March 23, 2008

"A Guide to the French. Handle With Care."

I read an article this morning in the Ideas & Trends section of The New York Times called "A Guide to the French. Handle With Care." Journalist Elaine Sciolino wrote the article as a sign off from her 5-year assignment in Paris. She came up with 8 recommendations:

1. Look in the Rear-View Mirror (history weighs heavily on these guys)
2. An Interview is Sometimes Not an Interview (recounts droll happenings with Chirac & Sarko)
3. The Customer is Always Wrong (simply)
4. Make Friends With a Good Butcher (a meal without meat is unheard of)
5. Kiss, But Be Careful Whom You Hug (a hug is far more intimate than kisses)
6. Don't Wear Jogging Clothes to Buy a Pound of Butter (you are stared at like the elephant man)
7. Feeling Sexy is a State of Mind; or, Buy Good Lingerie (French women seem to hold on to their youth long after it is gone)
8. When it Comes to Politeness, There is No End to the Lessons (no further explanation needed)

This is a link to the article if you would like a read.

I would like to touch on number 3.

I had a traumatic experience at the post office one day a couple of weeks ago, which ended with me returning to work and sobbing to my co-workers.

I was attempting to send four things to the US, but they were important things and I wanted to expedite the process. I paid 40 euros extra for a 2-day envelope, but stated explicitly that there would be no one to sign for them on the other end - simply a P.O. Box.

The woman behind the counter, reveling in the long line in front of her and her ability to control its movement, assured me that this would not be a problem. I gathered my things and stood aside to fill in the envelopes and to read the fine print of the envelope. Inevitably, it explicitly stated that P.O. Boxes were interdit (forbidden).

I examined the long line and tried to capture the woman's attention to no avail. I gave up and got back in the line to wait a second time for a half-hour. Arriving back in front of the woman, she acted as if she had never seen me before and certainly like she had never sold me the item I had in my hands. (In fact, it seemed she did not recognize the envelope itself).

I explained that the envelope would not work, because P.O. Boxes are not allowed. She blew out her cheeks in frustration and said she would have to call the company to be sure (comparable to fedex). I explained that there was no need; it was clearly written on the envelope. Yet, she insisted she would have to call to verify. After the phone call, she explained her conclusion (that it was impossible to use the envelope) as if it were news. She then looked at me and asked what I expected her to do. I stated simply that I needed a refund for the envelope.

She was indignant. A refund? She had never heard of such a thing. She told me to stand aside - perhaps her manager would know what a refund was. And besides, she was suddenly (conveniently) concerned about the length of the line. She said her manager would come at some point to discuss. To discuss? I was confused and growing angry and emotional.

The manager appeared after 15 minutes and my helpful friend pointed at me across the room as if I were a shoplifter in the store. The manager signaled for me to approach the counter with an intimidating gesture. (She, herself, was quite intimidating. She was tubby and mean-faced). I approached and explained the situation; however, my french was growing less and less useful. You see, I can express myself freely in most situations, except when the situation becomes emotional. A foreign language is the first thing to go in such a position.

The manager insisted that I did not need a refund. I insisted that I did. After about 5 minutes of bantering back and forth, and me trying to simply recount what had happened (with no help from the first one), I just started crying. This build up resulted from the sneers of the people behind me and the tubby manager's recommendation, "If you can't count and you can't speak, you should just get out." She also told me forcefully that I cannot cry in the post office.

In the end, she did realize that I needed a refund and took my card and refunded it, but there was no apology - no sign of remorse. She walked away almost triumphantly.

I got home that night and still had tears pricking my eyes. A difficult conversation between Xavier and me ensued, where I tried to recount my tale, but punctuated it with overgeneralizing insults like, "What kind of culture creates and condones behavior like that? Creates a woman like that?" Needless to say, Xavier took it personally.

And I took the whole episode rather personally.

Even when I write about it, long after it happened, I still feel like crying. It was so simple and ridiculous. For goodness sake, a post office and a stupid envelope. But I have this irrational fear that those women represent something here. A way of being or seeing things that I don't know or like at all. Triumphantly right.

My most irrational fear about it all is that I will have children here and they will become like that. That I will look at them and not recognize them. It is totally ridiculous, and I don't mean to suggest that Americans don't have significant cultural faults. But it seems that my own culture's deficiencies don't glare at me with the same harsh, accusing face - I suppose that is simply because it is my own.


Brad said...

I love all your posts but this one was one of your best. It was poignant and insightful. It was even a little painful to read.

The detail on the queue and the power trip French government workers seem to be on brought smiles to my face.

I take some solace in knowing how kind and wonderful most of the French I met in my years spent there were in almost all situations. The people I met in the smaller cities and villages were almost to a person accomodating and respectful.

Keep those posts coming. I feel like I am in France when I read them.


Andrew said...

when i get emotional, my english doesn't work either. I totally understand.
My dear friend gave me a book about Frenchmen/culture/food a long time ago, and the author recounts some stories exactly like yours. I guess it is a all too common phenomenon there. But you are right, every culture has its deficiencies.


joy said...

Hi Emilie. I just discovered your blog today and am thoroughly enjoying it. I'm sorry to hear about your experience at la poste, but it seems to be a common problem in all government offices around the world. A friend of mine even had his hand slapped at the immigration counter in Hong Kong! When something like that happens to me i try to tell myself maybe this person had rancid milk in his coffee this morning or stepped on le caca with his right foot...

Good job on your blog, and i'm definitely a fan. Joy

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