customer service still sucks in this country

Nothing has changed since I arrived here three decades ago (that’s not really true, but it’s hot and I’m grumpy). We’re in the middle of a heatwave and people’s fuses are short. But still. Some days the customer service is so bad you want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over your head.

This evening after work I went to three different places, spent my hard-earned cash in each place, and received nothing but headache in return. And here’s another thing you notice in France: they never apologize. You’ll never hear “Toutes mes excuses, Madame“, “Sorry, that was my fault,” or “Apologies for the inconvenience.” Nope. Won’t happen, don’t even wait for it. With an aggrieved look, they’ll turn the story around and imply that it’s your fault.

I was brought up to believe that taking responsibility for your mistakes was a sign of maturity (and decency), not to mention professionalism.

First I went to the SNCF boutique to spend 80 euros on three train tickets: one for me for September 1st, and two for the kids who are coming to my place next weekend. My friend (their father) puts them on the train at Lille, and I greet them at the other end when they arrive an hour later at the Gare du Nord. Once you’ve purchased your tickets at the SNCF boutique, they email them to you. When I got home, I saw that the vendor had only emailed me the September 1st ticket and not the kids’ tickets. I need the kids’ tickets so I can forward them to their phones. I spent the rest of the evening sitting in front of my large fan (because of the heat, it’s 38°C/100°F) ringing the SNCF customer service phone number. You’re charged for the call, it’s not free. Each time I was put on hold for ten minutes before the line went dead. This means that I have to return to the SNCF boutique tomorrow or on Monday. (sigh)

I won’t bore you with the other two incidents. Needless to say, I got home at 8 pm dog-tired. Tired of the heat, tired of the French. Tired of this city.

Here’s a passage from my memoir, due out towards the end of the year –

What was wrong with these people? Not only did they not work, they complained constantly when they did work. And this brought me to a gripe that had seriously irked me since my arrival in France, a major gripe that could be summed up in two words: Customer Service.

Here’s what I wrote to my parents – “Those coming to France from hyper market-driven, service-oriented North America are in for a rude shock. Because the French, in their delusionary notions of grandeur, believe it is beneath them to serve.” And I recounted all the infuriating incidents I had experienced within the first months of my arrival.

The saleswoman at Galeries Lafayette department store who nearly stabbed me with the large and expensive kitchen knife I had just purchased, a German Henckels knife, as she threw it into a flimsy plastic bag and handed it to me. Incredulous, I stood before her and objected. “What? No box? No wrapping paper? Surely this is hazardous to be walking around with a large unprotected knife in a flimsy plastic bag.” If looks could kill. I swear she was ready to grab that shiny new knife out of the bag and drive it through my skull.

The surly supermarket cashiers who fling your groceries down the conveyer belt with Herculean force (Hey! Watch those eggs!) and lift not a finger to help as you struggle to do three things at once: open the flimsy plastic bags they also fling at you, shove the groceries inside, and pay with your bank card, all under the contemptuous eyes of the surly cashier and the cranky customers. “Would it kill you to smile?” I felt like shouting to the entire store, but didn’t. There’s that word again: kill.

The dry cleaner who ruined my favorite, not to mention expensive, silk blouse and insinuated that I was to blame because I hadn’t removed the buttons before handing it in. Remove the buttons … are you insane? When I refused to pay, he held my blouse hostage.

And the entire staff in the butcher shop that burst into laughter when a mouse skittered across the sawdusted floor and ran up my leg. OK, I admit I must have looked comical as I jumped up and down, shrieking, in an effort to expel the rodent. Clinging to the inside of my wide-legged trouser leg, the little critter managed to get as far as my knee. But no-one came to my aid or asked if I was alright. They just laughed. Furious, and with a final shake of my leg that ejected the mouse and had him somersaulting across the floor, I turned on my heel and stormed out.

“In my world the customer is revered,” I scribbled feverishly to my parents back in Toronto, “in France he is reviled.”

