Service ‘sans’ smile

The French have mastered the art of 'le paquet cadeau'

Mastering the art of ‘le paquet cadeau’

You may read the heading of this post and assume it’s going to be another litany of complaint against France and all things French. You would be wrong, although that would be a reasonable assumption. I am about to tell you that there is a service culture in France. What there is not is a smile culture.

The reasons for that are anybody’s guess. Bad dental work? Stiff facial muscles? A refusal to bend one’s anatomy to social norms dictated by les américains? The fact is that the French do not feel a need to smile all the time. When you get over that expectation, you will enjoy surprisingly good service.

Start by putting aside preconceived notions of what you consider essential to good service: a friendly greeting, prompt attention, gratitude for your custom.

Say you enter a small shop in a typical French town. I am talking about a ‘boutique’ not a ‘grand surface’ – a whole different strategy applies for shopping at the super store. Start by saying a general bonjour to anyone within hearing distance. This will help ensure you blip on the radar as belonging to the civilized world. Look around casually and notice there is another customer already being served by the lone salesperson. At this point you need to be patient. The salesperson – whether the owner or an employee – is unlikely to pay you any attention at all until they finished serving the first customer.

“Madame?” (Or “Monsieur” as the case may be….)

This will be your clue that the person is ready to deal with you. Do not expect any greeting beyond this. The salesperson does not know you or want to know where you’re from or how you are.

But from this point forward you may be be pleasantly surprised. French service is:

  • Professional
    The French take pride in their profession, whether as a server or a sales assistant in a specialty shop. Even service sector jobs are held by trained professionals rather than students or casual hires.
  • Informed
    The notion of expertise is essential in France. Whether you are looking for a particular wine or widget, you will benefit from service that is generally well informed and experienced.
  • Unhurried
    Unless you arrive just before closing, you can expect to take your time. Many shop owners or sales assistants will go out of their way to show you different options and take the time to help you choose the item that suits you.
  • Low pressure
    You will not necessarily feel pressured to purchase a more expensive item or even buy anything at all.
  • A little bit extra
    ‘Le paquet cadeau’ is a standard service in the French boutique. Although it has become less of an art in recent years, you will always be offered free gift wrapping. Some of the creations I’ve taken home over the years have been like small works of art worthy of framing.

I’m always amazed at the time people take in shops here. True to my North American roots, I am usually in a hurry. Often I already know what I want and if not I make up my mind quickly. But sometimes I make the effort to slow down a little and take the time, so as not to disappoint the shop owner eager to share his or her knowledge. On those occasions I usually learn something new. And I always go away with a sense of value from the exchange.

Sometimes, as the shopkeeper shows me to the exit, I even take away a smile.

What’s your experience of service in France? Good, bad or indifferent?

 

Pet peeves

Crop-4some

My dictators plot together

Let me share with you a day in the life of our little ménagerie. The word finds its roots in ménage, which means household, so perhaps it’s normal that a collection of animals is part of ours.

I am a dog person. There is no translation for this expression in French. You can say you like dogs, or that you are ‘plus chien que chat.’ You can choose to like neither although you will not be typical of the French who love their pets and generally have one or the other.

Which is to say I am not a cat person. My daughter is a cat person. We got her a kitten for her fourth birthday. Over the years the feline population in our household expanded to two. Madeline moved away to attend university a few years ago and we kept the cats.

IMG_1130

Bianca and Leo hanging out

The current pair (I’m tempted to say culprits but let’s keep this polite) are Bianca and Leo. Leo was foisted upon us by a former cleaner who saw a window of opportunity when we were momentarily down one. These cat people stick together. He had been rejected by his mother, she explained in a poignant tale of woe, and she’d tried to place him once already but after a week the woman had changed her mind. That person clearly was smarter harder hearted than I. Leo came to stay, although he almost got ejected after doing his business on my bed.

His younger cohort in crime is Bianca. A bit of a princess is our little girl. Or perhaps a white supremacist. In any case, she does not like to mingle with any Tom, Dick or Harry. So she hangs around the house a lot, requiring two litter boxes and frequent displays of worship.

