A few days before I left Paris (it feels like a decade ago but was just une dizaine de jours) I had a rather unsettling experience. It was happy and pleasant, which is what (being Paris) made me feel so odd.
First, a foray into my favorite of favorite spots, La Poste. Upon entering, I noticed a huge hand-scrawled sign actually informing clients that “due to two employee illnesses, there might be delays in service, and la direction apologizes for any inconvenience.”
Since when did La Poste apologize, in advance, for making us wait? This was positively unfathomable.
Then, the line actually moved more rapidly than usual. When one guichetier asked if anyone was there to retrieve a package or letter, I raised my hand and said “Moi!”
Motioning me to her desk, she sang merrily, "Moi, moi, toujours moi!” And she proceeded to transact our little business with wisecracking humor and – dare I say – frivolity? Before I left, she cajoled, “Please consider opening a bank account with us. It bums me out (“cela me rend malade”) to see you having to pick up your bank checks here.”
And she shooed me along with a jovial “A bientot!”. I went on my merry way, shaking my head over the gaiety of it all.
I had this unnerving little feeling in my gut. What is happening to the drama of “terrible customer service” that expats love to moan about? What if the French are actually listening to all those complaints and start to become friendly all the time? No, no, I assured myself, this is just an isolated incident.
I then entered the pedestrian tunnel to take the Metro at Duroc station, and something looked out of kilter. Peering around, I noticed a bright, open office where the dark ticket window had once existed. The impenetrable hazy glass where often you couldn’t see if the RATP agent was actually there, and if he was you had better ask nicely and only one question at a time, s’il vous plait. And he would shove your tickets and change back through the little mousehole.
Now that was all changed. It looked positively glitzy. A broad, open window. A shiny-faced smiling young woman with strawberry blond hair in a fresh new uniform. Thunderstruck, I simply had to ask what on earth was happening. “They took away the vitrine?” I asked. “And the little window to pass through the money?”
“Ah, oui,’ she responded, smiling. “No more money here, so no little window. All tickets get bought at the machine,” she gestured. “We are now le service clients.” So the employees at the Metro stations no longer handle any money and are simply there – drumroll please – to be helpful?
My unsettling feeling was now growing into a full-fledged conviction. I had just discovered the largest contemporary cultural revolution in France and no one was talking about it. France has become a customer-friendly nation right before our very eyes and nobody realizes it. This is so subversive! I ran through my mental rolodex of recent interactions as a customer. Yes, yes... The waiter in that café asked if I wanted milk with my express (horrors). Now it’s all coming to me -- he was not being snide, he was being F-R-I-E-N-D-L-Y. But what will become of France if this continues? This slight edge, this keeping on your toes, is what constitutes the daily drama in life here in Paris! This is what living here is about – triumphing over the potential displeasure of an agent, a bus driver, a store clerk. Living here well means “getting it” in terms of how to deal with being a customer always at the mercy of the clerk’s or waiter’s mood.
This could mean then end of “life in France as I know it.”
As I recited this long plaintive narrative to myself, the metro moved to Invalides, where I had to make a connection.. I thought to myself, I have to get a photo of one of these new friendly “Customer Service” desks. Why didn’t I think to get one at Duroc?
At the Invalides station I trudged up the stairs and searched glumly for a dazzling new “Service Clients” window, to snap a photo for posterity.
I found it. But the shiny new window was pulled shut. Behind it, brilliantly illuminated by new halogen lighting, a sullen unshaven twentysomething fellow slouched in his chair, mute behind the huge pane of glass. He had grumpily taped a hand-scrawled sign on the new window. “Tickets a la machine seulement”