Every week at least one argument arose with a contemptuous salesclerk or waitperson. And here’s the thing: why was it that I never experienced such animosity back home or in other countries? Why was it that going to the dry cleaners, the post office or the supermarket back home was actually a pleasant experience involving friendly chats – giggles even – whereas in Paris the same activity was fraught with disdain and ill will? There were days when I felt I should don gladiator gear before leaving my apartment.

I hated them. It’s like they did everything possible to create a mood of tension and hostility.

“What’s their problem?” I’d complain to my French flat-mate, Olivier. “I follow the golden rules of etiquette. I say ‘Bonjour Madame’ or ‘Bonjour Monsieur’ when I enter their shop or before speaking to them. I don’t manhandle the merchandise or help myself to stuff on their shelves. My French might not be perfect and I speak with an accent, but surely they can see that I’m making an effort.”

And here’s what he said – “It’s true that in this country the French sometimes perceive service as servility.”

I just stared at him, an expression of incredulity on my face. Where would they get such a crazy idea?

§§§

A decade later France’s Ministry of Tourism launched a publicity campaign instructing the French to be more hospitable to foreigners. In a bid to transform the city’s reputation from being the rudest in the western hemisphere to the most welcoming, the Paris Tourist Board issued a ‘politeness manual’ to all those who worked in the service industry.

marvellous, magnificent memoirs!

I was thrilled to see this lengthy (very lengthy) list in today’s New York Times. It’s a selection of the most outstanding memoirs published since 1969. (Thank you, NYT!)

Looking for a good book to read? Consult this impressive and comprehensive list below.

Why read memoir? Because we’re human beings, and we’re naturally curious about other human beings.

It’s the closest we can get to living another person’s real story, and the closest we can get to walking a mile in another’s shoes.

A memoir is by far the best way to find out what it’s like to be someone else.

The word ‘memoir’ comes from the French, mémoire, which means memory/recollection/remembrance.

Here’s the list. Enjoy.

Lego land in Lille

I had gifts to distribute, so up I went to Lille last weekend. On the road again. The cloudscape that weekend was remarkable. I took photos from the train window.

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Re-united with my 7-year old godson. We went to our favorite spot for lunch, the Gare Saint Sauveur, with his sister. Then two hours in Lego Land.

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If only they could stay seven forever!

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“Go on, then,” I said to him, “Read the writing on the wall.” Which he did.

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Then we visited Europa House, which changes themes every few months. Here, it is a Mexican house.

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Then we went out back where a huge urban space has been transformed into a sort of playground for kids and adults alike. There’s a communal barbecue, small gardens planted by schoolkids, and games.

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Italian fashion, and the cult of the Italian male

Italian men are beautiful. This is what my travel companions and I concluded as we sat on café terraces, sipped Campari cocktails and watched (ogled?) the men as they passed by. We found Roman men, of all ages, to be quite tantalizing. This sounds and probably is sexist, but it’s the truth.

They’re everywhere, and they’re splendid-looking. Men standing in a cluster in a piazza. Men drinking espresso at the bar of a caffè. Men zipping down the Via del Corso on their sporty little scooters. Men engaged in, oh, all the things that cosmopolitan men do.

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Marcello Mastroianni

They’re also very stylishly dressed, oftentimes more than the women. Dotted around the city you’ll see a multitude of small shops dedicated to the dressing, grooming, accessorizing and beautifying of men: shirtmakers, shoemakers, suitmakers, barbers and the like. The cult of the male thrives in Italy. In public life it appears to be a patriarchal society. But in private life, it’s mama who rules!

As for me, I was in search of leather gloves. One day, as I was strolling up the Via dei Due Macelli on my way to Spagna metro station, I happened upon a marvellous glove shop called Catello d’Auria.

Displayed in glass cases and housed in over a hundred drawers were hand-made Italian gloves lined with cashmere, silk or wool. I was in glove heaven.

Here’s the lovely saleswoman who greeted and served me. I’m sorry, but you just don’t get smiles like this in Paris.

Placing a small velvet pillow on the countertop, she asked me to place my elbow on it (with my forearm pointing upwards.) Then she slipped a glove onto my hand. This is how she measures your glove size. These gloves below were my favorite, but I didn’t buy them. Looking at them here, I regret not buying them. A reason to return to Rome!

