3 Ways France Gets it Right, 3 Ways They Get it Wrong
Right – Work/Life Balance
A life spent working until you are numb, only enlivened on the weekend after 2 martinis or on your one 5-day vacation a year is no way to live. Working to live as the French do, taking 6 weeks off is so much more appealing.
We can leave Parisians out of this equation, they take the same time off but they don’t have the one-hour lunch like they do in the country. Yes, I can hear you out there – its true the French don’t make as much money as we do, but they don’t really need as much. Food costs less, real-estate taxes are much lower, health care and university is free. The French live longer and they are not as stressed. Sign me up!
Wrong – Washing Machines
Have you ever tried to use a French washing machine? Why in the world does it take over one hour to wash a tiny load of clothes? And god forbid you forget an item, that load is locked in tight and forget opening it to add another item. It can take what seems like a full week to do a few loads for your family. And simply forget using the French dryer, it doesn’t work well – and those 2 in 1 numbers (washer + dryer), great idea, but they will dry your towels after 2 hours to dam, if you are lucky. Give me a big-ole top loaded American washer everyday of the week.
Right – Politesse
Saying Bonjour Madame to the store clerk when you enter her shop seems so natural after you get the hang of it, how rude not to say hello to someone when you go into their place of business. Obviously you don’t have to do this at FNAC or Bon Marché, the big department stores. I get so used to saying a polite hello, good-bye and thank you that I do it back home after a long stay in France and it does wonders for me in the US, especially in NYC. Here no one ever says hello to the cashier at the grocery store. A little pleasantry goes a long way.
The French are getting a little better at this now days, especially in the best bars (see my book, Paris Cocktails*) but in the country you can still go into a pub or a café and order a coke and get a glass of semi-cold Coke without ice on a scorching hot day…folks this just won’t do. Ice was a fabulous invention and that happened a long time ago. Step up to the plate and get an ice-maker, there is no reason to live in the dark ages.
In the US, Canada and many parts of the UK when you are in the countryside….away from a big city you will be absolutely starved for good food. Standards plummet about 50 miles outside of New York City, one of the culinary capitals of the USA. Pretty quickly you find yourself in the land of cheese-whiz, Arby’s and TGI Fridays. Not so in the French countryside. While I don’t agree that every meal you have will be great, the chances of finding a superb meal are pretty high, 75% higher in the French country than if you are in any of the other three countries I mention above. If you are using a website, app or guidebook such as Le Fooding’s app or the Michelin guide you maybe in for the surprise meal of your life.
I still count the meal I had in the middle of nowhere in the Aveyron at Auberge Les Mejanassere as one of the best I’ve had on the planet, and I’ve been to 58 countries so far, and dined at many thousands of noteworthy restaurants. To my knowledge this place is not in any guidebook, and when googling in English you’ll find no one else has written about it in English besides Girls Guide.
We walked in that day a number of years ago, the first time I’d been after about a thirty-minute drive from my sister’s house. A whole pig was roasting over an enormous hearth fire. We sat outside on the terrace overlooking their entire property. Everything we ate that afternoon in our 4-hour meal, the owners had grown or produced and the pig had been raised nearby. This included their own wine, their own eau de vie, an organic salad with flowers, their signature aligot, a specialty of the region, mashed potatoes with tomme cheese and of course vegetables grown in their patch which we overlooked from the terrace.
I walked around the property, and because it’s an auberge you can stay there. It is art directed in a country chic yet just sloppy enough way so you know it’s a real place. It’s a full French countryside fantasy – Madame even makes all of the pottery they use table-side. I come from Nebraska, and I can guarantee you that while you will be able to find some good fried chicken or meatloaf in the far corners of Nebraska but you will never be able to find anything close to the Auberge.
Tip: Alex Lobrano has a lot of restos outside of Paris as well.
Wrong Customer Service
So we can live with no ice in our Coke and a slow washing machine but this is a big one. Customer service especially in the bigger stores and most specifically in Paris is abhorrent. Why? I think it has something to do with the pride of your individual Frenchman and within the culture as a whole. The first initial gut response any French person has to a request is NON! We Americans typically will say YES before we are sure we can even do it, and the French will say NO before they are sure if is really no, both are wrong. But it’s the proclivity to say NO and the pride-factor that gets you off on the wrong foot in customer service territory.
Every French child is taught how to argue artfully and how important it is to “win” an argument even amongst friends, that’s is not so in the states at least in what we call “polite society”, whatever that means. Put these three cultural norms together and you’ve got the perfect storm that can create a fairly abhorrent customer service ethos.
I’ve found these two approaches to work fairly well. First you must determine what kind of person you are dealing with, are they seriously surly or do they have an inkling of a heart. For those with a heart, try to reason with them but stay firm, yet rational. Do not smile. A friendly American-style approach gets you nowhere in this country. For those surly folks, be very stern, even difficult, do not fly off the handle or resort to expletives or ask for their “boss” as that is not done in France but make it clear that you aren’t going anywhere until this situation is resolved. If you wear them down with your resolute behavior they will tire of the fight and give-in, most of the time.
In the end, the beauty of France at every turn, the bread, the croissants, the limestone buildings, the history, the fashion, the language the literature – it’s worth a little customer service hassle. After all, no culture is perfect, n’est pas?
*Paris Cocktails, Shameless plug for my book, simply had to do it.