All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Odious comparisons

stainless steel meat slicer ruffles ridgeImage by bijoubaby via Flickr
Our friends have just returned to the U.S.A. We exchange e mails. We are delighted that all is going well for them...then they, and we, compare life in the two countries.

The bank staff, still the people they had known before, were pleased to see them again and fixed their mortgage without a problem.
They could even have got a grant from Obama towards buying a house, in that they have not made a house purchase for three years.
They are refurnishing, refurbishing and have the delightful experience of helpful staff and cheap or even free transport of their purchases to their home. They even have guys to set it all up!
They bought a car. It was delivered to the door complete with a full tank of petrol. The same day. They have the garage owner's home number in case of problems.
They go shopping...guys pack their free carrier bags and take them to their car.

It makes me think about life in France.

First,the positive side.

In the days when we were running holiday cottages, we bought a fair amount of white goods from one of the major supermarket chains and their regular delivery guys could not have been better. They arrived when they said they would, unloaded, unwrapped and where posssible, tested the appliance before leaving.
Our relationship with them was good...we would see them when shopping at their branch, exchange news and, on the odd occasion later when buying something for ourselves that they delivered, it was always good to see them and have a coffee and a chat.

The supermarket had a first class after sales service as well...a man who lived about three departments away, who understood what holidaymakers could do to equipment and knew how to put it right. He also knew how to find the letting houses and knew where the keys were so we didn't even have to go out to see to things.
He rescued us when one holidaymaker decided to make a claim that her cashmere jersey had been boiled in our washing machine, by declaring to the holiday company who were acting as our agents that her claim just did not stand up. What she said had happened was completely impossible given the machine she was using.
A lovely man.

That, however, is about it.

I closed my accounts with Credit Agricole after experiencing their incompetence - an earlier post http://http// explains the whole murky business.
The staff changed at frequent intervals, the unfortunate young things had no experience with my sort of business and I had no wish whatsoever to be constantly pestered to buy insurance I did not need.
La Banque Postale have started to shift their staff about too...but I've managed to follow the financial counsellor I like to her new post up the road, so that's O.K. Just don't let anyone further up the greasy pole know that she is dealing with someone outside her area, that's all.

I don't buy new furniture in France.
My first and only experience was when I thought I would buy a bed. What I did not realise was that the price I had seen referred only to the base.
Mattress? Extra!
I'm only surprised they didn't charge extra for the little clips that held the two parts of the base together. Probably didn't think of it.
Even then, it was cheaper to take a car and trailer to the U.K. and return with better quality beds for less than just the base in France. So that's what I did.

I used to go to the depot ventes - the places where you put your unwanted goods up for sale and the boss takes a commission. At that time, French farmers were getting rich and discarding their family furniture in favour of nice clean formica, so there were some lovely items around, well worth poking one's nose into the shop if in the area.
These days it's the formica that's turning up for sale, so I've stopped looking.

Just general shopping could be an experience in my early days in France.

The weekly publicity for the local supermarket would be delivered by the Post Office.
Intrigued by an offer, I would toddle in on the first advertised day of availibility, only to find that there was no sign of the item.
It hadn't been delivered yet. It would be there tomorrow.
I had to skip 'tomorrow' but went in again on the next day.
It had all been sold. Yesterday.

Then there were the 'promotions'. Reared on the U.K. way of doing things, I thought this would mean cheap offers. No. It meant 'promotions'...something expensive that the supermarket hadn't stocked before which would disappear for good once the stock was sold.

There were cheap offers, but you needed your wits and your spectacles as by some strange chance the bit of the shelf marked as containing these goodies usually actually contained a similar item at full price.

Thwarted by promotions and special offers, I would head for the charcuterie counter where what was sold as smoked belly pork - poitrine fume - made excellent breakfast bacon...I've always preferred streaky.
As I didn't go in very often, I used to ask for a kilo to be sliced, so that I could parcel it up for the freezer when I got home.