I ended up buying a plainer pair in an oxblood color.

Isn’t this the most beautiful flat sandal you’ve ever laid eyes on? I didn’t buy them, far too costly. But I did lust after them through the window. Oh, didn’t you know? I have a fetish for footwear.

I recommend visiting the upscale Rinascente department store on the via del Tritone at number 61. It’s like Le Bon Marché in Paris, Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman in NYC, and Harvey Nichols in London. The stunning, newly refurbished top floor is where the food hall and a number of restaurants are located.

Here’s a comment someone wrote on a travel website – “You might try the Food Hall on the top floor of the new La Rinascente flagship store on Via del Tritone. Some of the restaurants have good views and outdoor terraces. There’s also a large rooftop bar, one flight up, with great views. My recollection is that the restaurants aren’t outrageously expensive. There’s an express elevator to the Food Hall, but the store itself is an amazing piece of architecture that’s well worth visiting. Casual dress is perfectly OK, but I wouldn’t go looking too ragged.”

I’ve always found the Italians to be more stylish than the French. I found the center of Rome to be immaculately clean, far cleaner than Paris. Crossing streets at pedestrian crossings though can be dangerous. I risked my life trying to get to the Santa Prassede church, one of the best examples of Byzantine mosaics in Rome. Unfortunately, it was closed when I got there. I was unaware of the visiting hours, 7 am – 12:30 pm, 4 – 6:30 pm. Another reason to return to Rome!

A small museum recommendation is the Leonardo da Vinci museum that we visited, “a world of genius in the heart of Rome.”

I really enjoy visiting churches, especially the smaller, less known ones. A hidden gem, Santa Prassede is a 9th-century basilica with glorious Byzantine mosaics in the apse and filling a side chapel. There’s also a piece of the scourging column of Christ, brought over from Constantinople in the Middle Ages.

And that’s it, folks! Thanks for travelling with me.

Roman Holiday – Part 1

I’m an EasyJet member because the planes are new (Airbus), there’s lots of leg room, and I like their efficient service. For short-haul flights within Europe, I recommend EasyJet. The flight to Rome was about two hours, sunny all the way. During my entire time in Italy I had perfect weather: cool and sunny with a light breeze.

I loved Rome. Three days were not enough, I’ll have to go back and stay longer. I had been to Rome before, but a long time ago. I met up with an office colleague and her friend, so we were three women. They were in another hotel in the Trastevere district. I was more central in a charming, small, family-run hotel called the Hotel Fontanella Borghese. I recommend it and will go back because of the district, its central location, the nice rooms and the helpful staff. (more about the seagulls later …)

TREVI FOUNTAIN

We had wanted to avoid this site because we had heard it was overwhelmed with tourists. By mistake we ended up here. This is where Federico Fellini, back in the 60s, filmed La Dolca Vita in which Marcello Mastroianni cavorted with Anita Ekberg in the fountain.

Handbag heaven

Looking to buy a handbag? You’re in the right place. Italy is handbag heaven. I bought two inexpensive ones. But not an Orciani one … too expensive!

This is the post office. It looks like a museum.

So late one afternoon I was strolling down the Via Della Scrofa on my own (a few minutes away from my hotel), when I passed a restaurant called Alfredo. A simple enough name. I kept on walking. But then I saw a plaque on the wall that said this: see below.

And an overwhelming sense of déjà vu passed through me, so strong that I nearly shuddered. Suddenly I was a child again, sitting in this exact restaurant with my mother, my father and my sister eating fettuccine. I remembered the scene perfectly: the smiling, platter-carrying waiters, the white-clothed tables in a long line, noise and bustle and a party-like atmosphere, and my father speaking Italian with the waiters. I realized that I had eaten in this restaurant when I was 12 years old.

My parents took me and my sister to Italy when we were kids. It was magical. We visited Milan, Florence, Rome and Santa Margherita, a small town on the Ligurian coast. I learned how to make fettuccine Alfredo, and when we returned to Toronto I’d make it at home using lots of cream, butter, pepper and grated parmesan.

