Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The Extra Step

A woman once said that the French think they are like Germans, but they are actually like Italians. Some stuff they do spectacularly well: The wine, the cheese, the bread. The trains work, the roads are pristine and clearly signalized. The bathrooms are spotless clean.
But when it comes to service or process, it's not that they are chaotic, it's that they love bureaucracy. They love steps. If you can do something in thirty steps, as opposed to one or two, pourquoi pas?
If you need a part of a stove replaced because its glass cover exploded in the kitchen (don't ask) and you call the numero de service of the appliance store, the monsieur you are speaking to, who displays an admirable balance of hostility, impatience and propriety, insists on talking of Electrolux when you clearly said Airlux. Twenty minutes later, he throws in the towel and advises you to take a picture of the serial number label to the store, so they can deal with you there. C'est tout he can do for you.
The trip to the store becomes three separate trips to three different stores, because in each one, the person in charge disavows himself from the responsibility of helping you: it's not their department, their phone doesn't work, Madame de Pompadour called in sick. But when you finally make it to the third store, the one they should have told you to go to in the first place, the lady behind the counter knows exactly what you need, and where to get it, and your suffering is over in five minutes. It is uncanny, as if she knew your sad story with the exploding cover all this time and was just patiently waiting, like Proust in search of lost time, for you to show up.

Try doing something on a French website. I tried to reserve a taxi, because I'll have you know that cabs in Paris are always mysteriously absent or have arcane, incomprehensible rules of where they pick up and where they drop off passengers. Why can't it be in the same place? Je ne sais pas. There are empty taxis parked at the TAXI sign. Some of them have drivers in them, but they cannot take you. There is even a hopeful-looking button you press that goes, like something out of Camus, unanswered.
But at home, there is an internet taxi reservation site. They even have an English version! I fill out all the info: name, time, place, and give a final, relieved click, only to run into the little extra step: they want a cellphone number to send me a code to confirm and verify that I, and not the Marquis De Sade, ordered the cab. But then the site won't accept a foreign number, so after a good 15 minutes of filling out forms and trying Kabbalistic number permutations, there is no cab to be had.
I should have called, but what if the guy sent me to the other guy, the one that works for Cardinal Richelieu? Plus, when I dial, a prerecorded female voice tells me something about the nature of the call I am attempting and she scares me off the phone.
Here in the US, you can go on a kafkaesque limbo of customer service hell, sans doute, but it usually takes one interminable step. Over there, it's a waltz. 

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