Now, bear in mind that I have been waiting some little time behind ladies who are ordering two slices of this, four of that, oh and a little slice of pate, no, not that big, and, yes, a little slice of pate en, perhaps not, the farci poitevin instead since it's available for once, no a bit more than that........not just one lady, but several, and the woman serving has executed all these orders without blenching.
My turn comes, or, rather, I elbow yet another queue jumping woman away in best jumble sale style.
I ask for my streaky bacon to be sliced.
'You'll have to telephone ahead for orders like that!'

This was not the only time I had problems bringing home the bacon.
On another occasion, the same woman was dourly slicing my order when another customer arrived, asking brightly if she could place an order with the 'takeaway' section, for a party she was to hold.
Leaving the slicing machine, the woman not only brought the catalogue for the customer to see, but started discussing with her just what she would need for her party of twenty.
I walked away.
Hoy, Madame! What about this bacon?
Sell it to the customer you're serving. She can make devils on horseback.

I bought a slicer in the end. A real finger eater. The sense of freedom was wonderful, even if I did always manage to slice chorizo the wrong way, so it came out in long ribbons. Looked super on a buffet table.

Off to the fish counter. They have grey shrimp on offer at a low price. I ask for a kilo.
I've only got two kilos.
Well, I only want one. Where's the problem?
But that's got to last the week (!) and everyone will want them.
Well, everyone will have to make do with the one kilo, then.

Over to the fruit and veg section. Ladies are poking and prodding the produce with gay abandon. I pick up a melon to see if it is ripe.
You can't touch the fruit. You'll damage it.
I wave an arm at the company assembled, poking and prodding at will.
They know what they're doing.

It has to be said that the attitude towards a foreigner was unpleasant generally in this supermarket.
I was shopping with a French friend who went through the checkout ahead of me. She paid and received a lottery ticket to fill in.
I went through, paid, and did not receive a lottery ticket.
Why didn't you give her a lottery ticket?
She's a foreigner.
Why don't foreigners get lottery tickets?
They're tourists, they won't be here to get the prize.
She's not a tourist. She lives here.
She's still a foreigner.

I hear things are better now, but I transferred my purse to another supermarket in another town long ago.

Just thinking about it brings more and more to the surface, like scum rising from the chicken stock......the garages, the television repair man, the builder's merchant...there just seems to be no conception of good customer service as a commercial practice.

If you have a good experience it seems to me that it is rather because the person with whom you are dealing is pleasant and helpful. Go there the next time and as likely as not you get the surly colleague.

The French seem used to it.
I'm not, even after all these years.

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  1. Oh I do sympathise. It's so bloody frustrating to be treated as an alien when you have lived in a country for so long. I do get this myself sometimes...clearly not as much as you do. Somehow the Turks seem to be a lot more accommodating than the French (well you already know this of course) but there are still some who have this attitude.

    I sometimes wonder if they think we're stupid. The old coinage here has been gradually phased out and from 1st January old coins are not accepted. I went into Milas on Monday and without realising was given an old 1 lira in change by the dolmuş driver. Then almost every shop I went into tried to give me old coins in my change...but I was on the ball and refused to accept them. I know its because I'm a foreigner and they think I won't notice.

    Anyway I gave the old 1 lira to the dolmuş driver on my return journey as part of my fare...he was just about to refuse it when I reminded him he had given it to me earlier....he shrugged and accepted it graciously.

  2. To anyone not living in France that thinks this post might be a bit of an exaggeration- it is not. I've experienced more or less identical treatment in very similar situations. There is no customer service in France - apart from Darty about whom I cannot say enough good things.

  3. I sometimes wonder why you live in France; I know you like pointing out its foibles, but it all seems very miserable - but then I guess there is the landscape, and the wine...

  4. Ayak, I think you're right about being thought it works here is
    you're a foreigner, you don't speak French the way they do, therefore you're dumb.
    Thus they play their stupid tricks.
    I laughed so much about the driver taking back his Turkish!

    French Fancy, it always astonishes me that the French don't vote with their feet when they get bad service. They just put up with it and return for more.
    Perhaps it was unfair to concentrate so much on that dreadful supermarket, but if I started on garages, and small family shops who refuse to accept that their products might be faulty, never mind the law on the subject...well,I'd probably blow a gasket. Which would not, needless to say, be under guarantee.

