Knowing me, knowing you

The internet was a God-send for the Brits. It revolutionised daily life. Instead of having to telephone the people who, for example, supplied our utilities, we discovered that we were able to use online booking forms; type in the feedback that we would never have dared to deliver in person; and fire off e-mails to our lettings agent during coffee breaks. Thus, at a stroke, IT released us from the minefield that is conversation with people we don’t know well, and made us appear ten times more modern and efficient.

Despite boasting that it invented the bizarre precursor to the world-wide-web that is Minitel, France drags its heels when confronted with the internet revolution. It is slowly becoming possible to book things via the internet, but, even so, the entire system is still designed to ensure that you have to come face-to-face with a real person at some point. I always feel my heart sink when I click the button to “book” that ticket, only to discover that I have to print out the confirmation screen and take it to a human being, who will give me the ticket in person.

computer says no

E-mail is also surprisingly rare outside the world of work. Much to my burning shame, having registered as self-employed under the French system, I recently fell victim to a classic scam. An insurance broker cold-called me and somehow managed to convince me that, against my will, he was obliged to visit me at home. To cut a long story short, my execrable French, my sense of exhaustion, my British politeness, and my desire to get this person out of my house all combined in toxic fashion to compel me to sign a document, which, it later turned out, was a contract committing me to extortionate and unnecessary insurance payments for the period of a year.

When confronted with the magnitude of my error, my first thought was to send a brief but firm e-mail both to the broker and the insurance company, politely explaining what had happened and requesting a cancellation. In the UK, whether or not the insurance company eventually rolled over, this would have triggered an e-mail correspondence, possibly escalating to an exchange of paper letters (oo-er).

In France, the response came in the form of an aggressive telephone call from the broker. Sensing that I wanted to rob him of his commission, he went on for hours, getting progressively ruder and more bullying, and talking to me as if I were an idiot child, doubtless because of my mangled pronunciation of key words intended to convey both my intellect and indignation.

When I got off the telephone I was shaking. Shameful though it is to admit, I could only in part attribute the shaking to the broker’s aggression and the frustrations of operating in a second language. What had upset me far more than either of these things was the fact that the man had responded to my e-mail by picking up the telephone. This was clearly not how things should be done. If I didn’t want to talk to anyone in person, I should not have to do so, should I?

There is, of course, an endearing side to the French insistence on direct contact. Take buying a house, for example. In the UK, a buyer may never meet the seller of a property, and quite often they will not meet the conveyancer who acts on their behalf. Identification, enquiries, contracts, signatures: all of this is done by e-mail and letter, with perhaps one short telephone call at some point.

In France, the entire process of buying a house relies on face-to-face contact. At the heart of the transaction are two lengthy meetings, for which buyers, sellers, estate agents and notaires for both sides gather together to read through the contract of sale, line-by-line, lingering fondly over such details as the salary of the buyer and the wedding contract of the seller. If you want to negotiate a reduction in price, there is no chance of doing so cruelly, by e-mail, at the eleventh hour. Oh no: you would have to look the seller in the eye and give it to them straight (so as a Brit, you have no chance).

Neither, in the first instance, can you recruit your agent or your notaire via your desktop. Such people still have a very limited online presence in France and often you will find that the details on their websites, if they exist, are out of date. No, the only feasible way to proceed is for you to ask around. You will be given recommendations and will soon realise that everyone involved in the purchase is connected to you in some way: it will be your friend who brokers your mortgage; your neighbour who is the agent; a parent from your child’s class who acts as your notaire; and a string of friends of friends who commit to doing renovations on the property once you have bought it.

house

Once the transaction is completed, these people will not pass out of your lives. You will invite the notaire and his family round for lunch; the agent will knock on your window as she walks past, and pop in for a cup of coffee in your new home; and the seller of your house will call round with Christmas presents for your children. It may even come to pass that other parents at the school gate know more about how the transaction is proceeding than you do at any given moment.

Though, doubtless, this approach has its disadvantages (imagine, for example, cringing during a meeting with a builder to discuss replacing a beetroot bathroom suite in your new home in front of the existing owners who lovingly installed that very same suite), they are wholly outweighed by the sense of belonging that it engenders. By the time that you sign on the dotted line, you will have acquired not only somewhere to live, but also a fresh supply of people whom you can invite round to amuse yourself with their reaction to such British delicacies as toast and marmite, mince pies, and tea (brewed in the pot) with milk.

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If you enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share it with someone that you know…

For information on the house-buying process in France, see here if you live in France: http://www.expatica.com/fr/housing/buying

and consult those in charge if you live in the UK: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-buy-property-in-france

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This week I am lucky enough to be featured in the #newbieshowcase as part of #PoCoLo : http://www.morganprince.com/2016/01/post-comment-love-newbie-showcase-15th-17th-january-2016.html Why not visit Morgan’s blog and have a look at all the other blog posts in the linky?

