French for “Customer Service”

“It’s not my problem”

-accompanied by a shrug, said by almost every French person ever to a customer in need of help.

The quote above is a caricature, surely, but my French friends will admit it’s pretty close to the truth.  It’s my third year here in Paris, and when your expectations are so very low, when you get surprised, you want to share it.  So, here are two such stories.

Groupama

Groupama provides my renter’s insurance, something that is helpful in itself, but is also a requirement of most of my visa visits, including my recent one to move away from visitor status to a path to citizenship.

However, they, like many French insurers, make it impossible to cancel a policy online.  You have to go in person and provide a signed etat de lieu as proof you have moved out.  Your word is not enough (same thing happens at the bank when you try to change your address).  Do you have proof?

In any event I had moved out of this place roughly 6 months before I managed to get to my insurer.  I took the blame, as other things always seemed to take priority.  Not only was the cancellation smooth, only taking a few minutes, but the agent marked the cancellation to the end of the lease, and credited my account with 6 months of premiums!

As the French write: “Waoh!”

Decathlon

The next mission was already impossible in my mind before I attempted it, but in the spirit of “try everything once” I took back two inflatable mattresses to Decathlon.  I had purchased the first one for guests who might stay at my apartment and it worked fine for months.  Until it started to slowly deflate.  I spent some time trying to find the slow leak so I could patch it, but no dice.  It was only 15€ and I hadn’t kept the receipt.  I bought another.  This one started deflating almost immediately.

I called it a day on the inflatable mattress plan and bought a Japanese-style fold out bed at Castorama.  No deflation possible!  But I still had two non-functional inflatable mattresses.

I suggested to a couple French friends that I would try to return the beds without a receipt (I had idiotically not kept the second one, either).  They laughed derisively.

“I’ll just play the dumb American,” I said.  “Plus, I’m willing to accept store credit.”  Turns out I didn’t have to.

I arrived at the enormous subterranean Decathlon near the Madeleine (Americans, think Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Chalet) and got into the returns line.  When it got to be my turn I explained that I didn’t want an exchange, but that I wanted to return these mattresses for store credit.  The young girl called a colleague over, who then walked with me to the camping department, where the inflatable mattresses lived, in order to observe the malfunction.  And to my dismay, the same thing happened as whenever I brought an Apple device to an Apple store for troubleshooting: nothing.  I almost wonder if the Apple Store is a stern father figure for my Apple devices and they suddenly “behave” when they are at home.

I watched, bemused, as the inflated mattress which had deflated over and over in my home held the air intact.  We even tried sitting on it to force the leak.  Not a peep.  Resolute as Churchill on the beaches.

The kid read my incredulous expression.  “Don’t worry,” he said in French.  He walked me to the counter, got me a gift card for the value of both mattresses, and as I walked out of the store and held the gift card in my hand, contemplating the imposing facade of the Madeleine, I smiled.

Maybe there is a French word for “customer service” after all.

PS  Don’t worry, I have a horror story to share in the future for those who wish to further the paradigm of “the French just don’t care about customer service.” 🙂

 

Picard: a dirty little secret of the French

So before we arrive in La France, we non-French perhaps imagine that all French people have an advanced knowledge of wines and cheeses, and while we don’t expect the full Julia Child/Jacques Pepin experience, we expect that most native French should be able to make a few classic French dishes from scratch, from maman‘s recipes or perhaps from grandmere.  This is not an unreasonable expectation.

What you don’t expect, what you can’t possibly believe, is that a store like Picard exists.

picardIt only sells frozen food.  To be warmed up in an oven or microwave.  No, this isn’t some monstrosity dreamed up by an American.  This. Is. In. France.  And it’s wildly popular.

“I, I just can’t believe Picard exists,” I sputter to my French friends.  A slow smile often creeps into their mien – but Stephen, it has good food, bio (organic), you know – I wave my hand dismissively.  “Do you realize your word for kitchen (cuisine) means, essentially, thoughtful or good food in my language?  And then I find out that you guys are warming up premade food?”

“Oh, but Stephen, you know, no time, metro, boulot, dodo, etc.”

