We live in a country where Customer Service exists and is pretty darn good. Customer Service does not exist in France. Well, not as we know it in the United States, anyway. This can really be infuriating if you need to get something accomplished or just accomplish getting through the day without getting ticked off. Take for example the French policy of returning items to the store for exchange or refund. Oh wait, it doesn’t exist. Each item we purchase, be it a washcloth or a small appliance, is carefully checked out and debated between us, because we know that in France, the customer was always wrong. Even if said appliance spontaneously combusts. This really puts the pressure on, because I hate retail commitment, especially in light of my bad luck; if there is a defective one of something , I’ll be the one to buy it. Even if I reach in the wayyyyyy back of the shelf and grab the untouched one, it’ll be sure to be the malfunctioning one. Even if I, against my better judgment, grab the first one, it’ll be the faulty one. And why can’t I bring it back if I have the receipt, mean French lady at the counter?
Maybe it’s not her job. Because we heard that a lot. My brother was living in Switzerland at the time we were in Toulouse and one day he hopped a train to surprise us. Settling in on the train, he fell asleep. While he was in a deep slumber, the train stopped somewhere along the way, split in two, and went their separate ways. One half going to Toulouse, the other half going to Spain. When the train-half that my brother was on stopped at the final destination, he woke up. But not in France. He was, you guessed it, on the wrong half.
He had to buy another ticket from Port Bou, Spain, to Toulouse.
Being that he didn’t speak French and I did, I decided to stand up for my brother like any big sister should, and become his personal translator and get some compensation! I never would have thought of this on my own, but every person we reported the story to said, “That qualifies for a refund! You must explain the situation to SNCF and they will give you compensation. ”
After standing in line at the train station for almost an hour, we finally got up to the counter. There was another mean looking lady. I smiled and greeted her (with no reciprocation) and I told her at great length what happened and how traumatized my brother had been to have opened his eyes to see he was not in a familiar place…. The lady apathetically stared at us and after a long pause she said, “I’m sorry, but you are in the wrong line. You must go over there, because this is not my job to help you.”
She pointed us to a lady at a desk, so we walked over. We were told to sit down in the waiting area and…wait. We waited for almost 30 minutes while she sat at her desk typing. When we were finally called over, I again translated the story of what happened. She listened as if she was going to care. I included, “Since my brother was never informed when he bought the ticket that the train was going to be severed, and that he should sit on the France end of it, he is entitled to some sort of compensation. After all, can you imagine how traumatized to wake up and find you are in another country? “
She just looked at me and said, “We cannot compensate your brother for his mistake. And besides, this is not my job. You were supposed to be at that lady’s desk over there, she’s the one who deals with this kind of thing. This is not my job, Madame.” And she pointed to a desk about 20 feet away, where the young woman (girl) was just sitting and looking bored. My brother began to raise his voice and I stopped translating. Frustrated that I didn’t continue the translation, his voice got louder and louder. I calmed him down and said, “Let’s just go over to the girl at the other desk.”
So we did. We (again!) explained the unfortunate events of the previous day’s journey and it wasn’t falling on deaf ears, but sympathetic ears that resulted in a profuse apology. Finally, we thought, someone who will take pity on us and give us compensation (now in our minds it wasn’t compensation for the train splitting anymore, but compensation that we had to endure the French work ethic!) But then, she said something that should not have shocked me since it seemed to be the thought of the day. ”But I’m sorry, this isn’t my job. I cannot help you. You have to go through the door behind me into office number 100 and talk to someone in there.”
At that point in time, I informed my brother his translator had quit and he was on his own. Because the only thing I cared about then, was getting away from all French SNCF employees. And besides, translating is not my job!
It didn’t go well in room 100. And there was no compensation. But I, thankfully, was no longer involved.
But just when you think you have it all figured out, “they” change it again on you. A few weeks later, Hubby’s brother and another friend came to visit us. It was their first time in a foreign country and things had not started off smoothly. They decided to fly into CDG Paris and take a train to Toulouse. (And yes, they were warned about the tractor/TGV collision.) They were told by someone at the airport they could not buy train tickets at that train station; they would need to go to one in the center of Paris. So they bought tickets to that particular station, found the ticket counter and successfully purchased them.
And then the same man who sold the tickets to them said, “Oh, by the way, you aren’t leaving from this train station. You must go to Gare du Nord (which was across the city from where they were!) and your train is leaving in 20 minutes, so you won’t have time to make the train!”
They tried anyway and as they made it all the way across town and onto the platform they showed an SNCF employee their ticket and as she looked at it she said, “Oh, see that train that’s just pulling away? That is your train. You missed it.”
Feeling like jumping in front of a moving train, they purchased yet another set of tickets from this lady who informed them they “must buy First Class tickets, but you will be going standby. “ What that meant, they later found out, was they paid for First Class seats but ended up in the luggage portion between the train cars, taking turns sitting on a pull down seat the size of a small pizza box. Why they couldn’t have paid Second Class prices for the no-class “seat” is something we’ll never know. But I'm sure it wasn't her job anyway!
They finally made it to Toulouse, about six hours later than we estimated. We took them home, fed them and let them sleep. We hit it hard touring the next day. When they could take no more, we stopped at Place St. Georges, for refreshing drinks. Bro-in Law said with a heavy sigh, “All I want is a Pepsi with ice!” and Our Friend said, “And all I want is a water with lemon!” Hubby and I looked at each other and burst into fits of laughter . It was one of those moments of relief or a pressure release....having other Americans (and family at that) to share our bottled up, frustrating un-American experiences with. Trying to gain our composure we said, “Um, we’ve been here for three months now and we’ve yet to get a cube of ice in a drink, and forget about something as luxurious as a lemon to go with your water! It’ll never happen!”
We ordered our boissons and told tales of warm Cokes being the norm in France, and how lucky we were to have ice at the flat, and how the French guests we had over begged us not to put ice in their drinks. Clearly disappointed, our guests just moped and withered in the heat and 100 percent humidity.
And then the waiter brought our tray of drinks. There was a Pepsi for Bro-in-Law, garnished with… a lemon! And a bottle of water with an extra glass of ice to the brim for Our Friend. They looked at each other, traded luxuries and burst into laughter. Hubby and I sat in stunned silence and then we all laughed ourselves silly.