Are you being served?

In terms of customer service culture, the UK is somewhere mid- Atlantic. In the US, chirpy shop assistants introduce themselves to you as soon as you cross the threshold and then accompany you to the changing rooms where they declare you to look fabulous in everything. This sort of help either propels me straight out of the door, or leads me to make a series of regrettable purchases, all the time suspecting that the efforts of the beaming member of staff are intended only to speed my exit from the shop so that the other customers no longer have to do their shopping alongside my English stumpiness; my frizzy hair; or my impending middle-age. This same misgiving compels me to leave a trail of wildly excessive tips wherever I go as compensation for the misery I have caused.

In France, tipping is abnormal, sometimes even insulting, and it is perhaps because of this lack of personal incentive that frivolous notions of customer service have not yet penetrated very far into the hexagon. As with all sweeping generalisations, there are some glorious exceptions to this rule. The stall-holders at my local market, for example, could give seminars on customer relations. Each week, I am greeted with a bonjour, chère madame; am given various delicate morsels to taste; and am treated to insider tales about the greengrocer’s honeymoon. Tant mieux, quite frankly, as the warmth of their welcome gives me just enough of the resolve I need to get through my other commercial transactions.

For example: French waiters are well known for their difficulty in condescending to serve anybody.  Venture into the centre of Lyon to eat and you risk starvation in the yawning interval before anyone deigns to take your order. Then, from the moment that your apéro is slammed charmlessly in front of you, you can expect to have to bolt your food to keep up with the pace of the kitchen and to resort to crawling unseen across the floor to the wine bucket in order to refresh your drinks without receiving a sharp reprimand from the same waitress who has hitherto ignored your empty glasses.

At least the international reputation of French waiters prepared me for them before I arrived. I was more taken aback, however, by the supermarket cashiers, who seemed to think that they were competitors in some new Olympic sport entitled “speed swiping”, and who took pride in fast-tracking all my items through their till before glaring callously at me as I failed to keep pace when packing my bags. On the first few of these occasions I looked around me, hoping to catch the sympathetic eye of one of the other customers, but discovered to my incredulity that they appeared to share in the disdain for my plight. In retrospect I think my problem was that I needed approval during these episodes, whereas other customers packed their bags as steadily as they liked, caring not a jot about the withering stares of the cashier or the angry queues mounting behind them.

The supermarket is, arguably, not the place where any sane person should go for a burst of joy in any country. The same cannot be said, however, for the boulangerie, the essence of which is pleasure. It was therefore a shock to me when, during my first visit to the very good example in our village, I asked for deux baguettes épis and, after a pained wince from the lady behind the counter, was offered first trois croissants, then un sandwich au jambon et fromage and finally an enormous tarte aux abricots (I will leave you to judge whether, even with my deplorable accent, any of these items could have been a reasonable interpretation of my request). Meanwhile those waiting behind me neither flew to my rescue nor laughed contemptuously but studied the air in front of them with practised indifference. I am sure that, having eventually made myself understood and staggered out, they could cheerfully have used my two baguettes to knock some decent French into me, but to their credit they did not show it.

It should not be assumed, either, that shop staff have the business interests of their employer at heart. When some friends visited soon after we had moved to France, I took advantage of the Sunday morning opening of a well-known department store to facilitate a shopping spree. One of my friends started on the second floor, selected a few items, then moved to the ground floor to select a few more. Having found everything that she wanted, she proceeded to the cash till. It was by then 12.45, and the shop was due to close at 13.00. The shop assistant served the person ahead with a slowness bordering on insolence, so that it was nearly 12.50 by the time that we got to the desk. My friend began to empty her basket but was pulled short when, with a baleful stare, the assistant produced a sign announcing that the till was now closed. Feeling the reputation of my chosen city to be at stake, I attempted to remonstrate on the basis that there were still ten minutes to go until closing time. This met with a shrug. Panicked, we then raced back to the higher floors, which, ten minutes earlier had been bristling with tills. They were now all empty. Dismayed and humiliated we were forced to abandon the basket and were virtually slow-clapped out of the door by the one sullen employee who still remained on the premises.

