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?


Why ‘Les Soldes’ leave me cold

Les SoldesI won’t be going to the sales this month and probably not next summer either. Here’s why.

The semi-annual sales officially kicked off last week in France for five weeks – as they do every year on the second Wednesday in January and third week in July. Like most things in French life, these dates are closely governed by a complex set of rules and regulations. Merchants are not even allowed to use the word for sales except at specific times of year defined in the Code de la Consommation (Consumer Code). Stores can offer discounts or ‘promotions’ at any time but the actual, hard-core ‘sales’ periods are strictly controlled.

The idea is to protect the poor, innocent consumer from manipulation by unscrupulous retailers who want to sell them a crock of lies.  This is French paternalism at its best.

The precise etymology of the French word for sales, les soldes (masculine and plural), is hard to trace. It comes from the Latin solidare (consolidate) and has common roots with the words soldat (soldier) and solde (bank balance). Strictly speaking, the concept of sales seems to have little to do with either, although some people’s approach to getting a bargain can be described as military and have a devastating impact on their bank balance.

But the problem I always have with the French word for sales is that it’s a false friend in English: why would I want to buy something if it’s already solde?

And having grown up with the tradition of Boxing Day sales in North America, I expect to find things on sale immediately after Christmas. By the time the French sales start, I’ve generally lost interest and am licking my wounds from various excesses over the holiday period. Besides, I only have to step across the border to Geneva, which follows the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to find sales starting on Dec. 26th.

But are the sales really worth it? Truly, why bother? Unless of course you love crowds, pressure and stress. Or you have that competitive streak and really want to fight over the last sequined top in your size. During the sales more than ever it’s buyer beware: nothing will be exchanged or returned. If you’re lucky, you’ll get something you can actually wear, in your size and color. If you’re like me, you’ll buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need because it’s 60% off, stick it in a closet where it’ll gather dust until next year’s soldes. Then, you’ll get rid of it to make room for a new crop of stuff you’ll never wear.

I have a much better idea. Wait until the spirit takes you to a shop that you love, where they’re offering a pre-sale promotion to preferred customers. The fact is, most French boutiques offer their regular customers the best deals way before the sales even start.

In just about every French shop you enter, you will be offered a ‘carte de fidelité,’ or customer loyalty card. They’re generally free (and if not I refuse on principle). You’ll need to carry a large wallet or purse to hold the hundreds of cards as no one seems to be able to take this to the digital level.

Another fine tradition in French boutiques is the ‘paquet cadeau.’ If you’re offering any gifts, take advantage of free gift-wrapping to save yourself the trouble. Some boutiques take it to an art form, although the larger chains will probably just throw in the wrap.

One word of advice: in the smaller, family-run boutiques in France, act as if you were visiting someone’s home. What we perceive as a public space is considered very differently by the French. Be polite. Don’t forget to say bonjour, s’il vous plaît and au revoir, even if you only slipped in for a few minutes to look around. Do not ask to use the toilets.

And now for a confession: these days I shop for very little in physical stores – I much prefer to buy most everything online. The fact is, if you want something specific, ordering online will be faster, cheaper and more efficient. French retailers just don’t offer the broad selection of merchandise available elsewhere; a whole world of shopping choices is now just a few clicks away. So unless it’s something you need to try on for size, go for the online experience.

And before anyone starts moaning about shops closing, jobs lost, the importance of ‘la proximité’ (local retailers)…I beg to differ. Online shopping is progress. There are just so many other ways I’d rather spend my time and money.


Sour grapes

“Du pain, du vin, du Boursin…” This slogan for a popular brand of cream cheese (my personal favorite is Boursin au poivre), reveres one of the exquisite pleasures of French life – bread, cheese and wine. Probably why these spots became a cult favorite here.

Wine – the tradition and availability of the grape – is one of the undisputed advantages of living in France. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the immense history of the vine and the huge variety of vintages, buying wine can be rather compliqué.