I’m not sure what possessed me to agree to add two puppies to our ménage after the kids left home – put it down to empty-nest syndrome. Our last dog had died in tragic circumstances a few years before and we were feeling, well….outnumbered by the cats. So it really is all the cats’ fault.

My husband and I have always been suckers for dogs. Our preferred breed was chosen before we married, when we met our first French bulldog at a friend’s home in Normandy. A snorting, smelly, impertinent fellow he was – proving the breed to be well deserving of its name. We got our first Frenchie a couple of years later, then a second shortly after. Edouard and Dorothée were our first children. They taught us that, yes, we were capable of taking care of beings other than ourselves, going for walks, picking up poops. We passed our first caretaker tests with flying colors.

Sadly, the dynamic duo did not live long, whether due to problems of the breed or medical back luck. A few years (and one failed adoption of a stray) later, a third Frenchie came to stay. By then our own children were center stage (or almost, as they will tell you.) Mooqs was with us for ten years or so, until he became blind and stumbled into the swimming pool. Frenchies are not good swimmers.

HH sleep

H&H snore fest

Higgins and Humphrey now rule the roost. They are adorable dictators, who have me flying out of bed in the wee hours in the hopes that they will not have weed theirs. I let them out in the backyard first thing, while keeping a close eye on Higgins, who likes to search for truffles (left by the cats) while pretending to relieve himself. I also check the mat in front of the door to make sure that Leo hasn’t left one of his trophies – frequent offerings of mice and bird remains that the dogs are only too happy to devour as an apéritif.

Then it’s breakfast for the dogs while I go down to the basement and let the cats in to the laundry room where their food and litter boxes are kept. Let’s be very clear: cats are nocturnal beings and I am not. We live in the country so the cats are out at night (both are chipped and sterilized, so we are good citizens).

Leo's leftovers

Leo’s leftovers

Should any cat people be about to protest: the cats have access to shelter in the cellar via a cat flap with a chip reader. This innovation has paid for itself in that we do not now feed half of the neighborhood cat population when we go away and leave their food out.

Then begins the daily ballet of my life as a cat and dog concierge. Imagine these scenes being played to the music ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ from The Nutcracker.

Take the dogs for their morning walk. Stoop and scoop on as-needs basis (i.e., if on sidewalk, private property or when someone’s looking…). Return home, wipe their feet before letting them in (2 dogs X 4 legs = 8 feet). Make coffee. Leo pussyfoots by kitchen door indicating a desire to go back out. Open door, let cat out.

Take coffee upstairs to office. Remove dogs’ bed from workspace as Higgins snores so loudly I cannot hear myself think, never mind hear clients on the phone.

Bianca then comes by for a cuddle. Give her a scrub and close the door. Start in on work. Urgent mewing from downstairs. Open door and remove dead mouse from doormat. Leo comes in. Bianca goes out. Return to work. Ten minutes later, faint mewing from basement where Bianca has come in through cat flap but now wants in to the house proper. She can wait, I tell myself. Focus on work for ten more minutes.

Strange hacking and gagging sound comes from next door. Humphrey has just vomited his breakfast, along with several other unidentifiable objects. Curse, cover nose and clean it up before Higgins does. Return to work. Mewing becomes more intense. Go to basement, let one cat up as other goes out. Make another coffee. Return to work.

Flash forward to late afternoon, several door openings later. Dogs begin to circle in growing impatience as the time for their second walk gets closer. Go lie down, I order. Click click click, toenails on the floor. Grumble. Groan. Snort. Snore. Snore. Snore. Then click click click. Two pairs of feet, two wet noses. Take H & H for second walk. Clean eight feet again.

Refresh water bowl. Feed dogs. Leo circles impatiently by the stairs. Go down to basement, replenish already half-full cat food. Bianca watches from upstairs.