So it is that I have discovered something that I miss about London: customer service that is neither particularly warm nor particularly hostile. A very British compromise.

Men at work

Coming as I do from middle-class London, where wealthy families living in shoeboxes will do anything to gain a bit of extra space, I am accustomed to building work. I am also accustomed to the rules that accompany such building work there. If you want, for example, to convert your basement, you have to seek the consent of your neighbours to do so. If the work you have already embarked upon will have a specific impact on your neighbours, due notice has to be given and necessary compensation arrangements made. If the work will require road closure or any disruption to services, notices are emblazoned over every available surface for months in advance. If the work will be dangerous, hard hats and hob-nailed boots must worn by all personnel. If you are the person having the building work done, this is tedious. If you are on the receiving end of it, at least these formalities give you a good excuse to grumble over a cup of tea with the neighbours on the other side.

None of this equipped me well for living in France, where, for a country so obsessed by form-filling, there is remarkably little bureaucracy involved in building work. So it was that, a couple of months into the tenancy of our house, I leaned out the window one morning to open my shutters and observed that a large number of vans and heavy-duty vehicles had gathered around the property opposite. My interest piqued, I did what any self-respecting British person would do, and withdrew to gawp at the proceedings unseen from a different window. Over the course of the coming day, the entire house opposite was pulled down. Despite the continuing presence in the street of a flotilla of lorries, this work seemed to be accomplished entirely by one man and his companion, who drove a sort of miniature wrecking vehicle. At no point did either man don any sort of protective headgear. I was fascinated by this somewhat blasé attitude to demolition.

Over the coming months, my fascination has turned to fury at various points since it has transpired that the demolition of the old house opposite was intended to make way for the construction of two new properties behind it. New properties require water, electricity and gas, not to mention high speed broadband. To provide these essential services, it has been necessary to dig up the road outside the house where we live on no fewer than fifteen separate occasions. On one of these occasions, which lasted for a full three weeks, a tatty piece of A4 went up opposite one day in advance telling us that something mysterious was afoot. Otherwise, the first we have known about this work has tended to be the throbbing of the pneumatic drill, which presumably adheres to some quaint French law stating that pneumatic drilling can only be done at 7 in the morning and then only if it is outside someone’s bedroom window. The drilling goes on until the workmen’s two-hour lunch break, during which the hole that has been drilled is covered over with a treacherous looking metal sheet that clanks ominously every time someone drives over it. After the lunch break there is some fiddling around and then the steam roller starts up.

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It’s not just the noise. These holes, which usually have about the same dimensions as a portaloo, are dug without any attempt to close the relatively busy single lane road on which we live. Consequently, cars start to build up whilst the workmen drill until, after an interval, with exaggerated patience, they put down the metal sheet and guide the queue of cars, by now usually honking wildly outside our kitchen window, carefully over the top of the hole. Once the queue has subsided the whole process begins again. Apart from the fact that it makes them cross enough to beep their horns, I don’t really care about the discomfort of these other motorists, but I care quite a lot when the hole has been dug directly in front of the gate by which we have to leave and enter our house in the car. On such occasions, I sit there at the steering wheel, gates opened, fury barely contained under a very English grimace, and watch the workmen shrug gallically at me for a while before eventually one of them caves in and places the metal sheet over the hole, guiding me over or round it in a manner that is reminiscent of the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle.

Just today, in fact, I settled down at the computer to work for a few hours, the children having been despatched to their holiday clubs, and noticed that the battery was running low. No sooner had I plugged it in than there was a sad deflating noise and the fridge stopped whirring, the lights went off, and the computer beeped to say that it was no longer being charged. I went to check the fuse box. All was well there. I stuck my head out of our front gate. A small congregation of people was clustering at the foot of the drive leading to the construction site opposite. I joined them. What was going on? Apparently it was a coupure caused by the travaux en haut. Enraged, I stomped up to see the only man on the worksite fool enough to show his face and asked him about the coupure. He shrugged: c’était prevu. I launched into my tirade (there is nothing like a bit of anger to make the French flow): planned by whom; notified to whom; for how long, etc. etc. He shrugged again and walked off.

