it’s broken, that’s why I’m here. I bought a damaged product and I’d like to have it replaced.
CSM: Why would I replace something that you obviously broke yourself?! The store is NOT responsible for your negligence, Madame!!
ME: I DIDN’T BREAK IT. I bought it here yesterday in its original packaging and when I opened the box, I discovered that it was ALREADY broken.
CSM: What do you mean YOU did not break it? ARE YOU ACCUSING ME OF LYING?!
ME: Lying? I’m not accusing anyone of anything. I would just like to have my chandelier replaced.
CSM: Impossible!!! I cannot help you.
ME: Well what do you suggest I do?
Several awkward minutes pass. I’m not moving—not because I choose to be stubborn or steadfast. I am simply immobilized from shock.
CSM: The best I can offer you is glue. (crossing her arms)
CSM: Or a soldering iron. Yes, you’ll have to solder the frame back together.
ME: A soldering iron? You mean I need to weld two pieces of metal together?! (The last time I soldered anything was in 8th grade metal-work class – a fact I wasn’t willing to admit to her at that moment). But I don’t know how to solder!
CSM: Well maybe you should have thought of THAT before breaking the frame, Madame!
I’ve said this before in previous essays. I CANNOT make this stuff up.
The long and short of this story is, I eventually got the light fixture replaced. The beleaguered CSM and I went on tour of the store (with Seb in stroller!) to track down a soldering iron and on the way, encountered another (male) employee who took one look at my broken chandelier frame and pronounced it dead on the scene. “It’s obviously damaged. A soldering iron isn’t going to do a thing. Replace it.”
I have no idea why she obliged him, but she did. Perhaps Madame SCARY (the Second!) had a thing for this guy. Perhaps he was her superior. Or juicier yet, maybe he was her lover-boss whom she met up with during “le Cinq à Sept”! Vive la France and pleasing the opposite sex.
Example 3: May 2002
By our fourth year in France, I’d finally learned the rules of the customer relations game. When it came to buying things, I lived by that great Latin expression- “Caveat Emptor” – Buyer, Beware! I simply accepted that anything I bought was mine for life and as such, I considered all purchases methodically—almost scientifically before effecting payment. I believed that I’d reached the divine state of “self actualization” when it came to customer relations. I had evolved to understand that any issues of customer representative outrage were not mine personally to assume but the result of someone else having a no good, very bad day. The net/net? I avoided doing exchanges and returns in Paris like the plague.
Then one day my dear British friend, Sara, showed up at my house looking angry and exasperated. She’d just come back from the Levi’s boutique in town.
An aside: in Europe, Levi’s is a big deal and it’s own separate commercial entity—not a “section” relegated to a corner of a big-name department store. And it is considerably more expensive than buying the same jeans back in the States. Levi’s denim in Europe is a small fortune so purchases made there are not to be sloughed off nonchalantly .
Sara followed me into the kitchen where she pulled two pairs of identical jeans out from her Levi’s shopping bag – both the same color, the same style, and supposedly the same size and length. But one pair was visibly six inches longer than the other. Regrettably, Sara hadn’t been an Emptor who Caveated properly.
I looked up at her in knowing dread.
In a tired and already defeated voice Sara practically whimpered, “I have to go back tomorrow to try and exchange it.”
I already knew what was coming—why she was here. I could feel the angst building in my gut.
Wincing in reluctance, I asked, “You want me to accompany you, don’t you?”
In a huge gush of relief, Sara, grabbed both my shoulders and pleaded, “Oh would you, Catherine? It’d be so much easier if we go in together! Please! Please say you’ll do it!”
Of course I assumed the wingman position.
The next day the two of us sat nervously at the tiny table of a brasserie a few streets away from the hugely intimidating Levi’s boutique. So anxiety-ridden were we, that we’d purposely made this detour-to-the-bar beforehand to down shots of vodka in mental and emotional preparation of what was sure to be an inevitable battle of wit and words. Sara and I rehearsed potential scenarios and role-played. We debated various tactics and strategies and outlined our objectives – to either exchange the jeans or, if we felt like we were making progress, to be so bold as to ask for a refund. We ridiculed the banality of the situation – two French-speaking, articulate, educated grown women reduced to drinking hard alcohol in the middle of the day just to deal with Parisian customer service. Had it really come to this? Apparently so. We ordered one more round – in the hopes of numbing the fated verbal sword slashing that awaited us.
We paid our bill and unsteadily made our way over to the jeans boutique with our two pairs of non-identical jeans. We stood outside the store for several minutes in focused, contemplative silence. Without saying anything, Sara reached for my hand. I squeezed hers back in solidarity.
“We can do this, Sara,” I said to my friend in the low, comforting whisper of a comrade in arms. Then with growing confidence, I added, “We CAN do this! We CAN!!!”
Taking a deep breath, we pushed the door open together and entered the store….
Half an hour later, two women exited the Levi’s boutique in Saint Germain-en-Laye, west of Paris. One of them, Sara, was carrying a big shopping bag. Inside that shopping bag were two items: two pairs of denims—the same style, the same color AND the same size.
Only…. one of those pairs was visibly longer than the other by a good six inches.