“In the land of the 35-hour work week?” I ask plaintively.

Now, I’m being a bit unfair about that 35-hour work week as I’ll explain in a future article about the work lives of the French.  Suffice to say I have more than one French or expat friend who works until 20h00 on weeknights, so I fully understand and believe the, “I’m too tired to cook” response.  I know, because I’ve been there.  I’ve come home later than 22h00 many nights when I lived in America.

But when life becomes a succession of warming up food (or buying takeaway), what is the point of living here, or anywhere, for that matter?  One of the things I enjoy so much about France is the superabundance of fresh food and produce; butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers, bakers: they are out at all hours, replicating what has been done for centuries, giving you the key ingredients to make food for yourself.

The thirty minutes you spend warming up some second-rate boxed lasagna, organic or not, could be spent making an omelette or a salad.  Or pasta.  Or grilling some veal, or rabbit, or lamb, while boiling some potatoes or steaming some veg for garnish.  In fact, 30 minutes would be long for “end of workday” versions of any of those suggestions.

I don’t expect all to take as much pleasure as I do in buying food, making my mise-en-place, and delighting in the cooking process, down to the colors of my food in correspondence and interplay with whatever season we find ourselves in.  But I do expect those who inhabit a country conscious enough of their own pride in everything to put a cock on the crest of the national sports teams to live up to the inheritance, the patrimony, they have been bequeathed, and has been bequeathed to the whole world.  The whole world looks to France as a (perhaps the) standard of cooking.

Which means Picard is simply not good enough.  Ever.  Generations who worked in the fields and offices long before Picard existed managed to cook and eat well.  You should too…whatever country or galaxy you live in.

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Postscript: I should note that it’s simply more expensive to eat processed food, both in terms of financial cost and health cost.  However, I tend to see these as “last ditch” arguments.  People should accept the premise that cooking their own food is a good to be desired in and of itself.

The pain of loss

I’m midway through my second year in Paris and I’ve begun to experience something I rarely did during my time in the States: losing people to moves.  When I was younger this was because I was always the one on the move, either due to my family’s movements or my own moves for work or school.  As I got older, I lived among more stable populations and hence rarely attended “going away” parties because no one was going anywhere.

Before I moved to Paris I spent 7 years in Kansas City, which straddles the large Midwestern American states of Kansas and Missouri.  It is a wonderful place to live and raise a family, and consequently, most everyone stays.  In my time there I don’t think I knew one person who moved away.  And yet I’ve already lost a friend to Nice just this month, and between now and September I expect to lose 4 more.  Some have work assignments ending or visas that expire and they have not begun the work to try to stay.  Others are just choosing to move on.  No matter the reason, it hurts to lose friends to moves.

There are dozens of reasons, always particular to the individual.  I don’t expect everyone – in fact I don’t expect many – to move to Paris with the deep-in-the-bones conviction that they will live there forever.  Since so many come for work it is rare to find that happy coincidence of dream city and fulfilling work (which is why I advocate moving to your dream city and creating your own work) and hence if a more alluring city or job presents itself, Paris can be left behind.

I’m willing to admit that while everyone’s decision to leave Paris can be attributed to individual circumstances, there are recurring themes which I can share with you.  I’ll also try to suggest remedies when it makes sense.

Distance from the city

My friend Anaïs, who left for the south of France last week, has sworn off ever again living in the suburbs.  “I could never do anything at night in Paris,” she opined at lunch.  Since she lived 20 minutes outside Paris she was limited by whenever the final train for her stop left in the evenings, typically some time before midnight.  People can get twice the space for the same price, but it’s not Paris.  I don’t see how one can fall in love with this city when you don’t live inside it, and when you don’t love something, it’s easy to leave it.