Evening settles in and it’s time to let dogs out for final utility run. Cats nowhere in sight. Get ready for bed and hear mewing from below stairs. Go down and let Leo out. Bianca nowhere to be seen. Come back upstairs and look for her. Check under beds, behind curtains, no cat. Settle in to bed with book. Eyes grow heavy. Begin to nod off. Plaintive cat call from basement. Go downstairs and let her out.

There are moments when I feel less like a concierge and more like a happy pet owner. When Bianca nestles in beside me and goes into ecstasy as I stroke her. When I look deep into those Frenchie eyes and see love.

The dogs sleep in the upstairs bathroom. There are several practical reasons for this. Our house is open plan and does not have many rooms with doors that close. Once I left them the run of the house and they got into their food. Came down in the morning to find two sausages about to split their casings. What followed was a purging session (both ends) that lasted 24 hours and almost made me split mine. Never again, I swore.

The French bulldog is an uppity breed with delusions of humanity. Basically it does not accept the notion that it is a dog. Therefore, any attempt to house them in inferior accommodation will result in a trashing of the premises that is simply not worth it. Also the bathroom is tiled which is easier to clean.

Finally, in one of those lovely synchronicities of translation: the word ‘pet’ means fart in French. ‘Nuff said.

How about you? Do you have any pets – or pet peeves?

Doctor’s orders

IMG_2991A doctor’s prescription is known in France as une ordonnance médicale. The name says a lot about how the French view their prescriptions. Surely if a doctor orders you to take something, take it you must?

My late Belle-mère was a regular at the doctor’s office and could never recover from even a minor head cold without a prescription. Like many French people she did not believe in generic medicines – she considered them cheap imitations and insisted the doctor prescribe the original brand. I tried to convince her they were exactly the same molecule but she turned a deaf ear to my science-based arguments.

Pharmacist's assistant

Me in my Shoppers’ Drug Mart uniform

I used to be a pharmacist’s assistant at a drug store in Canada many years ago, a part-time job that paid for my education while also providing one of its own. I learned that people need to be given clear directions for taking their medication. That certain drugs were best taken with food or on an empty stomach, and that finishing a complete course of antibiotics was essential in order for them to be effective.

I also learned how NOT to pronounce the name ‘Cockburn’ when calling out one man’s prescription over the PA system.

When filling a prescription in North America, the pharmacist takes a massive jar of pills and counts out the prescribed number into a smaller vial, then sticks on a custom label with the patient’s name, the name of the drug, when and how to take it. This system allows the patient to receive the exact number of pills needed and to see at a glance how to take them. You could argue that it leaves room for human error, mislabeling, etc. But no prescription medicine ever left the store without a pharmacist personally checking it against the doctor’s prescription. Always assuming we could decipher the handwriting…we also made a lot of calls to doctors’ offices to double check.

Nothing so simple in France. Tablets come in a prepackaged box of blister packs along with la notice or patient package insert. This document is in accordance with strict regulatory rules that require the drug maker to disclose a lot of information, even for relatively innocuous over-the-counter drugs.

In order to find out how to take your medicine, you have to remove the insert, unfold it, and read through chapter and verse until you get to the relevant section. How much to take (posologie) and how and when to take it (comment prendre ce médicament?)

Your French had better be pretty good in order to glean the information you need from the language contained on the insert, which includes specifics for children of all ages, pregnant and nursing mothers and people with all kinds of pre-existing medical conditions. You also need good eyes or strong glasses to read the tiny print.

One thing that always mystified me was the French obsession with suppositories. I thought this mode of administration had gone out with hot water bottles but they are quite popular for certain ailments, especially for children. I remember having to give my kids suppositories for ear infections. Which not only seems bizarre but is a pretty hard sell for your child once they get old enough to argue.

The French love their system and will hear no criticism of it. They argue that factory-sealed blister-packs of pills are safer and more hygienic, and the details contained on the insert are helpful in case of any potential side effects.

