We tend to hang on to myths and stereotypes. The subordinate Japanese wife: history. If she were ever true; take a close look and you may actually see the liquid steel running in her veins. The self-sacrificing Jewish mother: long-retired. The closest she gets to babysitting her grandkids is by sending them an e-mail from her latest Safari adventure together with a picture of the latest “cub” she managed to conquer. No, the world is not what it used to be.
Wait. Don’t despair. There is one legend that refuses to die. The rude French server is alive and, sometimes literally, kicking. He, or on this occasion, she is sitting behind the window supposedly selling tickets to the Opéra National de Paris. As a matter of fact, her true role—no, vocation—is to guarantee that you do not get a ticket. Let me correct that. You may get a ticket but you have to really, really want it. Insist on it. Work for it. Cajole your way through it. No, don’t get me wrong. Bribes won’t do it. This is not some backward third world country. Non, non, chère Madame. This is the French 5th Republic. There is pride involved. French pride. And as pride is pretty much all that is left from the old Empire, the French guard it with their lives. You actually have to (depending on the sales person’s mood that morning) beg, charm, flirt, harass, insist, threaten, get on your knees, or joke your way through it. Only then may Sylvie (no, her name is not on the tag nor will she provide it upon request—why should she? So that you may complain about her?) erase that severe expression she donned when she told you all tickets are absolutely sold out to miraculously find five seats smack in the center of the third row gloriously awaiting you. No apology, no excuses for vehemently denying their existence just a second ago, she will, then, graciously, do you the favor of accepting your money.
Mais, oui. C’est la vie. Why should it be easy? Luckily, I did not have to confront that disagreeable attitude the last time I went to buy tickets for one of my favorite performances. No haughty sales person this time around. Just a sign stating the widows are open between 2:30 p.m. and 6:30.p.m. only. Why on earth would you expect to be able to buy an opera ticket in the morning hours? That would be far too simple. Go home and come back later. Time is money but your time is your money—we don’t care about wasting it.
Voilà. We can always rely on the Parisians not to disappoint. The waiter will always be as rude as expected, sometimes even a bit more. Just to keep up the reputation. The old lady in front of you on the bus line will always have something critical to say about the way you have been raising your kids. The store will always be out of any size you may fit into, the dry cleaner will never have your clothes ready when promised, the secretary will dutifully forget to pass your message on to the doctor—and all of the above will always, but always, be your fault. There is something to be said for the virtues of predictability and good social order. There will always be Paris.
I recently found out that there is something called the “Paris Syndrome.” It’s a mental disorder. Affecting primarily Japanese tourists who fulfill at long last their dream of visiting the “City of Light.” They were raised on romance, romance and more romance oozing out of every Parisian image they ever saw, movie they ever watched, poem they ever read. They save their bonuses and finally get on the plane to land at an un-air-conditioned, suffocating, terminal (one tired ventilator left over from the 19th century is stirring the air in a one meter radius) where they wait more than an hour amid screaming babies and feeble elderly (no seat in sight) for a sour-faced immigration officer to stamp their passports without as much as a glance while engaged in a lively conversation with his co-worker. Please don’t let his professional duties disturb his booming social life. Then the endless wait for the suitcases followed by an endless taxi line, a driver who speaks not a word of English (not much French either, as a matter of fact). Needless to say, the fun continues with the hotel reception desk not finding the reservation (and it’s the customer’s fault—bah, oui!), the dirty toilettes, the waiters (do I need to elaborate?), passersby pushing our poor visitor on the street without a word of apology. You get the picture. Two days later the Japanese embassy, quite familiar with the procedure by now, gets an emergency call to transfer traumatized tourist to Narita airport and from there straight to a psychiatric institute treating patients who seem far better socialized than your average Parisian.
I have a much thicker skin but if a publisher asked me to write a book about my Parisian service-provider horror stories I think the Bible would seem like a thin manuscript in comparison. The question is—why? What level of internal frustration does a vendor have to withhold in order to demonstrate such aggression? Because it goes beyond laziness or plain disinterest in providing good service. I sometimes feel the person in front of me goes out of her way to provide bad service—anti-service.
How do I deal with it? That’s easy. I come home and unload all my frustration on my poor husband who happens to be French, therefore, naturally, personally responsible for all ills afflicting French society. C’est évident, n’est-ce pas? What else are husbands for? When I am done with him, I look to solve the problem. The obvious solution to any problem is education. So I try to educate my French counterparts. Teach them the right way. Show them the light. I tell the dry cleaner (having found out the dress I desperately need for the weekend won’t be ready before the following Wednesday) that in the U.S. (i.e. civilized countries, hint, hint…) one can actually get her affairs not only ready on the same day but royally delivered directly to one’s door step. She is not impressed. “Wednesday,” she curtly repeats while not missing a beat in the conversation she much more enthusiastically conducts with her friend over the phone. I buy a new outfit for the weekend.
