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.