After that stereotypically Gallic reception I stomped back to the cluster of my neighbours, who were all shrugging too, and treated them to an impassioned statement of my latest stance: France needs more paperwork.

Elbows off the table!

On our daughters’ first daunting day of French school, we were not reassured at the sight of parents swooping past the school in a variety of large vehicles, then opening the car doors and hurling various small offspring and their enormous cartables out into the middle of the road before speeding off without so much as a backward glance. I have to admit that I have rather lost track of whether French Children Don’t Throw Food or not, such has been the fierceness of the polarised debate on French versus “Anglo-Saxon” methods of child-rearing since Pamela Druckerman’s book first came out in 2012. However, on that first day of school it seemed that the British stereotype of French parenting was justified: ejecting children from cars and telling them to tais-toi whenever they said anything even slightly irritating were characteristics broadly indicative of an unsentimental, even callous, approach to parenting.

Living in France, you have no choice but to welcome a vast number of French habits into your family life. It is, for example, futile to resist the insinuation of a cheese course into every meal from the day on which your child first comes home from the school cantine and requests some 30-month-aged comté, or a piece of St Marcellin before they will even consider eating a crème caramel. Similarly, we fairly swiftly adapted to a French family timetable. This dictates that breakfast (comprised mostly of sugary cereal soaked in a large bowl of coffee) is eaten before work and school; lunch is eaten at no later than midday and lasts for at least an hour; anyone under the age of 6 is expected to sleep for at least an hour after lunch; a sizeable goûter is eaten after school at 16h30 (my fervent belief is that, if you do the school run, you are just as entitled as your children to eating an entire slab of chocolate wrapped up in a baguette at this time); dinner is eaten as a family once the baguette-winner gets in (by 19h, of course); and bedtime for the children is any time from 20h onwards.

Having followed this gruelling regime for over a year now, I can report that, without ever having resorted to la fessée (spanking), we have noticed some pleasant changes. Our childrens’ table manners have improved, for one: our oldest daughter no longer gnaws at her food with her mouth open like some small ape; they can both use a knife and fork correctly; and we are frequently upbraided by both children for not having provided napkins with every place setting. Following a visit by one school friend who thought that everything we did, including our provision of melamine plates for the kids, was drôlement anglais, the children now have glass glasses and china plates. Yet the biggest change is not in the girls, but in us. Instead of watching in passive horror as they smear tomato ketchup over the largest possible surface area, we find ourselves roaring with laughter at the conversations we have with them, lingering at the table because we are actually enjoying their company, instead of counting the seconds until they go to bed.

Has this happened because we have adopted unsentimental French parenting techniques? Well no. It’s all about the rhythm of life here. It seems to me that our life in London was designed in order to enable us to avoid contact with our children as much as possible. For all the cult-like adherence in the UK to attachment parenting, co-sleeping, breast-feeding until the child reaches its majority, sling-wearing and baby-led weaning, it strikes me that the stereotypical UK parent really doesn’t enjoy their children that much. All that self-immolation is rather wearing, so English families still feed their offspring tea at 5.30 and pack them off to bed as early as possible so that the parents can finally “get on with their lives” and relax. Here in France, children are an integral part of family life: they eat with their parents and they participate in the conversation. Life does not stop when they are around, nor start when they are not. Because they are part of our lives, they demand less special treatment in theirs (who knew that all it would take would be a daily dose of boeuf bourguignon to bring about the much-longed for death knell for interminable games of hide-and-seek?).

Whether or not French parents show their children who is the chef, and whether or not French children wish all adults a polite bonjour, there is something to be said for the positive impact that the French way of life has on family existence, and begrudgingly I have found myself admiring the French way. That said, it will be a long time before you catch me doing the school run in a pair of leather trousers.

