N’importe quoi

“N’importe quoi!” The phrase slipped off my tongue so naturally, it was as if I’d been born saying it. Nonsense! Anything at all!

It was one of the first colloquial expressions I picked up in my early days of learning French. Like most such things, it came out of real-life conversation. I’d heard it said around the table, after someone made a silly remark or pushed a joke to the extreme.

“N’importe quoi,” I smiled, shaking my head. It passed without a raised eyebrow so I knew it was good. I’d always liked ‘quoi’ (what); it was easy to pronounce and could even be used by itself in a pinch as a question: “Quoi?” And the ‘n’importe’, which translates roughly to any, either or no matter which, made perfect sense.

But that was just the beginning. As with most expressions, there are layers of meaning that only become clear over time. Beyond a throw-away phrase, I learned that the words are often used for something much darker. ‘Faire du n’importe quoi’ means to do something any old which way, far from the way in which ‘il faut’ — how things should be done. Aside from a few exceptions, situations in which the French excel at pulling rabbits out of hats, they are rather uncomfortable with things that are improvised and undefined. ‘Du n’importe quoi’ borders the dangerous.

We hear a lot of “C’est n’importe quoi!” these days. In fact, it could almost be a catch phrase for the times we live in. Surely Boris Johnson’s answer to a journalist’s question about his party’s twitter feed is a telling example:

On another, slightly less fraught front, I have recently seen some pretty lively examples of n’importe quoi in my daily life. The postman, who not only never rings twice but generally never rings at all, contenting himself to slip a notice saying you were absent into the mailbox, tried a new approach with my neighbour’s parcel. I watched as he drove up to the gate, rang, saw no one was at home and then threw the parcel towards the door, as if trying to sink a basket. The box bounced once and landed with a thud on the driveway. This takes it up a notch to what we call ‘Tout et n’importe quoi’. Anything and everything.

Thankfully there was nothing breakable inside. Still, when I told her what I’d seen, my neighbour went to the post office to complain about this unorthodox delivery method. “It’s so hard to find people in this area,” she was told, with a sad shake of the head. “All the better ones go and work in Switzerland.”

I’ve been doing quite a bit of online shopping lately. But since we saw the excellent film from Ken Loach, ‘Sorry we missed you’, I’ve had second thoughts about home deliveries.

So whenever possible, I’ve been trying to group my orders and have them sent to a ‘relais colis’, a delivery point at a local supermarket. I go there to shop anyway, so it seems to make sense and be a more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately the system still has a few kinks. The first parcel I picked up at one relay point was somewhat battered looking but it didn’t occur to me to check the contents until I got home. On opening it, I found broken glass and a gooey mess inside: my ‘lot de 3’ jars of peanut butter had been put loose inside the box and broken in transit. I got my money back but gained nothing in my carbon footprint.

N’importe quoi!

My second attempt at having merchandise sent to a different delivery point was no more successful. Although I’d ordered several items at one time, Amazon decided to send them at different intervals. (It seems you can no longer request a ‘grouped’ delivery). The second shipment containing the stuff I wanted most (ie the peanut butter) was supposed to arrive at my local Intermarché last week, where I planned to go and get groceries. But instead I got a message saying that in order to deliver it on time, the company had sent my package to a different delivery point, at least 15 km away and not on my route to anywhere. Needless to say, I refused to go and pick it up. After a couple of weeks, it will be returned to sender and I’ll get my money back.

Du grand n’importe quoi.

In the meantime I went to a local health food store and found some peanut butter (organic, crunchy, just peanuts!) for a price only slightly higher than the online shop.

I suspect that such things are not just happening here in France. Have you recently experienced any examples of ‘n’importe quoi’?

C’est comme ça

Peintres tour eiffel

I know better than to expect service with a smile in France. Around here, we are happy to be served, period. But lately a few particularly awful customer service experiences have me ranting once again.

First there was the painter who was supposed to redo the south-facing façade of our house. It started out well enough. He showed up when promised, twice, sent me a quote for the work, cashed the 40% deposit and began the job in May. Things quickly went downhill. He began by painting over the chrome bolts that are a design feature of our modern house, and dripping paint on several glass panels around the deck. I explained that he needed to protect the area, so he taped down plastic and used a bit of tape. He got half-way through the job when the skies clouded over and spat down a few drops of rain. Then he disappeared for two weeks, leaving us with a half-painted house, plastic bits on the deck and vague promises to come back soon. August, he swore. We are still waiting.

Then there’s the postman. Not only does he never ring twice, often he never rings at all. I find the slip of paper in my letter box, down by the road, saying that he attempted to deliver a parcel while I was out. Des mensonges, Monsieur! I was there. Deaf I may be but I can still hear the door bell. The funny thing about that slip of paper is that, to look at it, you would think it should be easy to get your parcel (assuming you read French; otherwise, bonne chance in decoding this baby!).