Wine brings together art and science, simplicity and snobbery, geography, meteorology, sense and, several glasses later, insensibility. Winemaking was the original biotechnology. It’s a complex subject. And this is a country where people enjoy all of those things.

I appreciate the interest that wine connoisseurs and historians take in understanding the finer points of the noble grape. But sometimes, fairly often in fact, I just want to buy a nice bottle of red. Not something that will knock your socks off. Or a grand vin that requires careful decanting. Just a good, basic wine.

While good French wines are very good indeed, the lowly vins de table can be barely drinkable. The challenge, in my view, is finding a reliably good wine for everyday consumption. There’s nothing more disappointing than to be served a glass of watery red or a white with notes of lighter fluid in a country whose wine-making tradition is epic.

The fact is, you can spend a lot of money on a wine whose value is determined not by how good it tastes but by where it came from. There is no quality-price guarantee with wine. A cheaper bottle can taste much better than a higher-priced one.

Sometimes we’ll go to a good restaurant, fall into the sommelier’s hands, spend more than we intended and find the wine, well, uninspired.

That’s when I feel the sour grapes coming on. But far be it from me to whine. Instead, I put together this fool-proof guide to buying wine in France:

Forget the rules
Why should you let someone else dictate what’s good for you? If you like red wine and want to have it with fish, go for it! Who cares what the wine snobs say? I like Merlot, critics be damned! And no matter what anyone else says, I don’t care for the sweeter whites. So there. The first (and only) rule is: please yourself. (This article says it better than I could.)

Know thy wine-growing regions
Everything you could possibly need to know about French wines is summarized very nicely here. So I won’t repeat it. But pay attention to where the wine is from. This is the only thing you need to know. French wines are identified by their origin, not the grape, but there is a correpondance between the two. Personally, I like the Côtes du Rhone, which are more accessible (price and taste-wise) than the stuffier Bordeaux and temperamental Bourgognes.

Don’t buy wine from supermarkets
This is a ‘do as a I say, not as I do’ guideline (like parental advice, meant to be ignored much of the time). So don’t buy wine at the supermarket, unless:
a) You’ve studied the wine guides and have the inside edge on which ones to buy
b) You have a tried-and-true favorite that’s regularly available on your local supermarket shelves
c) You have no other choice

Obviously, bad and/or overpriced wine is better than no wine.

Find a local ‘caviste’
Why not let someone else do the work for you? The specialty retailler will preselect good value wines and make them available to you, the customer, at a reasonable price. He or she will also be a source of advice if you want to expand your palate, or offer a special bottle as a gift.

Think global, drink local
As a general rule, we always try and drink the local vintage. Why? The less industrialized and more natural a wine is, the better it will be. French wisdom has it that it’s ‘plus sain’ (healthier) to drink a simple wine grown and bottled at the local vineyard than one that’s been blended and added to and shipped around the world.

The down side of that is that the offering of anything but French wine in France is poor. You will find a few basic Italian and Spanish bottles. The wines of the new world are virtually unknown. By the way, if you go to Switzerland, do drink the local wines. They are excellent – which is probably why the Swiss don’t export them.

Good year, bad year?
‘Millésime’ describes the year in which the wine is grown and harvested. Thanks to the ever-evolving skills of the vintner, young wines are increasingly drinkable. That’s a good thing as they don’t tend to age very well in our household. Or age at all.

Whether or not a particular year will yield good wine is a complex question largely influenced by the weather (a sunny growing season with sufficient rain is ideal). That’s a lot to remember. So if you want to buy good millésime you’ll want to get help on that. Check the experts:

An app for that?
It seems there’s also a multitude of apps that let you find out what wine to pair with what food, share what you’re drinking with friends, discover wines of one region or brand…all fairly useless IMHO.

How about a ‘wine advisor’ rating of vintages and millésimes with a label scanner? Actually, no, what I really want is a divining rod, that will let me pick up a bottle and just know that it will please me. That it won’t be corked. That I will have a good quality price experience. And a good time drinking it.