Cost of living

I always gamely smile when I hear this, in part because it’s really only the rents that are expensive in Paris, and even then it lags far behind Tokyo, Hong Kong, NYC, and San Francisco.  Super high-speed internet?  15€/month.  Fresh baguette? 1€.  Freshly-pulled espresso at the bar? 1,50€.  1 L of organic milk? 2,50€.  Three course meal at an authentic French restaurant?  24€.  Unlimited travel on the metro, buses, and trains, and 45 minutes per day on the city bikes?  70€/month.  Those are just a few of the things in Paris that are cheaper than what I paid in the States, and specifically in regards to the transport issue, entire costs I used to have are simply gone now, like car insurance, oil changes, gasoline, and the occasional car wash.  Yes, Paris has its expensive sides, but if you are willing to try new/challenging/different living situations you can not only survive, but thrive here.

The Rush

I’ve addressed this in a previous piece.  If you work in one of these nonstop jobs and you aren’t planning and saving for a great escape or a new life, either leave Paris or quit your job, but don’t keep doing what you’re doing.  You’re making yourself miserable and while only the Japanese currently have a word for “death by overwork” (karoshi) it doesn’t mean you are immune to the condition.

Time for a change

This has to be the most valid reason to leave, if you’re really feeling it.  I’ve heard it said that if you’re always dreaming of your next vacation, perhaps you need to change where you live, since you keep wishing to leave it.  I firmly believe that once you are in a place you truly want to be, you’ll find yourself exploring it endlessly, and won’t have to look exteriorly for fulfillment and joy.  This doesn’t mean you’ll cut travel out entirely, but I’ve observed within myself a huge slowdown in travel, and I think this is because I’m settled and happy here.

Everyone is leaving!

Well, I suppose this presumes a greater existential question of “What is a Parisian?”  I know at least 6 people who have lived in Paris their entire lives and half of them don’t really know or love this city at all.  There are “permanents” in Paris (I aspire to be one) but a lot of us came here because we were inspired by what we thought Paris might be like as a residence, not just enamored of what we had experienced in Paris as breathless tourists.

The remedy for this objection is something I am prescribing for myself as well: not so much to close yourself off to new friendships, but covet, guard and develop those more closely that are with those who you suspect are here for the long term.  You can’t escape the pain of losing special people as they move, but you’ll have the consolation of adding friends from all around the world who you might visit on your travels, and you’ll know that when you see them again you’ll be able to pick up on something you’ll always have in common: Paris.

I live in a different Paris than you do…

“And you know, Paris is all metro and work and the run-around.”

He used the famous idiom “Metro-boulot-dodo” which is a colloquialism that is literally “subway-work-sleep” that indicates the grind of life for many in the City of Light.  We were high in the French Alps, not far from the Italian border, but quite a distance away from home, and yet the complaint was similar: “I used to think Paris was magic, but now it’s just a place I work and pay bills.”

I tried to hide my dismay at hearing this, because no one should live in a place that one doesn’t love, if it can be avoided.  It’s socially acceptab2014-04-08 13.57.40le to tell people you moved to a dreadful city for a job but it’s some revolutionary concept to tell people you moved someplace for the city and who cared about the job?  It would come.

Now, I’m not pretending that everyone can have a great amount of time wealth/lifestyle in the world’s finest cities, but if you are going to bother to live there, to “put up” with the cost of living, it’s surely a great shame if you can never enjoy it.

Now, the first time I heard this complaint was from a lady who attended my Paris Culture Lovers meetup who rather sourly 2014-03-28 13.24.00complained about her schedule as I described my own, which included grocery shopping, visiting parks and museums, and riding a Velib during “off hours” – when everyone was at work from 9-5.  While I was a bit taken aback at her tirade, even though I’ve become very used to the French complaining (it’s a national art and sport), especially since she chose to move to Paris 15 years ago – for work – I avoided what would have been a typical American retort: “Well why don’t you do something about it instead of just complaining to 10 near-strangers about it?”  I said it another way to my friend Julia last month: “The French as a people would rather complain about what they don’t have than take responsibility for building their dreams.”  Instead, I just managed to stutter, “I guess…I guess I just live in a different Paris than you do.”

Since my current conversant was French I decided to take a different tack and asked him how he planned to break the cycle.  He shared some great ideas, but unsurprisingly, had not done any real research into those ideas.