But too much information can be a dangerous thing. Super paranoid patient, I read the whole insert in detail before taking the first pill or administering it to my children. After considering the pros and cons of the treatments vs. serious adverse events like renal failure, allergic reactions or plain old constipation, I ask myself if it’s really worth it just to avoid a little pain? Half the time I don’t end up filling the prescription, or when I do it sits unopened in its package. And most of the time (knock, knock, knock on wood), I am just fine.

Famous last (first) words: Never begin a post like I did last week: “I am blessed with good health….” It is only asking for trouble. Tuesday morning found me doubled over in pain as I slipped a disc just after saying ‘Namaste’ at the end of yoga class. How’s that for irony, peeps?

Chez le médecin

IMG_2965I am blessed with good health, a gift for which I am more grateful with each passing year. (She says, knocking on noggin). This despite the fact that I have spent many long hours chez le médecin.

You cannot raise a family in France without becoming painfully familiar with the doctor’s waiting room. You are given a carnet de santé or health record book that tracks your child’s health from birth to age 16. There are checkups – visites obligatoires – at various ages and stages of development. There are vaccinations, height and weight charts. There are vitamins and prescriptions for every imaginable ailment. You don’t leave a doctor’s office in France without a prescription for something (more on that to come).

But oh, the hours spent in the salle d’attente! The unending, crashing bore of it. The dog-eared, outdated magazines. The stale air and germ-infested space with little to distract a child.

Le toubib, as the doctor is called in familiar fashion, tends to be a lone wolf. Most doctors practice under the category of ‘profession libérale’ which is a fancy way of saying self-employed. There is no receptionist or medical secretary to take calls or welcome you at the door. Le médecin généraliste, meaning GP or family doctor in French, runs his own practice, does the paperwork and answers the phone.

Another reason for the endless wait is that many doctors offer a daily ‘permanence’ or walk-in clinic. The advantage is that if you are suddenly ill you can get in to see the doctor the same day – provided you are well enough and willing to wait.

In our country village outside of Lyon there were two GP’s, each with his own cabinet on opposite ends of the main street. I saw both early on and quickly chose Dr. Fourré, a heavyset fellow (like his name, which means stuffed) with a calm, soft-spoken manner who actually listened when I spoke, and looked me in the eye. The other doctor was younger and more modern with a computer on his desk. He spent the whole time looking at the screen and seemed like a scared rabbit every time I tried to catch his eye.

How well I remember the long hours in Dr. Fourré’s small and shabby salle d’attente. The permanence was in the afternoon and the after-school rush at 4:30 was epic. Sometimes people would open the door, stick their head in to do a quick count, then disappear. I later discovered that some would literally run across the village to the other doctor’s waiting room and go where the queue was shortest. Later on the two doctors got together and coordinated their hours, so that one had permanence in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

I am not a patient person. I simply do not wait well. Which makes me a very poor patient indeed.

But I will always be grateful to Dr. Fourré as he was the one who sent me for the MRI that revealed my acoustic neuroma, a benign but mushroom-size tumor growing in my inner ear. It was removed by a specialist in Paris a few months later with no lasting consequence other than a total loss of hearing on the left side. But it was the simple country doctor who actually listened to my complaint about not being able to understand conversation – the specialist I’d seen a few weeks before had sent me away with platitudes about hearing loss and aging.

French doctors work long hours for little pay. They are the unsung heroes of the healthcare system.

Many GP’s in France still make house calls, surprisingly enough, although these are an increasingly rare species. There is also a service called SOS Médecins. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area covered by them, you can get a doctor to come to you within hours. Unfortunately, where we now live in the Haute Savoie, it’s either the nearest hospital or the waiting room of the local GP.

The first time I went to see a doctor in France, a couple of things surprised me. One was the complete lack of modesty accorded to the patient. In this case it was a gynecologist who had me undress for the physical exam without providing any kind of gown or sheet to cover up. Fortunately he kept up a steady stream of chatter with a lot of eye contact to cover any awkwardness.