    Mark, there are lots of good things about France, or I wouldn't have stayed so long. I blog about the bits that don't appear in the 'Wonderful France' publications....the bits that come as a nasty surprise.

  5. I have to say you are right about the US. Customer service is just the way it is. I'm not going to take it for granted! I just got a call from FED EX asking me if I would do a survey on how good their rep was helping me with a question. I gave them high marks all down the list.
    And in our business we do the same, help our clients. I guess it is just our culture.
    There was a nice piece in the NY Times a couple of days ago written by someone from London about how polite Americans are. You see it everywhere, no one jumps lines, people smile at each other, waitresses are friendly. We have our challenges in this country to be sure but all in all, it's a real good country to live in with a lot of freedom to be an individual.
    I think France is real nice for vacations but I don't think I would want to live there and try to earn a living.

  6. Zuleme, our friends have lived in France for years, and seem to be so astonished by the change in culture that it brings it home to me how much nonsense we are expected to accept in France.
    I was lucky to be able to start off earning my living by fax, while living in France, so didn't have to face the hurdles to getting employment or starting a business. Now, years down the line, I have seen so many promising French youngsters dismayed by the obstacles in their path to independence that they either give up their dreams or move abroad.It is sad.
    France can be fine, there a lot of really nice people about, wonderful architecture, beautiful countryside but it seems to me to be be let down by the mean mindedness of the prevailing culture.

  7. I confess I've never had any real problems with customer service in France. OK, it's not as sicophantic as in the US, nor as matey as in the UK, but I don't find it bad.

    Then again, I lived in the Netherlands for a while which I suspect has distorted my view of what acceptable levels of service should be. I always felt grateful to be allowed to buy anything at all there.

  8. Hi fly. I do agree that France has so much going for it. We have some lovely friends, kind neighbours, facsinating regions and geography, interesting food & wine (!)... and some good services (our GP and dentist are superb). But my word, some of the customer service is pish! And I am sick to the back teeth of the organised racketeering practised by the supermarkets. Every time we go to Scotland we stock right up on hlaf-price sundries such as laundry detergent. And I just can't understand why consumers in France just put up with being so ripped off. I suppose I never will!

  9. Jon, remind me not to move to the Netherlands, then...perhaps what you describe is why there are so many dutch in France.

    I don't demand sycophancy, matiness or anything else.
    I just want the salesperson to be polite and to have accurate information.
    My point is that you can drop on all sorts of different people on the other side of the counter, but there doesn't seem to be any concept of customer service as part of commercial life.

    The garage services my car, rings me to tell me it is ready, I have to get a taxi as it is a fair distance. When I arrive, the guy tells me I misunderstood him. My car is still on the ground and he is working on the town police car.
    Absolutely no idea of the value of my time and money.
    Totally surprised when I kick up - difficult customer - and even more so when I transfer my custom elsewhere.
    He genuinely doesn't get it.

    Supermarkets are fine at exchanging goods...small shops are not. I particularly dislike having keys cut that don't work and then the guy trying to charge me for the replacements!

    I had paint mixed by a small shop. I kept the reference number they gave me which the guy wrote on one of their own invoice sheets. Returned for more, with the sheet with the reference number. This time the paint came out as murky grey rather than a sort of olive green.
    I asked for another pot, properly mixed.
    It was their own reference number...either they had made a mistake the first time or the second, but I wasn't paying for paint I could not use.
    I had - this said with a straight face -written the reference myself and got it wrong.
    The best thing was that on their door they had a sign
    The customer is king.
    So was Louis XVI

  10. Lis of the North, I suppose that, unlike us immigrants they have no point of comparison. I was in the U.K. lately and regretted that I was returning on Ryanair with only carry on luggage, otherwise I would have stocked a suitcase of household goods to bring back.

  11. I am still having real flashback nightmares thinking about what else that bacon slicer used to be used for back in the bad oul days of Glesga.

    Charming post.