Beep beep

When I was a child, I was driven down France each summer holiday. From the back seat I had little comment to make about the quality of French driving, but occasionally my father would cause general mortification amongst his children when, in response to some particularly egregious example of continental motoring, he would wind down the window and roar “you stupid French wally” at the hapless owner of the offending vehicle.

It is perhaps because of these childhood experiences that I am predisposed to feeling a mixture of contempt and shame whenever I find myself driving in this country. This discomfort has not been alleviated by the tendency of many French drivers to rest their left elbows on their car horns. No sooner have I begun to relax behind the wheel than a car horn will blare and I sit bolt upright, checking my rear view mirrors in a frenzied attempt to locate the source of the noise and desperately reflecting on which of my many driving failures could have occasioned such a loud and public reprimand. The rest of my drive is invariably conducted in a state of nervous bafflement.

This problem was at its very worst when we first arrived in Lyon, still driving our conspicuously British car. Not only did entire families of pedestrians turn to gawp at us as we puttered past, but word had clearly got out that some sport could be had in beeping at the foreigners who had materialised on the mean streets of our village. We were papped almost every day, in the act of waiting at junctions, of turning left, and, most frequently, in turning into the gates of our house, where we risked being beeped at by several cars at once for the heinous crime of going home. At first we were cowed by this apparent criticism of our earnest attempts to manoeuvre our car through a tight gap without depriving it of a wing mirror or adorning its bodywork with a large cavity. However, after about two weeks of feeling insulted and cowed behind the wheel we adapted to local custom and started to reduce our speed to the point of insolence with every fresh beep, and to gesticulate and swear with abandon at those daring to pap us.

Since that time we have become the proud owners of no less than two strikingly Gallic vehicles (a Peugeot and a Citroen) and we are beeped far less frequently. Coming, however, as we do, from a country where the car horn is used almost solely to alert others to danger, and conforming, as we try to do, to every single letter of the Highway Code, being beeped at all is difficult to accept. In an attempt to lessen bruising to my ego, I have decided to get to grips with the causes of my humiliation by conducting a study of the psychology of beeping in and around Lyon.

My first discovery has been that car horns are most commonly used to compensate for the deficiencies of French traffic lights, which, unlike their UK counterparts, are frequently placed to the side of the waiting car (rather than ahead of it) and are thus rendered invisible to the driver of that car in the event of even the slightest overshoot of the junction. This flaw, combined with the lack of a red-and-amber signal to prepare waiting traffic for the arrival of a green light, means that French drivers have to resort to beeping their horns to let the car at the head of the queue know that it is permitted to go. Rather than wait to see whether the car at the head of the queue is in need of any such prompt, many drivers pap their horns pre-emptively.

I have also discovered that car horns serve as a useful alert when drivers are in the process of breaking the speed limit. It is a means of announcing to pedestrians and fellow motorists that the transgressor is coming down the road far too fast but that, nonetheless, they do not wish to kill anybody, thereby allowing potential victims to leap out of the way. Car horns are thus the ethical face of speeding. On our stretch of road, this tactic has the added bonus of serving as an occasional alarm clock during the night.

My third observation has been that car horns substitute nicely for conversation in heavy traffic. So it is that when one finds oneself in the middle of a tedious standstill on the motorway, it is possible to complain about it with fellow drivers without ever leaving the comfort of one’s own car. One car will beep “oh merde, zis embouteillage is insupportable”. To this a car two rows back will respond, “mais oui, my wife, she is waiting chez moi with a tasty coq au vin”. A furious red number further up in the queue will interject with a loud pap that translates as “you back zere have seen nuzzin yet: I have been in zis abomination for trois whole minutes now”. In this way, much like the accordion, the car horns which at first sounded like a terrible cacophony to English ears take on a sort of rustic charm and help you to pass the time. I think that even I could learn to like them.

