French Poetry, French B.S.
One of our first days here in Paris, I went to the Louvre and bought three six-day Paris Museum Passes for Julie, Matthew, and myself. They’re expensive — just over $300 for the three (kids 12 and under don’t need them) — but they provide access to a large number of Paris museums without having to wait in line for tickets at each one. The kicker is that they go into effect the first day you use them. This means that you might hold your new pass for a week or so, but the first time you use it, you have six consecutive days in which to use it. You can’t break those days up.
“I wish you hadn’t done that,” Julie told me when I got home. “That means we’ll have to cram all our museum-going into six days. That’s too fast, with three kids.”
I saw her point. No problem, I said; these passes haven’t even been taken out of the packaging. I’ll just go back to the Louvre and exchange them for six two-day passes. That will allow us to break the museum-going up into manageable bits.
So I went back to the office at the Louvre to make the exchange. I sat down with Madame, who informed me that non, this would not be possible.
“But I haven’t even opened the passes!” I protested.
“Non, ce n’est pas possible.”
“But why not?” I said, in my bumbling French. “I’m not asking for my money back; I just want to exchange these for new passes.”
She pointed to her computer, and gave me a Gallic shrug (she really did this; you think the Gallic Shrug is a cliche, but then you get here and you see that people do it all the time). She then explained that the computer system wouldn’t let her do this. If I had come back within two days of buying the passes, then we could have done business. But I was back three days after buying the passes. This thing, Monsieur, it cannot be accomplished.
This struck me as asinine, but Madame’s cold, clear, haughty tone — I should underscore that there was nothing personal about any of this; that’s just how Madame, and Mesdames, in her position are — indicated to me that further resistance would be futile, and really, Monsieur, don’t we both have better things to do today than argue about something that cannot be changed?
Off I went, ticked off and discouraged. This was nonsense. I assume Madame was telling me the truth, but why should it be that a computer program should make it impossible to exchange unused — indeed, unopened — passes? Change the damn computer program to better accomodate your guests, Louvre! How hard could this be? Because of this, I ended up wasting a lot of money, because we couldn’t do all we wanted to do in six days. Yes, I should have thought this through more before buying six-day passes, but would it have killed the Louvre to have made this exchange possible?
I relayed this anecdote to an expat American friend, who smiled and said, “Welcome to France.”
I had read a Gopnik essay years ago in which he said that one of the most difficult things for Americans living here to adjust to is the French attitude to such interactions. If memory serves, Gopnik wrote about trying to get appliances delivered and installed in his apartment here. The procedure is complicated and seemingly without logic, and on evidence designed to make it maximally inconvenient for the customer. But that’s just the way things are done. The point of the essay — again, I’m going from memory, so please correct me if I’m wrong — is that the French have such a deep and unyielding orientation towards “that’s just how it’s done” that the idea that things might be done a different way to make it easier and more satisfying for others is … well, it’s just not done. It’s very American.
In “Paris To The Moon,” Gopnik wrote about how Americans focus on customer service, while the French focus on the one giving service. The thought here is that people giving service are there to perform their job according to particular methods and standards. Serving a customer is not really the point; doing the job the Way It’s Done, that’s the point. The method, however mad, must be observed. If the customer interferes with that, it’s the customer who is out of line. The customer is always wrong.
Gopnik tells a story about a 1997 public controversy involving a British tourist and an elevator operator at the Eiffel Tower. The woman bought a ticket to the top of the tower, but for whatever reason decided to get out at a lower level. The elevator operator refused to let her do this, and allegedly manhandled her. She had money and connections and a lawyer, and got the elevator operator fired. The other elevator operators went on strike, and the French public supported them. Gopnik says this episode revealed a basic difference in cultural psychology. For us, the elevator operator exists to provide the paying customer what she wants; for the French, the paying customer exists to allow the elevator operator to practice his metier. As Gopnik puts it, so much misunderstanding and frustration between the French and les Anglo-Saxons comes out of this desire of Anglo-Saxons to get what they want without having to deal with real people, clashing with the French desire to do their professional duty without having to deal with real people. The first, he says, leads to Disney World; the second leads to Paris in July.
Yesterday I was at the big deli counter in the Monoprix on the rue de Rennes, standing in front of the carrot salad bin. Two young employees were standing behind the next counter, doing nothing; they had no customers. Though they faced another way, they had seen me standing there, and held their ground. I thought, “Maybe I have to put my order in at the next counter, where they’re standing.” I walked over and said, in French, that I would like a demi-kilo of carrot salad, please.
The young man who heard me shot me a look of confusion, then irritation. “Monsieur,” he told me, by which he meant you stupid ill-mannered child, “I will help you, but you must know that that is not my counter.”