I approached the restaurant and saw that it was closed (it was around 5 pm), but there were a few staff members smoking on the sidewalk. I had to see the inside of the place. I told them that I had been a girl – una ragazza – when I ate here, twelve years old – dodici anni – and could I please see the inside. They let me in … it’s completely unchanged; I remember so well those long rows of clothed tables. It was a moving experience, and after taking a few photos I walked away feeling exalted but kind of sad at the same time.

Gelato rhapsody

Oh, my. Never have I seen so many people eating so much ice cream. But this isn’t ordinary ice cream, this is Italian gelato and in some select emporiums they’ve taken the choice, flavors and quality to new heights. In the evening especially everyone eats gelato, all ages, either sitting or strolling.

Pastries are also sold in the gelato shops.

A few random photos taken in Rome:

Now about those gulls: my hotel room was high up and overlooking the rooftops of the city. As I lay in my bed with the window open, I heard the oddest sound: a piercing, screeching, chuckling, gurgling noise (all at the same time.) It turned out to be huge gulls who have invaded the city in search of food. They are apparently quite aggressive. Capable of stealing food right out of your hand, they circle the city and swoop down onto garbage bags, street litter, and have even been known to fly into people’s homes and eat food straight from their kitchens. When I mentioned their strange sound to the woman at the reception desk, she said it sounds like they’re killing babies.

Next and final post: Rome fashions, men and women.

eating my way through Lecce

You’d think that with all the walking, bag-carrying and climbing of stairs during my eleven days in Italy, I would have lost a few pounds; but no, that was not the case. The food (and drink) was far too good, and I wanted to taste it all. Above is the Aperol spritz that everyone’s drinking, a blend of Prosecco and Aperol. Below is a Campari Spritz. Aperol is 11% alcohol content and Campari 24%, so I tended to stick to the Aperol.

I found two excellent pizzerias in the Old Town of Lecce. Here’s the first one.

And this one, more authentic in my opinion, that sells by weight. The other one sells by the slice. In both places the pizza crust is superb and made from organic Italian 00 wheat flour. This place is called PIZZA AL TAGLIO.

To be eaten sitting on the bench directly across the narrow street. The simple life.

In another shop, freshly-squeezed orange juice. And below that, fresh coconut slices.

That’s a lot of plastic, I’ve just noticed.

After enjoying my pizza, I’d go for gelati.

Around 4 pm, I’d go into a café, stand at the counter and drink an espresso and eat a slice of cake. I could get used to this life! Except that I’d become very fat.

I found a brilliant café near my hotel. I went every single morning for breakfast. As I entered, this glistening espresso machine greeted me, as did the friendly baristas behind the counter. Italian coffee in all its delicious variations is my idea of heaven.

I find Italians to be infinitely more stylish than the French; in all forms, especially design and décor. The café is called the 300mila Lounge and it’s to be found at Via Reggimento Fanteria, 11. 

Here are some random street photos of the small city of Lecce (in the Old Town):

Final post to come: Rome.

Polignano a Mare (Puglia, Italy)

I fell in love with this town five years ago. Perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea, it was the perfect escape from crowded polluted Paris.

I’d stand on this promontory and breathe in deep gulps of clean air. There was always a cool wind blowing in from Croatia, Albania and Greece beyond. I loved the color of the sea: deep Adriatic blue.

An afternoon slice of cheesecake and caffè in ghiaccio con latte di mandorla, a blend of almond milk, almond syrup and espresso poured over ice cubes.

I was touched by the gesture of this mother and daughter, madre e figlia, holding hands in a supermarket. Family is tight in Italy, especially in the south.

As I was crossing a town square, a woman whose hair bounced and shone in the sunlight was walking in front of me. I loved the color. I wanted my hair to look like that. I stopped and complimented her, then asked where she got her hair done. She gave me the name and address of the salon.

Lovely people. The further south you go, the more expansive and outgoing they are. There’s an exuberance in Italy that appeals to me greatly. On my last day, I went to this rooftop bar, ordered myself a glass of Prosecco, and sat contemplating the sea.

For me, Polignano is a cleansing place.

Arrivederci! I’ll be back.

Two more posts to come: Lecce and Rome.