  12. Jimmy Bastard, I might have had a few candidates fo the slicer....I'm always too late.

  13. Yes, customer service is only just starting to take its first wobbly steps here in Spain, finally. Before, it was very much as you describe in France. So much so, that it still always surprises me when someone is actually helpful in a shop or office, rather than being deliberately obstructive or indifferent.

    France Telecom (Orange, over here) has not caught on yet, though, and remains one of the most offensive, aggressive "services" available in Spain. Mind you, they are at least equally horrible to natives and foreigners alike.

  14. Pueblo girl, yes, no one can say that France Telecom discriminates...they are just uniformly vile.
    I really don't understand the unhelpful attitude..all I can think is that it is a power want something within their sphere of incompetence and they want to play God.
    Dreadful mentality.
    But then you get guys like the supermarket appliance deliverers who were so good and helpful, who buck the norm, though I suppose they wield no power.

  15. I know France is far from perfect and you specifically want to blog about "the dark side" -- but dear me, I just don't recognise the France I live in from your posts. Not the obnoxious expats (I don't know or ever meet any, you don't need to know that type of person), not the rude shop assistants and civil servants. Except France Telecom of course, I'll agree with you 100% on that, and add EDF :) For the rest, well, we must live in parallel universes or something.

  16. Veronica, I'm glad you are enjoying your life in France - there is a lot to enjoy.
    I don't only blog about the 'bad' bits, you know. I blog about politics, local issues which affect me, like this wretched septic tank inspection and things that make me laugh, like the Christmas lights extravaganza.
    Plenty of people who blog about France are upbeat types, happy with what they are doing and how they are doing it. That's great.
    I've always been interested in social mechanisms in my amateur way...why do things work like this and not like that?...why and how does this happen like this? that's what turns up on the blog. It would be the same if I were living in Patagonia.
    I started blogging as a way of explaining to friends why I don't sing from the same hymn sheet as the 'Come to France and spend your money with our advertisors' magazines.
    Coming from my cultural background, I think there is a malaise in French society...what I have seen happen for a number of years doesn't match the image France projects of itself. So that's what I talk about on the blog, just as I talk about it with French friends.
    'Obnoxious ex-pats' exist and do harm.
    Rude shop assistants are not an unknown phenomenom. You yourself mention FT and EDF.
    I don't think I have ever spoken of civil servants as rude - mind bogglingly idle, yes, but rude, no.
    I would not presume to tell you or anyone else that my view of France is better informed than theirs...but it is my view.

  17. "I would not presume to tell you or anyone else that my view of France is better informed than theirs...but it is my view."

    Absolutely! We are all entitled to our views. I'm quite happy in my own universe :) I agree about the malaise, but I think it is a bit of a shame that your blog sends such negative vibes to me. I don't read it often for that reason. I hope you mostly enjoy your life in France too, and it would be nice to hear a bit of good stuff among the bad.

  18. Veronica, perhaps we react differently to the malaise. You - forgive me if I express this badly - seem able to exist alongside it while I have to poke away at it like a bad tooth.

  19. Your story about the 2kgs of prawns made me laugh and reminded me of an experience we had in a restaurant in madrid a week or so ago. We ordered our meal, and a bottle of wine. The waiter came back shaking his head ruefully, no wine... What did he mean, no wine? Well he had some wine, but not enough, so we couldn't have a bottle but he could give us two glasses. Which we accepted until i noticed him opening another bottle of wine to pour a glass for another customer. So we called him over and ordered another two glasses. Yes, wine by the glass flowed freely, but wine by the bottle - impossible... Selling by the glass of course makes more money per bottle than by selling by the bottle!

  20. mondraussie, that's just brilliant! The idea of a restaurant that doesn't have wine enough to sell you a bottle, but only in glasses made me laugh. I wonder which management guru's book on maximising profits the waiter had been reading.

    The shrimp fascinated me...they are highly perishable and this poor girl was expecting them to last a week.....