I told him, in French, to please excuse me, I didn’t know, and not to worry about it.
“No, monsieur, I will help you,” he said, as if he were dispensing charity. “C’est pas grave.”
This was a classic case. There I was, wanting to buy something the store was selling. There was this man, standing three feet away from the carrot salad section, doing nothing, because he had no customers. And yet, in his mind, I was in the wrong for asking him to help me, because couldn’t I see that this wasn’t his counter? His counter was the prepared salads counter next to this prepared salad customers, and asking him to take three steps to the left to spoon salad into a container — well, I might as well have asked him to walk halfway across France.
Yesterday I got my hair cut in the neighborhood. The Madame who helped managed the salon spoke some English, and it turns out she had been to south Louisiana, and loved it. We were having a cheerful conversation about Cajuns and crawfish as the pissy French man at the salon was cutting my hair. He finally turned to the kind lady and said to her, in withering French, that he could not work with her standing there talking to me. She skittered away. Like he was bloody Alain Ducasse making sauce or something! But cutting hair is his metier, and the lady and I making small talk distracted him, interfered with the execution of his professional task.
The haircut was OK, but the barber was snotty to a nice old lady, so I didn’t tip his ass. Call me Anglo-Saxon.
Another story: a couple of days ago, I was in my local Nicolas, a chain of wine stores. I asked the clerk why Champagne was more expensive in France than in the US. “Veuve Clicquot costs one-third more here than it does in America,” I said. “That’s strange.”
The clerk gave me not only a Gallic shrug, but also that very French little puff of air from his cheeks. He said, “That’s just how it is. It makes no sense. I cannot explain it.” The man seemed genuinely puzzled by this, but puzzled in a way I’ve come to identify as very French: That is, he seemed to regard this as a fundamental fact of the universe, something that, however mysterious it seems to mortals like you and me, monsieur, must be lived with. The French may be rationalist, but they aren’t really rational.
In a comment on a thread below, Sam M says:
It seems to me that a lot of what you love about France is what you dislike about it. By that I mean it’s peculiar brand of conservatism.
People in France don’t magically have better taste. Their food culture is the culmination of a long string of policies, from land use and taxes to work rules and regulations. Given a free hand, most people around the world choose Pringles. But of course, Pringles wouldn’t exist without our own peculiar mix of policies and cultures.
The French have chosen limits, for a lack of a better term. Or at least restrained choices. And their ruling class subsidizes things you happen to care about. But deference to THAT authority and tradition doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It also leads to the hidebound class stasis you complained about a few posts back. It also leads to more smoking and Muslim riots. It’s not separable. Tradition is as tradition does.
I think that’s a really good insight. It is likely that the reason all the “good” traditions — those I judge to be good traditions, anyway — have survived has everything to do with the thoughtless rigidity one often encounters in French culture. Which is to say, its cultural conservatism. There is no logical reason why 435 varieties of cheese and excellent cider sold on the side of the road in Normandy depends on traditionalistic fatalism and bad customer service to exist, but somehow, it seems to. People like me, we want the fruits of traditionalism without the irrational limitations it imposes. And it’s not just me: Alan Ehrenhalt, as I’ve written, identifies contemporary Americans as the kind of people who long for community, without understanding the serious personal sacrifices that authentic community requires.
OK, fine. I get that. Still, encounters like these as I move through daily life here bring to mind the US expat writer Rosecrans Baldwin’s growing awareness as he got used to his new life in Paris: “I found it harder to tell the difference between bullshit and poetry.”
Rod’s carrot salad people weren’t rude to him because he interrupted them in the process of doing their job. They were rude because he interrupted them in the process of slacking off by asking them to do their @#&§$ job.
Sometimes Occam’s Razor is useful. Sometimes the reason why someone appears to be a jerk is because of a complex cultural edifice. But sometimes the reason why someone appears to be a jerk is because that person is, in fact, a jerk.
I submit that the reason why most French waiters, salespeople, etc. behave like insufferable jerks, is because that’s what they are. They live in a culture where this is self-reinforcing, where there is an emphasis on rules instead of serving the customer, where there is no culture of tipping, etc. But that doesn’t really change anything.
I’m not sure we’re entirely disagreeing. I wouldn’t under any circumstances defend the rude behavior of the Monoprix clerk. If he is just following the rules, then screw the rules. Rules that instruct a clerk to behave that way ought to be chucked. What the metier theory does is help me understand why they’ve been conditioned to act this way. At least in part. It is of course quite possible, even likely, that they are jerks. I’ve been treated with generosity and kindness by enough Parisian shopkeepers and sales clerks to know that some really do know how to do their jobs.