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18 thoughts on “Knowing me, knowing you

  1. I never realised before that online communication is not really done in France – although I have ended up having to negotiate on the telephone about information sent via email when on holiday in France which makes more sense now having read your post. Hope you managed to get out of that insurance contract though – sounds like it was all a bit of a nightmare. Lovely to discover your blog too through #PoCoLo and look forward to reading more of it 🙂

    1. Thank you – I have really appreciated this linky, and the new blogs it has introduced me to. No news on the insurance broker yet – he was very quick to get his pointed toe inside the door, and really rather slow about getting into reverse gear…

  2. I am CONSTANTLY frustrated on how little you can do here by Internet!! America and the U.K. aren’t that different in the respect that most of what we do today is done via the Internet, but I am still shocked by how far behind France is on the Internet revolution, and how much easier things would be if they simply embraced the modern world just a teensy bit more from time to time…anyway good luck with the new home!!

    -Dawn

    1. Thanks Dawn. Yes, it doesn’t get any easier does it, when you turn on your screen, poised to book something online, and come up against a site that has not been updated since 2008…

  3. Wow! That all sounds so complex in a world that is now so reliant on technology and it makes me realise how much easier we have it now (in some ways!). That insurance guy sounds extremely rude! x #PoCoLo

    1. Hello! Thank you for dropping by (and for starting the fabulous linky). I think that I probably made the world even more complicated than it needed to be by not just saying NO and slamming the door. I have been rehearsing doing this for next time…

  4. I hope you managed to sort out the situation with the insurance broker – what a terrible experience. Maybe the new supply of people to entertain will lead to some fabulous friends… fingers crossed x

    1. Thank you for stopping by! Yes, the insurance broker made me realise that it’s not just the vulnerable elderly who can get caught by such traps. I am not yet sure of the outcome, but I am pursuing it in my own British way… by letter. And yes, thank you, lots of lovely people encountered through the linky.

  5. I would like to be more comfortable with confrontation and I think my lack of experience with it comes from the British habit of hiding behind paper. Last year I was at a car hire reception and a dashing French man was apoplectic with rage, although I was in a rush I triedto Iet him go first because it was clearly very urgent but the manager informed me his manner was actually very minor he just had a lot to say about it! #PoCoLo

    1. Thank you for visiting! Ha! Yes, I am exactly the same. I see a person waving their arms around and shouting and back down. Sometimes this earns me points for being polite, but sometimes I just get stuck at the back of a queue…

  6. You’re right we Brits can be a lot braver and outspoken in an email and far more than we would be face to face when politeness kicks in. In France, I’ve noticed there is a way to do things even in the shops, you must say hello first and so on and then ask for the loaf of bread you came in for. Here it’d never cross our minds to say hello to anyone! I hope you get the insurance thing sorted out, thank you for being our #newbieshowcase and linking up to #PoCoLo. Hope you’ve found new blogs to read, made new connections on social media and had new visitors to your blog 🙂

  7. I was amazed at the amount of contact between buyer and seller the first time I bought property in France and couldn’t stop saying that irritating thing “it’s not like this in England” to my poor French husband. Now, several transactions and many years later it’s become normal for me but I do agree with you that it’s so frustrating to have to end up talking to someone at the end of any online procedure. It is getting better, I can now pay the school canteen bills online (!) but it’s frustratingly slow. Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance

    1. Thank you for dropping by. Actually, I was pleasantly surprised by the house transaction – it can solve a lot of hiccups to all meet up (though it is a bit strange to have to tell the world your salary).

  8. And things that you have to do in person become a pain too when the bank is always closed for lunch (when you have time to go) or on Saturday afternoon (again when you have time to go). Even getting a prescription renewal at the doctor requires an actual appointment most of the time or at the very least a phone call and or visit to pick up the damn piece of paper! Oh well, we’ll get there one day! Oh and the house part, I really wish we did not meet the owner of our house. He turned out to be a real troll once we made an offer! #allaboutfrance

    1. Yes, I suppose meeting the owner can be a bit of a mixed blessing. I am also constantly frustrated by the need to attend appointments and shake hands when really the whole thing could have been done by telepone. Though I tell myself it’s good to get to know people. Thank you for stopping by.

  9. It drives me mad – not least because opening (and phone answering) hours are so minimal. You can’t call/visit at lunch time, on Mondays, during the whole of August, on the third Thursday of any month which has a J in it…. No chance! (I solve this problem by sending letters. Resonse guaranteed, eventually. Not a particularly speedy solution, admittedly…)

    Love the blog! Xx

    1. Thank you very much for stopping by. I am comforted by the thought that I am not alone. It’s funny isn’t it: when I talk about this with my French friends, they all seem to feel the same. So who is it perpetuating this madness…?

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