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.
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.
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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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
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?