2014-04-14 12.29.22***

Okay, Stephen, so people quit their miserable city jobs, then what?  Look, I don’t know.  I’m not advocating that everyone quit his/her respective jobs.  I’m just asking the serious and adult series of questions: what is the life you want for yourself?  Are you living it now?  If not, why not?  Do you have any plan or timeline in which you will be living the life you want?  Does it solely hinge on money?  Have you rethought that?

Surely life is more than paying rent or a mortgage.  Our time on this magnificent planet is too short and brief to spend focusing on the life you don’t have.  Start creating the life you desire and marvel at how much the journey alone will prepare you to enjoy what awaits your sacrifices.  I’m reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The obstacle is the way.

2014-04-18 19.48.52-2The photos are all ones I took this time last year, when Spring had definitely arrived.  For now they are consoling me that we are almost there, as Winter is staying too long this year.

Je ne suis pas Charlie: why I’m not marching in Paris tomorrow

This shrine, among others, was set up around Place de Republique this evening.  I had used the spot as a convenient place to meet two friends before dinner at my favorite Cambodian place in Paris.  I had completely forgotten Republique’s status as a shrine for the Left (there is a huge monument to “Liberty” in the middle of the square) and since I had not been avidly following the Charlie Hebdo news, I didn’t realize how decked out it would be: candles, pictures, drawings, graffiti.  People had plastered bulletins of Voltaire mouthing the now eponymous, “Je suis Charlie” all around the monument.  The devotion reminded me of a much smaller “shrine” in the largest cemetery in Paris, in Pere Lachaise, at the grave of Oscar Wilde.  When I first gazed at all the lipstick marks at his grave, I felt the same feeling I felt just a few hours ago witnessing all the people milling around the monument, around all the reporters doing stand-up interviews with whomever was around (hopefully you would be holding a child, showing that you were “teaching” your kids how to “stand up” to violence): bemusement.

While I will be the first to admit that I’m not the most empathetic of souls, I did feel the normal disgust at a senseless loss of human life.  Any civilized person would.  But then there’s what comes after.  Would I stand up for or march in “solidarity” with “free speech,” for a disgusting magazine, and for a national security policy that is essentially tone-deaf to the unique and challenging situation that is militant Islam (hopefully France doesn’t call it “workplace violence“)  Quite definitely, non.  If I’m going to march it’s not going to be to soak myself in some gooey sentiment of “solidarity,” but because I truly and deeply believe in something.  Because I would be willing to be tear-gassed and arrested for it.  Was I going to march for people who taunted Muslims with outrageous cartoons?  No way.  But before we even get to that, I suppose we should address what this is being universally painted as: an attack on capital F, capital S: Free Speech.

The media and governments and many of the “Je suis Charlie” drones (some of whom I count as friends!) push the idea that this was an attack on free speech.  I dispute that, but I suppose I should admit at the outset that I don’t accept the notion of free speech, either intellectually or practically.  It’s gospel to many people, as certain a value as 2+2 equaling 4 or the sun rising in the east, but to me it’s an abhorrent and dishonest modern fantasy: something that protects the prose of a child molester extolling the virtues of pedophilia in the same manner as that of a nun speaking about outreach to the poor and abused.  In a nation (and city) in which egalité is literally carved into stone, the idea of many ideas having “equal value” resonates – but perhaps because it is taken for granted it is never truly scrutinized.  “Free Speech” is a lie the West tells itself, and then is shocked when others don’t accept it as gospel truth.

So there’s my first stumbling block to the #jesuischarlie movement: I don’t accept the so-called “Western value” of “free speech.”  I think that there are ideas that are dangerous and words that are beyond the most foul and disgusting and rather than buy into a system where I accept that all ideas are equal (something I can barely type!) I accept that some things are beautiful and should be protected and some things are vile and disgusting and should be discarded.  The cartoons of Charlie Hebdo fall into the latter category.

