Romasco-Kelly Family

August 26, 2002

Grenoble, France

It’s a cliché, but the French just look at things differently than Americans do.  Everyday, we’re finding plenty of examples of this.  For instance, in America “customer service” and “efficiency” are the universally acknowledged (if not always achieved) goals of any business.  In France, it’s, well, different.

For instance, most post offices and banks in the U.S. have done away with the idea of specialty tellers – all counters provide all services, and all customers wait in a single line.  “Queuing theory” (literally the science of waiting in lines – look it up, I’m not making this up) tells us that it is indisputable that this will result in maximum efficiency and a shorter average wait time for everyone, since each teller is able to help deal with a surge in customers.  At post offices, banks, and other places in France, this is not always the way – many times, I’ve waited in a line with five or six other people while a second line is empty – that line provides some specialized service.  From the perspective of Americans, this makes no sense – why not train everyone to do everything and then everyone is happier, right?

But suppose there are two general-purpose tellers and two special-purpose tellers at an office.  If they trained all four of them as general-purpose tellers, they might find they could get by with just three – or two.  One or two of the people loses a job – and that, in France, is a no-no.  Americans see this as “bad” and “inefficient”, but it really is just working toward a different value.

Another difference we’ve noticed is that the French seem more interested in doing things right than doing them quickly.  This seems to be universally understood, so the people waiting in line don’t get upset because they’re having to wait longer because of this.  I was at a major supermarket, Carrefour, and bought a bottle of wine that had a €1 (about $1) “instant refund” coupon attached to it.  I learned that “instant” is defined differently in France – in the U.S., the checkout clerk would have either just deducted $1 from my bill, or handed me an extra dollar in change and stuffed the coupon in the cash drawer.  But in France, the checkout clerk knew two things: (1) there was a right way to do this and (2) she didn’t know what it was.  So she called over a colleague, and together they carefully read the fine print terms of the refund on the coupon.  Her more experienced colleague explained that I would need to go the “caisse central” (central service counter) with my receipt and the coupon.  She could see that my French was not fluent, so she happily escorted me there, and explained to the clerk there what I wanted.  That clerk (are you counting – we’re up to three people involved in this €1 “instant rebate” at this point) filled out a paper form, stamped my receipt (apparently so I couldn’t use it again, something I admit was far from my mind at this point) and handed me the form.  My friend then escorted me to another central cash stand, where I redeemed the paper form for the €1.  I half-expected to be asked to show my passport before receiving the euro. The store easily spent twice the amount of the rebate in personnel time dealing with the paperwork (which no doubt is also filed), but they did it the right way.   This is not an unusual experience, either – similar things have happened to us at the post office, the bank, and the telephone company.

I have to admit, ordering a telephone was something I was a bit nervous about, so I spent a couple of days psyching myself up and carving out what I estimated to be the necessary amount of time – probably 2-3 hours.  I talked to some friends about what paperwork would be required, and they assured me that only a RIB (a slip of paper from the bank that gives all my account information) would be needed.  We wanted to get two cell phones (called mobiles here) and a land line with high-speed Internet access.  Our first problem proved to be at the mobile phone store, where the clerk upon seeing Lisa’s US passport (she hasn’t received her Irish one yet), told us she couldn’t open an account without a French identity card.  I showed her my Irish passport and she also claimed that wouldn’t be enough without a French identity card.  I’ve run into this problem before and always been able to argue my way out of it on the basis that Irish citizenship = European citizenship = French citizenship in the new world of the EU.  But many clerks have to consult various colleagues and manuals to find that, wow, this is actually true (“You mean we’re part of Europe?? When did that happen??”)  Sure enough, she found that she could open the account for me, but not Lisa.  She was very helpful, though, and told me that she could open both cell phone accounts under my name.  The next problem: “I’m sorry, but you are on a list of people who don’t pay well.”  I explained that Kelly is a very common name for Irish people and that I had no doubt that I’d never had any other account open in France that I didn’t pay.  We walked out with two mobile phones and a coupon for a €47 rebate on Lisa’s phone, feeling happy.  France Telecom and our Internet line came easily by comparison – and unlike Verizon, who took three weeks to install the high-speed Internet line at home in Redmond, France Telecom does it in just seven days.

We spent most of the last few days unpacking boxes and setting up furniture at our new apartment, which we moved into on Wednesday.  We love the space, the neighborhood and the feeling of settling in after nearly a month of living out of suitcases.  We’ve found the butcher store, the cheese shop, the bread store, the wine store – all within a block of our building!  We’ve met the upstairs neighbors, who are very friendly and have a son eight years old – good news for the boys.

The boys start school a week from Tuesday, on September 3.  We visited the school last week and filled out numerous forms, including for comprehensive health insurance for the boys – both at school and out of school -- €48 each for the entire year.  That’s less than one-tenth of my monthly premium for our U.S. COBRA health insurance.  They will eat at school three days a week, and are to arrive by 8:30 AM and leave at 4:30 PM – this will be quite a change for Evan (used to half-day kindergarten last year), and even for Kyle, it’s 1-1/2 hours longer than his school day was last year.  However, there is that two hour lunch, from 11:30 – 1:30, and there is no school on Wednesday anywhere in France.  They go Saturday mornings about every third week.  Wednesday is a day for activities – music, arts, organized sports, even a circus school (which we think Evan will love).  In the winter, buses take the kids up to the local “station de ski” for skiing or snowboarding lessons.  And our first school holiday is a week at the end of October for All Saints Day – France is still culturally a very Catholic country and most of the holidays are religious in origin – in fact, the term in French for holiday is “jour de fête” – Feast Day.  All of France just finished taking four days off last week for the Feast of the Assumption on August 15 – it was like Christmas in the U.S., with virtually all stores and most restaurants and cafes closed for four days.

After the school starts next week, I’m sure we’ll have a lot more stories…