Get serious

Our oldest child is learning the piano. In the UK this means that, in common with millions of other children, she has an extra-curricular activity. Here in France, despite the fact that she is currently thumping out little ditties about ghosts, she is a pianiste. By dint of having attended a French school for a year whilst living in an anglophone household, she also has the good fortune to be bilingual. In London this would have made her the object of some sharp-elbowed envy. Here in France, only last week I heard her being described rather portentously as a linguiste. She is also très littéraire because she once scaled the incredible heights of learning to read at the usual age for learning to read in England. And, whilst I’m in this boastful mood, I should point out that she is also a danseuse and a nageuse. In other words, whilst in England she is virtually indistinguishable from all middle-class children her age, here in France she has a number of outstanding and defining talents.

I am giving our daughter as an example but, since moving to France, I have discovered that she is a mere offshoot of an enormously talented family tree. Our youngest daughter is also a linguiste and a nageuse of some renown, and I am informed that, at the tender age of four, just because she goes to school like all English children of her age, she is très scolaire. She is shortly to become a skieuse (see picture). My husband is beginning to make a reputation as a personne douée pour les langues (well, he gets mistaken for a Belgian when speaking French, which is progress), and has been for some time highly esteemed as an ingénieur (how lovely to be given such a title without ever having gone anywhere near an engineering qualification). Presumably all hell will break loose once he finally cracks open the lycra drawer and reveals his identity as a cycliste. Not wishing to hide my own light under a bushel, I shall modestly point out that my amateur ‘cello playing has here transformed me into a violoncelliste. I am also très littéraire; have made inroads in my mission to become an auteur; and am currently doing nothing with my burgeoning career as a chanteuse. In London we all had hobbies: in short we dabbled. In Lyon everything suddenly looks more serious.

Whilst we might enjoy basking in our own self-importance from time to time, our recent meteoric promotions do have their drawbacks. When we were fresh off the plane, we naïvely cast around for a piano teacher for our daughter who could take over from the previous incumbent of that role. We did all the things that urban people accustomed to giving their children lessons in Tai Chi from the age of one week would do in such a situation: we searched the internet and we asked about. We were swiftly rewarded with the information that there was a conservatoire de musique in the very village where we had decided to live. Hooray. We found the contact details for the directrice of this establishment and e-mailed her (tongue protruding from mouth whilst concentrating on our best polite French). Job done…

… or not. Dabbling in anything, from Tai Chi to piano to cookery to eating cheese, is not a French pastime. No: one starts at the beginning and one follows the parcours and hop, ten years later, one is an expert in one’s field. It is presumably for this reason that children in France are not permitted to touch a musical instrument until they have spent at least a year doing solfège (music theory for a nation of people obsessed with Do, a deer, a female deer…). Had our daughter done her basic solfège we were asked. No, we replied. Well then, it would be quite impossible for her to begin the piano (even though she had already begun it some time ago) until she had done her solfège like everyone else in the nation. We pleaded. We even attended a very lengthy and excruciating concert in which we listened to other people’s children scratching away on the open strings of a charming selection of untuned violins. Given these concessions and the fact that our daughter had already had some lessons, could an exception be made in her case? Well, frankly, non, because it was impossible for anyone to learn a musical instrument without having first done some mind-numbing, intensely off-putting music theory. Embarking on anything outside school hours is somewhat daunting for young people here: there can be none of this thumping around in a tutu in an elephantine manner whilst proud parents make nauseating films that they will later post on Facebook. If you want to do something, you do it properly. That will involve homework. It will not often involve fun.

We are used to this now. We have our ways of circumventing the regulations when it suits us (we found a non-native piano teacher, for example) but we play along like everyone else for the rest of the time. That way we can collect an increasing number of important-sounding titles and gongs which we can cunningly insert into our CVs if we ever return to the UK. Who knows where that could lead? We might find that we can resign our day jobs in order to top the bill at the Albert Hall with all our hitherto untapped talent.