That’s the second problem – while I find their cartoons disgusting (I cannot even bring myself to describe the Christian “satire” that this rag of a publication has served up) I do not believe that their pictures should have carried a death sentence.  But I do think the editorial staff knew what they were doing and in the French tradition of “brave journalism” were “daring” to do things that upset people, and they knew what might happen.  A true “Western value” (read: values derived from Christianity) is respect for life and we try, prosecute, and in some places in the world, execute murderers.  We don’t tolerate the wanton murder of people.  Yet, saying Je suis Charlie precisely means you are standing up for the disgusting values this magazine propagated (calling the magazine the French version of the American Onion is not just American oversimplification at its worst, its simply inaccurate).  Saying “Je suis Charlie” extends beyond the borders of empathy for the murdered to solidarity for their work, which was, at its very best, highly questionable, and at its worst despicable and wantonly provocative.

Finally, “Je suis Charlie” insouciantly marches with banners of “we are not afraid” while failing to examine the real problem: militant Islam.  NPR Americans whose “Muslim friends” eat bacon will tell you that Islam is a religion of peace, but those who have read history, have actually read the Koran, and know the violent arc that is the founding and ongoing mission that is Islam know otherwise.  When someone in New York whose name isn’t even remembered does an art exhibit depicting a crucifix in a jar of urine, does anyone fear reprisals from Christian terror groups?  No.  Because there aren’t any roaming around or training in special terrorist training camps!  There isn’t anything in the Christian New Testament that instructs Christians to convert people by any means necessary, up to and including the threat of murder.  This week France, when confronted with an Islamic terrorist attack, reacted the same way that England and Spain did when they experienced their own attacks in their own cities: explained how this had nothing to do with Islam, took no responsibility for military policy in the Middle East that stirred up such hatred and violence, and then pivoted to say this is a “terrorist” issue, without taking the time to point out this is a uniquely ISLAMIC issue.

Something that the West does well, for better or for worse, is tolerance.  We may not agree with you and may even disagree with you on fundamental human matters, but we will live in peace with you as long as you observe our laws.  The people who committed these murders trained in places where it is a crime to possess a crucifix!  Western governments have the opportunity to take a long hard look at this and ask if this is a problem of “religious fundamentalism” (something bland and generic that implies there could be such things as buddhist terrorists or hindu terrorists that are operating on even a fraction of the scale of Islamic terrorists) or of “Islam and the West.”  Those who’ve read history know that the Muslims tried and failed dozens of times over centuries to militarily invade Western Europe, conquer it, and put it under the Crescent.  It failed, perhaps most famously, on a 9/11 few know about, the night in 1683 when Jan Sobieski, King of Poland, arrived at the gates of Vienna to successfully repel the Muslim invasion.

The Muslims are no longer at the gates of Vienna.  They don’t need to invade Europe because they are already here and they will simply not permit “free speech” that mocks their religious beliefs.  You can say what you want about these men, but they truly believe in what their religion professes in its scriptures.  As for the West, it has to decide whether it will keep pretending to be shocked when these things occur or actually start to formulate public policies that take into account the realities of Islam instead of the lies we tell ourselves about that religion.  The march tomorrow blithely ignores that reality, preferring instead sentiment and tears.  There is a time for such things.  Then there is the time to fix public policy so that such things don’t happen again.  Je suis Charlie sure is catchy, but it doesn’t even begin to address any of the problems this horrific event has laid bare.

NYC: Parisians’ Delight

I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States.  Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York.  Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC.  And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.

While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”

The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked.  That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view.  Some commonalities:

1.  NYC is the only American city he/she has visited

2.  While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.

3.  He/she was there for a week or less

These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Cloisters.  And the High Line.  And Brooklyn.  The Park.  Washington Square.  The MET and all the things that make NYC great.  But it’s not our finest city.  That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time).  For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.

The cityscape itself

NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like.  There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels.  Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.

I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings.  But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.

The melting pot

On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.”  Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires.  Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales.  If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux.  Or Bayeux.  Or Grenoble.  Or Strasbourg.  Those are all “European cities.”  But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.

London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers.  Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture.  And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too.  But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture?  NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself.  It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.

The cost of living

One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value.  You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂  It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.

A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world).  Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.

This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US.  This HuffPo list might be the place to start.

NYC: hardly the most European city in America.  It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