Today I had what I call a “Welcome To France” day.
That expression came about a couple of years ago, when a friend who lives in Switzerland came to run in the Paris marathon.
Except when he went to register, they told him he wasn’t registered even though he had a letter from them saying that he had indeed registered. And he wasn’t alone; there was a roomful of other people with letters being told they weren’t registered either. Luckily, he was there with a friend who was a doctor.
It wasn’t because people were fainting from having traveled halfway around the world and being told they couldn’t run in a marathon they’d spent the last 6 months training for. The French friend intervened (the French are much better at yelling at bureaucrats that we Americans, who crumble surprisingly easy) everyone was told they could re-register. But everyone would need to magically produce a note from their doctor attesting to their fitness.
So even though our friend specializes in breast augmentations and botox injections, he sat down and signed everyone’s paperwork.
When I went to meet my friend after the marathon, he was shaking uncontrollably; very, very cold and tired.
I took off my coat and wrapped it around him, seriously afraid he was about to collapse.
With tears of exhaustion and shock rolling down his cheeks, he said, “Just after the finish line, it was so crowded and no one was there to move people forward. Runners were cramping up and collapsing all over the place, writhing around in pain.”
He continued…”There was no hot soup or anything to feed us”, which I presume is highly unusual after a marathon.
“Why was no one taking care of the runners?” he said, looking at me.
Then he looked away, and said – “Welcome to France…”
Since then, whenever something odd or stupefying happens, it’s now called a Welcome to France moment”. Or a WTF moment.
They come at you all the time around here. There’s lots of WTF moments. Times when I cock my head to the side, squint one eye, and jerk my head back in disbelief. Like when the bank teller insists they’re out of change, (although that wouldn’t seem so far-fetched now).
Or when you’ve got a busted drainpipe and water’s gushing out, and the plumber finally shows up, but without any tools—”I am just here to look right now.”
Or when you’re at a café and they tell you they don’t have any mineral water…when there’s an army of bottles lined up behind the bar in plain view. You just tend to nod in agreement and accept these odd incongruities around here. It becomes très normale.
But just when I think I’m getting used to it, another WTF moment happens. Like today.
Last week the handle on my oven broke off. Then the glass panel on the front fell off too, making the door virtually impossible to open and close. Now my oven is just a façade of screws, nuts, bolts, and springs. It looks like R2D2 crossed with Robo-cop.
Aside from it’s foreboding, albeit cute, appearance, even worse is the door doesn’t stay open by itself without the heft of the glass to keep it down. So if I have to put something in the oven, I need to hold it open with my knee and hope I it doesn’t fly loose and spring upward, slamming me in the ‘nads.
In lieu of spending a wad of euros to call the company’s 08 number, I sent them an email asking for service centers in Paris where I could get a replacement handle. They replied with two numbers to call.
The first was an ’08’ number, which is similar to an ‘800’ or ‘860’ numbers in the US, except they’re not toll-free. In fact, they’re super-turbo toll calls.
In France, you pay for each and every local call. But because knowledge and service are valuable commodities in France, you pay much, much more to call customer service: usually 35 centimes (about 50 cents) per minute—including hold time. So if you’re on hold for twenty minutes, that’s a 10 spot. And if you get cut off? WTF. You have to call back and now you’re out 20 bucks.
So I dialed the number of a place just outside of Paris, a local call, a place named Interservice. The fellow on the phone asked what the model number of my stove was. I looked and looked and looked, but couldn’t find one anywhere. No metal tag, no serial number. Nothing. What kind of appliance doesn’t have a serial number or model number on it? And I won’t even get into what I found behind the oven when I pulled it out and inspected all four sides as well. Let’s just say that small bundle of asparagus I dropped in ’04, just out of reach that I just said “WTF” and forgot about, didn’t age very well.
Well, he couldn’t help me unless I could find a model number, so I told him I’d just come in with the handle. So on a bright, gorgeous Tuesday morning, perhaps the most gorgeous day in Paris since August…of 2005…there I was on a bus driving through some dreary grey suburb, handle in my hand, looking for chez Interservice. When I found it, I handed him the object du jour and he went in the back and came out with my replacement.
Of course, it was about 8-inches longer than my handle. When I pointed that out to him, he said it was fine.
WTF was he thinking?
Well if you want to know, here was his explaination:
“Just take a saw and cut off some of it, bend the edges with a metal vise, and drill two new holes in it. You’ll need to get new screws and metal washers. But then it will fit okay.”
I guess he didn’t understand that my two-room apartment didn’t have a toolshop and it might look kinda funny to have a sawed-off handle on my oven that had a couple of holes drilled into it, then bolted on like Franken-oven.
He kept saying, “Tenez, monsieur…c’est bon…”, obviously wanting to get rid of me, “Take it, it’s okay…”, trying to hand me the new oven handle.
So I had the unenviable task of trying to explain to him why this wasn’t such a capital idea.
“Mais, pourquoi pas? C’est parfait!”&mdash”Why not? It’s perfect!”
Earth to you, dude.
Like, I really want to buy an oven handle that I’m going to have to cobbler together from spare parts? I’m better off rubbing two sticks together and starting a fire on the ledge outside the window and baking a cake over feu de bois. If there was an oven door around, I would’ve whacked him in the noix with it.
When I got home, I did some digging and unearthed the owner’s manual.
“Aha!” I thought, I’d finally get the model number.
But….WTF?…the owner’s manual had lots of diagrams and pictures of this particular model of oven and information in an international encyclopedia of languages. But no model number.
WTF. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an owner’s manual that didn’t list the model number on it. I think I’ll write a book about France, but I’m not going to give it a title or put any indication of what’s inside on it either. Then you can have your own WTF moment too.
I called the company to ask why they didn’t put the model number on the owner’s manual and was told, “We don’t need to, since it’s marked on the oven.”
So I responded, “Well, I’ve just spent the last several days yanking and turning and poking around my oven. And I still can’t find it. Where would it be?”
“Usually it’s just inside the door. Somewhere….” she said, her voice becoming disinterested as I looked up at the clock and realized that, time-wise, I’d already gone through a nice bottle of Sancerre and was quickly closing in on a couple of dozen oysters to go along with it.
“Wait a minute,” I reasoned, “You work for the company. I scanned a picture of the oven and sent it to you. But you can’t tell me what model it is?”
If one of you out there scanned a picture from one of my books, I’d be able to identify it right away. And I’ve got a couple of hundred pictures desserts floating around out there. So WTF?
Come to think of it, in my next book, in addition to the blank cover, I guess I’m not going to bother with an index or table of contents either. So when people ask, “Where’s the recipe for Chocolate Cake?” I’ll just shrug, as if it makes perfect sense, and reply, “It’s somewhere in there…”
And you might think, “WTF?”
Then you can have your own WTF moment, too.
I guess it doesn’t look like I’m getting a new handle on my oven anytime soon. So if you don’t hear from me for a while, that might mean I was checking a cake or something and had a little oven door accident, one that smacked me squarely in les bijoux de famille.
If I do, I’ll probably double-over and scream, “WTF!?”
But this time, don’t think it’s gonna be an expression welcoming anyone to France.