Stick ’em up

Perhaps because of the places we frequented, my gender, bearing, or the colour of my skin, in all my twelve years in London, I was never stopped by the police, far less asked to produce any papers or searched. Neither did I ever witness it happening to anyone else. Although statistics told me that stop and searches were on the increase in the UK, if I thought about it at all, the concept seemed to me at once outlandish and outrageous to me.

I have been in France for a year, and so far I have been stopped by the police three times. In a way it would be comforting to suppose that this was down to my being English, but on none of these occasions have I opened my mouth before I was stopped (and my wardrobe, whilst not yet running to a pair of leather trousers for the purposes of the school run, no longer screams ANGLO-SAXON either). I have racked my brains but there are no other obvious justifications for this having happened. On none of these occasions was I behaving at all suspiciously. The village where we live may not be Chipping Norton, but it is about as smart as it gets just outside Lyon, and is certainly not a hotbed of crime or dissent. And yes, my most recent stoppage occurred about a fortnight after the terror attacks in Paris, but the same could not be said for the two previous occasions.

The last occasion went something like this: it was half past five and I was driving the children home from their swimming lesson in our tiny red Citroën when my attention was caught by two men in fluorescent jackets, standing in my lane and gesticulating for me to pull over. I began to panic. Undoubtedly I had been careering slightly as I was driving, having been distracted by the usual 101 questions emanating from the back of the car and by the need to swerve periodically to avoid the usual obstacles in any French road (pedestrians, aggressive motorists, potholes). It was possible that I had nudged myself over the 50km per hour speed limit in the confusion, but I did not think so. Or perhaps one of our lights was not working correctly? I was supposed to carry a spare bulb in the car at all times. I began to tremble slightly as I slowed the car to an absurd crawl and pulled into a side road.

I wound down the window as one of the yellow-jacked men strode up, importantly. It was only at this moment that I saw the gendarmes van and a third man, this one in black uniform, wearing a flak jacket and carrying a large, rectangular gun. The questions from the back multiplied (it is not very reassuring to be on the receiving end of questions about whether or not you will be shot by the scary soldier if you have been going too fast). Tension mounted.

It turns out, of course, that it was a spot check. They wanted to see my driving licence, my car insurance documents and my carte grise (this is a compulsory document which shows the ownership of the car). All of these things should have been very simple to produce but, being British and therefore slightly allergic to the idea of carrying myriad baffling papers with me at all times, I floundered. It just so happened that this was the one occasion on which I had left my purse at home, and so I did not have my driving licence. As for the insurance documents and carte grise, they were in a pocket of the car, but in my panic I failed to locate them. Not being able to produce these documents carried it a 50 Euro on-the-spot fine, the gendarme informed me: without them how could I prove who I was, where I lived, that I could drive, and that I had not stolen the car? What was there to stop them from throwing me into prison if they could not determine my identity? We trembled collectively in the car.

Eventually, doubtless feeling sorry for me with my clueless English accent, Mr yellow-jacket sent me home to bring back the missing documents immediately. I duly drove back cautiously (in case they were watching) and scampered about the find the necessary papers, before returning to the scene of my misdemeanour. The gendarmes having inspected the documents thoroughly (my UK driving licence caused a bit of excitement, and even the man with the gun came over to baffle over it), I was released to go home, unfined and ultimately more cross than shaken.

I should not have been surprised, now that I think about it. As previously noted, the French do love a mound of papers in any context, and I was undoubtedly naïve to suppose that the question of one’s identity was any different in this respect. In France, you can be as scintillating as you like, but really, without your piece d’identité, driving licence, carte grise, justificatif du domicile, carte vitale, and even, on a bus, your titre, you are either nobody, or worse, even as you transport your children home from swimming, you are a threat to the security of the nation. It is a probably a useful lesson in humility to realise that as a person I can be never be as important as the sum of my paperwork, though it was a lesson the French state might have been able to teach me (and my children) without the aid of a machine gun.