Encounters with French traders – Part 1

I have come to know French people quite well. Ever since I was a teeny weeny boy, I watched French TV, spent holidays in France, read the literature… in many ways I know them as well as I know the Brits. Nothing lost in translation during our exchanges.

A facet of French society that will surprise many visitors is the way a worker has a complete right to remain their own person at their place of work. Until I lived in the UK, I had not properly seen that the American or British worker adopted a “persona” to represent the business. The key word is “acting professional”. In France, it’s all about “acting natural”. This behaviour is noticeable not just in France but in other northern parts of Europe also such as Germany, Italy, Belgium or the Netherlands.

In today’s blog post I will share an example from Belgium and one from France. May the reader be assured that I bear no grudge, nor do I generalize this behaviour to an entire nation because it would be silly. It just so happens that I can’t quite imagine similar things happening where I usually shop at!

In this first story and while still in the UK, I came home to see my parents in Belgium. On that day, we took a nice walk around the touristy Lake of Genval and decided to have a beer in one of the “brasseries”. We sat down as a family and waited. We waited some more after that and kept chatting while glancing over at the waiters in the hope that one would come to our table. The waiters were placing knives and forks on the tables while we sat in full view. None came to take our order.

After roughly ten minutes of being ignored, my father called over a waiter in perfect French who answered a robotic “J’arrive monsieur.” without looking back. Some more time went by and my mother called a waitress this time: “Madame, on peut commander?” to which the young lady told her colleague: “Can you go and see what they want?”

The reluctant waiter took our orders while doing his very best to make us feel how much of a dreadful inconvenience we were. I remember him arguing with my father about a beer mat for his drink. My father was told “C’est pas un café ici hein!” (You’re not in a pub here) We left without an acknowledgement from any of the staff.

To Americans reading this and not properly understanding what happened, the answer is very simple: The waiters were just not in the mood. As well-protected union workers, they are under no pressure to fight for their jobs or to represent the business. And since they don’t rely on tips it really makes no difference to them who comes or goes.

As much of a culture shock it represented for me, my parents didn’t seem particularly shaken by the events. They had seen it before and put it down to “rudeness”, as if it was expected that a waiter might not be in the mood to work. I thought back at the friendly “You’re alright mate? What can I get ya?” in my local English pub and understood my luck.

That same year, it so happens that I spent a week in the South of France near Narbonne. In need of a vehicle, I made a reservation though the AVIS website for a small car. When I got to the AVIS garage the following day, I promptly stated my reservation number to a visibly underwhelmed salesperson. As he struggled to stay engaged with our business conversation, he simply muttered “J’ai pas ca, moi.” (Well I don’t have that!) in the same tone as if I had been a practical joker asking him for a unicycle.

I expressed my disbelief at the probable misunderstanding as he shook his head in that fatalistic French way, and almost with discernible satisfaction in his voice he concluded: “Non. J’ai pas ca ici. Le seul véhicule qui me reste c’est celui-là sur le parking” and pointed to a sizeable Mercedes Sprinter twice the length of a usual car.

It was a “take it or leave it” situation. He didn’t much care whether I took the van or walked out. There was no apology for the malfunctioning of their website, nor the semblance of an outrage at my wasted time. No sympathy, no offer of a compensation, not a suggestion to make things better, just a stone cold look that said “I’d be much happier alone in my shop. It’s hot, it’s August and I’d like you to leave”.

In the end, I did rent the van and paid the full price. (which I later learned I shouldn’t have) But my adventures didn’t end there. When I made my way back to AVIS days later to drop the van off, I feared I might be late. I phoned them in perfect native-level French and received the assurance that I shouldn’t worry because they would be closed from 12-2 PM. I could drop it off during their lunch hour or after 2 and we’d do the paperwork then.

Since I was no longer in a hurry, I took my leisurely time and even stopped for a picnic less than a mile from the garage. I parked the van at 2:15 PM and was drily told I owed them an extra day’s rent. “What?? But, but… you told me I could….” The fellow would not budge. I tried any way possible to have him change his mind but he wouldn’t hear it. “Listen, whatever happens I’ll take the money out of your deposit so you might as well sign for it now.”, was his way of concluding the deal.

I knew I was being ripped off, he knew it too and he didn’t care. Not a thought given to the next time I might want to use AVIS, or whether I’d give them a bad review. He’d rather take the money now than please a customer in the long run. His parking lot on the industrial estate was empty, it was high holiday season, the cicadas were going “shh, shh, shh”, no one wanted an oversized van and no one would have had the time to rent it from him between 12 and 2PM. It was a dreadfully still day and even the sun was tired of being hot. But he wanted his money and he wanted to rip me off.

Fortunately, once I got back home I got on the phone with AVIS UK. (who happened to have heard of the concept of friendly customer service) They expressed their apologies for the situation and promptly made a bank transfer to my account for the money I shouldn’t have paid for the larger vehicle and for the extra day’s rent.

Funnily enough, when I told my father about it he said “Oh yes, they pulled the same stunt on me at the airport.”

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