Does anyone have an app for that?

How to ace les courses

Shopping carts at French supermarketNot for nothing do the French use the same word for shopping les courses as for the races. ‘Faire les courses,’ means to buy groceries or run errands. Run being the operative word. While service tends to be slow, shoppers are both dense (literally and sometimes figuratively) and in a hurry. Possibly because most stores close early in the evenings and on Sundays.

The French tend to shop differently than we North Americans. While we load up on specials and stock our freezers for a snowy day, it’s traditional in France to go shopping daily for bread, meat, fruit and veg. Many people go to open-air markets and directly to the farm for fresh foods.

I would love to shop that way, but who has time? I will make the effort for special meals and on weekends but by the time you go to the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker, half the morning is gone. And you still have to go to a supermarket for staples like toilet paper. (Which, oddly, the French prefer in pink.)

Most of my shopping odysseys take place in the superstore. And I’m not alone. La grande surface as they call it here is a pillar of modern French life, selling everything from booze to baby gear. Carrefour, Casino, Géant, Leclerc, Intermarché, Auchan, Super U….the choice of enseignes (major retailers) is vast. But this type of shopping is not for the faint of heart. The fact is, the bigger the store, the longer it takes.

But there are perks, starting with the fact that you can find the most amazing goods. All those fancy oils and vinegars I used to search out in gourmet shops in Toronto are right there on the supermarket shelf. Along with organic foods, imported snacks, fine wine and alcohols, every imaginable kind of chocolate and cheese. You can pick up towels and sheets, books and DVDs, an ironing board or a pair of sandals. All under one roof.

It is seductive for people like me who don’t really like shopping. I believe I may have inherited a male gene here. I just want to get in and get out. Mission accomplished.

Window shopping, the kind of casual, strolling-around that may or may not lead to a purchase – which the French call ‘lèche vitrines’ or literally ‘window licking’ – is my idea of torture.

I’m always fascinated by the fact that the French retain the notion of a marketplace in their grandes surfaces. Sales people set up stands in the dairy aisle, encouraging you to try a new kind of cheese. Hucksters at the prepared-foods counter shout out their wares. Entire families with kids stroll aimlessly as if at a carnival. People chat in the aisles, oblivious to the fact that they are blocking traffic in two directions.

Over the years I’ve perfected my get-in, get-out strategy:

  • Go early. Avoid Saturday afternoons at your peril!
  • Bring a coin for the cart and shopping bags for your stuff.
  • Don’t carry a handbag – stay hands-free and pickpocket-proof by slipping your essentials into inner pockets
  • Wear comfortable shoes
  • “Fill your stomach and empty your bladder!” as my father used to instruct us kids before car trips
  • Park strategically near the entrance, right next to the shopping carts
  • Pick a cart that doesn’t have a wonky wheel (more art than science)
  • Know the store and organize your list accordingly
  • Start with the heavy stuff: water and other beverages like wine, proceed to packaged goods, fresh and frozen last.
  • Avoid the seasonal section at all costs – this is where the most people are and where you’ll waste time and money buying crap you don’t need.
  • When your cart runneth over, proceed to the lineup reserved for pregnant women and handicapped – unlike the parking spots, it is also open to other shoppers and generally goes faster
  • Get your bag-packing strategy right. Don’t count on the cashier to do anything more than to push (read: viciously shove) your goods across the bar code reader.
  • Breathe deeply and ignore the people behind you (other than handicapped and pregnant) who have half the amount of stuff and are shooting daggers at your back. Take a sick pleasure in teaching them patience and courtesy (good luck with that).
  • Pay by card and get the hell outta there
  • Unload everything into your trunk
  • Return shopping cart for coin
  • Drive home, honk horn for helpers to unload
  • Plop on sofa and crack open a cold one

So there you have it, my survival guide to the French superstore. Must dash – the cupboard is bare so it’s off to the races!