  21. International Lifestyle, a US magazine, places France at the No. 1 spot for the best place in the world to live,

    so presumably customer service isn't a major factor. I have to say that I have experienced the most astounding levels of rudeness in certain establishments, and TOH was actually banned from shopping in Leclerc for insisting on having his money back for a DVD recorder that didn't work from the day it was purchased. (The salesman on that counter confirmed that every machine was faulty but he wasn't meant to tell anyone.) In general I'd say the worst people for customer service I have found in the supermarkets, and FT. And there is definitely a bias against "foreigners", even if they speak reasonable French. On the other hand, our local EDF ladies couldn't be more helpful.

    But I think things are slowly improving; maybe companies are giving their staff long overdue customer relations training?

  22. nodamnblog, I think things are improving too,very slowly,even in my hillbilly area, although it could just be that I've cut a number of places from my visiting list!
    France number one! Well,I took a look and apparently having a glass of wine and walking along the Seine in Paris cancels out high taxes and mindless beaurocracy! Not in my book it doesn't.
    I see Somalia is at the bottom...if I read it right. Tempts me to make a comparison between the two.
    I am sure that one of the underlying criteria of these surveys is the level of disposable income of the presumed readership and I wouldn't mind betting that with the sort of income that makes you think a glass of wine in Paris is worth the high taxes, you could live pretty well in Somalia.
    I can just see the taxman coming round to Somali pirates and asking them to fill out an auto entrepreneur form...
    What you say about TOH being banned from Leclerc doesn't surprise me at all. French answer to a complaint? Ban the complainer!

  23. Visit Brussels! The country where Customer Care does not exist. It is terrible here and makes me think fondly of my past life in France! I love going food shopping in England - people who work in the supermarkets are charming, helpful and friendly. Here in Brussels it's get the stuff through as fast as possible, put through the fragile goods first even though the heavy ones are in front of them, hiss the total to you and throw you your change and ticket. Going to food shop makes me shudder and I am aways trying to get out of doing it! (The Son has just come back from there - I pleaded feeling cold!)

  24. dragondays, I only shop in Brussels supermarkets..or, more accurately supermarkets in its' outskirts... when we go to visit the family, to stock up on dainties unobtainable in France and I suppose I must have used both Colruyt and Delhaize, but which is which is beyond me to remember.
    It's always been fine, but I don't do it often enough to say that I have a representative sample!
    Is it anything to do with the language thingy? I'm operating in Flemish when we go shopping after an experience years ago when on a trip to Brugge I wanted to buy chocolates and put my question in French. The assistant just looked at me blankly until I reformulated my request in English and, handing me the chocolates with a sweet smile said
    'We don't speak that language here.'

    At least you have someone to send out....

  25. I guess you could write your own version of Fawlty Towers about France! Although I have never lived in France I have worked for Credit Lyonnais for three years (I think you know this) - enough said!

    I must admit I was a bit intimidated by where we live. It can have its varying traits and points. I've got used to it now and can cope with it. On the whole people are pretty friendly here. I'm reading Hunter Davies "Walk along the Wall" and some of your comments reflect the UK in the 70s.

    Is it the State culture or is it the underlying independence of the French or a bit of both?

    This intrigues me.....

  26. Hadrianas's Treasures,
    I thought I had read Walk along the Wall, but I can't find it on the shelves and now I've gone blank about what I thought I'd remembered of it!

    I find living in France quite schizophrenic at progresses normally and then something happens which is so unpleasant that you wonder whatever happened to civilised behaviour and patterns of thought.

    I have come to the conclusion that the 'independence' of the French is yet another of their myths....we see people out in the streets protesting and think it is some sort of spontaneous outburst. No, it's the CGT and the other dinosaurs of the labour movement carrying out part of the ritual in the annual pay bargaining round. Most people have no independence of thought whatsoever...let alone independence of action. The acceptance of injustice as a fact of life is deeply depressing.

    I can think of several people I have known over the years whose doings would make a wonderful TV series.....but you'd never get it to the screen in any authentic fashion. Stereotyping would take over and all the fun would be lost. For a start, you don't want an English protagonist.
    One of the best things I've ever seen about France was when Clochemerle was serialised, years ago. There are scenes from that that I can still bring to mind and laugh over.
    Most of the bozos running television today wouldn't know that Clochemerle existed.