Avis de passageTwo options, it says. Choose a new delivery date online or go pick up your parcel at the local post office, anytime from 3 pm the following day. “Mais non,” says the woman who works at our local post office as she explains it to me with a vague school-marmish air. It doesn’t work like that around here. By the time the postman reaches her small post office, at least two working days will have passed (not counting the weekly Wednesday closure). When I express frustration, not only at the poor service but at the erroneous message on the official piece of paper, I get nothing more than a Gallic shrug.

Et oui, c’est comme ça!

Online shopping saves me from having to deal with such characters. Most of the time. As much as I love Amazon, regardless of their tax issues, I shop some French websites for specialty items like pet supplies. Our two Frenchies are excitable types on walks and it takes some good quality leashes to rein them in. After spending a good while researching just the leash I needed (short, strong, flexible grip), I was ready to place my order on a site called Polytrans (the French are not big on sexy brand names).

The site claimed to offer free delivery on orders over 49 euros, so I calculated my order to include an additional item, bringing the total to just over 50 euros. But when it came time to place my order, lo and behold, the site offered me a so-called ‘loyalty discount’ based on a previous order, deducting three euros off the total and adding in 7.50 for delivery. Gah!

I called the number listed on the website for support, politely explaining my case and expecting that they would simply remove the ‘discount’ and let me get on with it. No such luck. All I had to do, the woman explained in a voice that suggested she regularly dealt with dummies, was order some small item to make up the difference and get free delivery. When I told her that I’d already done this, and frankly, their loyalty points were having the opposite effect, she dropped the mask of customer service and said that there was no way she could change the order anyway. Imagine if they had to do that for everyone?

Needless to say, I hung up and took my business elsewhere.

When the French complain about ‘unfair’ competition from the Amazons of this world, I will point out that little example of customer ‘service’. It is just one among so many others. When they moan about the loss of local jobs and soaring unemployment, I will think about my half-painted façade, along with the handful of other jobs (electrical, roof, cleaning) we’d be happy to pay for if only we could find someone willing to do them.

Et oui. C’est comme ça.

Have you had a memorable customer experience lately, in France or elsewhere?

Mot de passe

Anonymous hacker groupThe French term for password, ‘mot de passe’, is a bit of a no-brainer for English natives, one of those all-too-rare, word-for-word translations that feels like a gift when you learn a language.

It’s a different story when it comes to your PIN for banking and credit cards. There is a very good reason why the French call this ‘le code secret’ and not code pine, as I have been known to say. Which is how I discovered that ‘pine’ is slang for penis.

If only there was a mot de passe for language itself. Imagine that you could log in to your adopted tongue and start speaking, even thinking like a native. Quel bonheur!

When you think of all the words you need to know to master a second language, an estimate that ranges from 300 to 2,000, it is daunting. Certainly after thirty years of speaking French, I must have acquired almost that many. But I think it was easier than the challenge of staying on top of all of the various user ID’s and passwords that are required just to stay afloat online these days.

It doesn’t matter whether your native tongue is English, French or Swahili, when it comes to covering our accesses and keeping our identities secure, we are all in the same boat. That boat is dangerously overcrowded, has multiple leaks and is listing seriously starboard, Captain!

I first experienced password hell when I started working in the corporate world here in France. You needed to sign in to your workstation every day. Then you needed another password for your email, and another for the intranet. VPN and various services quickly multiplied both at work and at home, along with the number of passwords you needed to use them.

I remember my boss back in the day, a 90’s dress-for-success businesswoman with a blonde flip, joking about how she just used her husband’s first name for everything. We all followed suit. In fact, you could have probably hacked into most French women’s bank accounts with nothing more than the first name of their spouse and children.

Then some techno-terrorist in Corporate Security changed the rules. A password must contain at least eight letters and two numbers or symbols. You must keep it secret and not store it on paper or anywhere in written form. You must change it for each different site or service you use, and update it from time to time. Or risk giving away your personal identity and financial details to the entire internet. Woe to any fool who uses the same password on more than one site! Hackers are lurking just behind your keyboard.

Despite the fear of having one’s bank details misappropriated, the French took quickly to shopping and other online transactions. As an avid consumer of English books and imported delicacies such as crunchy peanut butter, I for one rejoiced at the advent of Amazon and never looked back. While my compatriots wail about the death of the store, I have gotten to know all of the delivery people near and far: Chronopost, Colissimo, UPS…they all beat a path to my door. Sure beats schlepping multiple klicks to the nearest store only to find they don’t have what I want.

One of the reasons I shop on Amazon is that they never ask for my password. Any new vendor means you have to create an account, add payment details and learn another mot de passe.

Now we have a password for just about everything, including a code for the gate to enter our residence and the alarm that guards us against marauding intruders. For the phone, the internet, the TV, not yet for the toaster.

I have a secret system for my passwords. Obviously I cannot divulge it here, but it involves variations on a mnemonic theme. As my memory is far from perfect, my back-up is a rather low-tech file that lists all of my various logins and passwords. Hackers would have a field day if they found it.

Et toi? How do you manage all this password malarkey?