Another surprising thing was the fact that the doctor is addressed as Monsieur or Madame rather than ‘Docteur.’ You can call him Doctor if you wish, but not doing so is not the blasphemy it would be in North America, where medical professionals are like gods.

What I found even more embarrassing than being à poil was having to take out my cheque book and pay the fellow (although I was dressed by then). This had never happened in Canada, or if it had I’d always dealt with a secretary. It seemed almost insulting to write a doctor a cheque. Especially for so little.

Unless you see a physician as a private patient, the amount you will pay for a basic medical consultation is 23 euros. Even my hairstylist charges more than this.

How do you feel about le toubib?

How to call ‘la police’

La policeThere are a number of nicknames and expressions for the police in French. Les flics. Les keufs. Les poulets.

Although poulet means ‘chicken’ it doesn’t have the same cowardly connotation as it does in English. The story goes back to 1871 when the Paris police headquarters were moved to what had formerly been a chicken market. The name stuck, much to the chagrin of the police, and became a popular nickname much like the fuzz (and is similarly outmoded).

The expression ‘la peur du gendarme’ refers to the fear of getting caught. Seems this is the only thing that keeps people in line. ‘Flicage’ or ‘faire le flic’ means to survey, police or report your neighbors (and is the one behavior the French detest most).

In my early days in Paris, I was shocked to see police officers in full machine gun-toting regalia on the streets. It made me a little nervous. But most French people seem reassured by such displays of force.

The French have a love-hate relationship with their various law enforcement agents and with figures of authority in general. It’s not that they don’t appreciate the work they do, but they are resistant to being told what to do, and outright concerned about abuses of power.

Police corruption was the theme of the 1984 comedy film ‘Les Ripoux.’ The name is a play on words using ‘verlan’ (an inversion of l’envers) where the order of syllables is reversed. In this case, ‘ripoux’ means ‘pourri’ in reference to bad cops that take bribes. It was released in English under the rather pedestrian title of ‘My New Partner’.

Depending on where you live, you may be dealing with different levels of les forces de l’ordre. In the country, it will probably be the Gendarmes. In bigger cities and towns, it will be the municipal police.

Here is a quick rundown of the various police forces in France:

Police Municipale – Only larger cities in France have their own municipal police forces.They report to the mayor and come under the general authority of the Minister of the Interior.

La Gendarmerie Nationale – Smaller towns and country villages are under the jurisdiction of the Gendarmes. They are actually a division of the military. They’re the ones with le képi, the funny hats that depict French cops in all the old movies.

Le Garde Champêtre – This is the local cop in a country village. Reports to the mayor but comes under the supervision of the Gendarmes. We have one in our town. He likes to hide behind the shrubbery on the roundabout with a hand-held radar device.

La Police Nationale – These are the les gardiens de la paix, the guys responsible for our safety in places like airports. The French National Police report to the Minister of the Interior. They also include the CRS – Compagnies Républicaines de Securité – the riot police in charge of crowd control during the massive demonstrations in the nation’s capital. (Like the one from last week’s post, The Kiss.)

In addition to the above, there are 3 levels of elite forces who take over in major events like terror attacks and hostage takings.

GIGN Groupement d’intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale. Created 40 years ago following the Munich massacre at the 1972 Olympics.

GIPNGroupes d’Intervention de la Police Nationale. These are the equivalent counter-terrorism forces of the National Police.

RAID – Pronounced ‘red’, this stands for Recherche, Assistance, Intervention, Dissuasion. Additional elite forces of the National Police that cover Paris.

I am always amazed at how such a complicated hierarchy of police forces seem to coordinate their efforts without stepping on each others’ toes – or killing each other. Thankfully, the chain of command seems to work.

Now, the tricky part: in the case of an emergency, who do you call? The lack of a centralized emergency number like 911 in France has always been a bugbear of mine. There are different numbers to call depending on whether you need an ambulance (15), the police (17) or the fire department (18). If that’s too much to remember, now you can also use the new centralized number introduced at the European level: 112.

How about you? Ever called the police or wondered what to do in an emergency?