I also used to try the “can I speak with your manager?” approach. Ha, ha. Big mistake. Don’t even ask me why. I am still recovering from the aftermath of the experience. Let’s just say that the customer is never right. As a matter of fact, the higher you go in the “chain of command,” the more wrong you are! The employee and her boss may just have some bonding time sneering at your childish naiveté. Insisting works. Sometimes. As in,“hey, girlfriend, you worked hard enough. Now you may actually deserve getting the shoes you’d like in a color at least close to what you wished for.” When it does work, you want to fall on the sales girl’s shoulders with tears of gratitude in your eyes. The problem is that, more often than not, it doesn’t. That is, said salesgirl takes it as a challenge, wordlessly saying: “let’s see who wins the stubbornness contest.” I used to be a successful New York lawyer, able to defeat many a good negotiator. She is. The winner, that is. Right next to raising kids, this is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had. Begging also works. Sometimes. Never hurts to try to humiliate yourself. Trouble is you often remain with nothing but the humiliation to show for your efforts. Cajoling? Perhaps. Humor? The joke is usually on me.
I did, however, develop my secret weapon. They didn’t use to pay me the big bucks for nothing. Nowadays, I easily maneuver my way through French electronics stores, mobile phone operators, even municipality administrators! (Only the French can appreciate the feat). No, baby, nothing scares me no more. I am invincible.
You want to know what my secret weapon is? You do, don’t you? Let the suspense build… ready? It’s called “a French husband.” Yes, same old hubby. Having concluded that he would rather be looking any French administrator in the eye than listen to his “gentle” wife’s accusations, tears and endless nagging (usually one does not negate the others—I multitask), he ended up being volunteered, as a true French gentleman should, to fight my battles on all contentious fronts. He is the one calling the immigration officers, walking unarmed into the dens of fierce civil servants. Yes, even attacking the repair service operators of SFR mobile phones. He, my hero!
And, miraculously, all obstacles melt in front of his able way to navigate the system. The mountains of paper work requested are not only filled and provided but are actually accepted by the administration. The clerk does point out, of course, that there are still documents missing—let’s face it, the system has been masterfully perfected over two millennia precisely so that no one can ever satisfy the bloody, red tape requirements—but then a smile appears out of nowhere and previously austere administrator puts on a juvenile conspirator’s expression, practically winks, and turns a blind eye. “You and I are together in screwing the system, buddy,” he is all but saying. Why the clerk was such a devout observer of the system when I was seated in front of him will forever remain a mystery to me—but, hey, who cares? After a long back and forth full of private jokes I do not even pretend to understand, the salesman hands my husband my new and better mobile phone. The strict “return policy” for the wrong adapter I erroneously purchased (at the recommendation of same salesman) is slightly, ever so slightly, bended. How does he do it, le Frog? A little banter, a smart exchange, a sideways look, a snide remark, a glee in the eye…
I guess it’s called “French charm.” Worked on me when I met him. Still does. At least, most of the time.
Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans was born in Transylvania (a Hungarian-speaking province in Romanina) and educated in Israel. For more than twenty years, Eva practiced law at some of the largest law firms in New York and served as In-House Counsel with U.S. and French financial institutions before pursuing a career as a writer. Eva, mother of two daughters, has lived in Tel Aviv, Tokyo and New York and is currently residing in Paris where she is working on her first novel.
You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French women do get wrinkles, by Paris-based Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the super Frenchy myth of the coquettish French nymph — her “je ne sais quoi” — in her ballerina shoes, hair effortlessly tied in a messy chignon blowing in the wind, large sunglasses on her naked, no make-up, nevertheless beautiful eyes, and how we are all measured by it.
l’Américaine, by Parisian Eva Izsak-Niimura who writes about the myth of the unsophisticated and pathetically naïve American where book after book and article after article there is the lament of the hopeless quest of the American woman to resemble her French counterpart.
Indulge at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris, by Paris-based Eva Izsak-Niimura who shares how to achieve a bit of luxury, when “constraint” is a word more in vogue than “indulgence,” at Le Meurice Hôtel, Paris, for afternoon tea or evening cocktails.
Vive La Femme: In defense of cross-cultural appreciation. Kristin Wood finds Francophiles around the world divided about Paul Rudnick’s piece entitled “Vive La France” in the New Yorker magazine. As is often the case with satire, there is a layer of truth to the matter that is rather unsettling. Including comments from readers worldwide. (French)
French Impressions: Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans on the richness of experiencing other cultures firsthand. Eva Izsak-Niimura-Fourcans, who has lived and worked on three continents, writes about her experiences as a young wife and mother in Tokyo, a professional and working mother in New York, and currently at a more mature stage in Paris, and the mix of feelings of being at the same time at home everywhere and nowhere.
French Impressions: Perspectives from Jackie Kennedy, Susan Sontag, Angela Davis, D-Day tour historian, and Parisian teenager. This entry in our interview series celebrates the culture of transformation. A sea change: the dramatic shift that comes from living abroad, divorcing the land of ones birth or staying in place and growing up.
Text copyright ©2013 Eva Izsak-Niimura. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©2013 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.