Fishing For Favors

One of the fundamental differences between here (France) and there (the US) is that here, they don’t have to help you.

It’s not that there’s no customer service, but unlike the US where they’re supposed to (and expected to) be nice and helpful to customers, the onus here is on the salesperson, or the person behind the desk: They alone can decide if they want to help you. Or not.

And you’re job is to convince them to help you, any way you can. So the decision is yours.

How are you going to get them to help you?

This is baffling to many American visitors, who stare at me with wide-eyed disbelief, that there are really people out beyond their borders that don’t care if they make money or not, which is what ‘helping the customer’ is presumably all about. That the almighty dollar is worth a lot less than they think (and going down every time I look.)

I explain that this is not a capitalist country or culture, which perhaps explains why the economy here is a tad lackluster right now. But for many of us Americans, we have a really hard time understanding that other cultures are different than ours.

So here’s what you need to get with the program:

No, you won’t get ketchup for your steak just by asking simply because you want it (even if they have it), nor will you get a refund if your credit card purchase never arrives (unlike the US where the credit card companies really, really want to help you…um…I mean, really, really want your 3%.)

I used to think these Europeans were silly being wary of making purchases online, until I realized there’s no recourse here. Then it was me who felt kinda silly. Like I do right now trying to get a refund for something I never received from my bank here.

Stupid boy!
What was I thinking?

And yes, I did make friends with the woman at my bank. But unfortunately she’s not my bancaire and I can’t switch to her. I’ve tried. That would be too helpful to me, the customer. And chocolate doesn’t work at the bank.
I think…

But since 25% of the country is employed by the government, they can’t possibly be fired. And they’ll go on strike in case anyone thinks that perhaps things outta be different. And that freaks the government out, so they always give in.

So for you trying to get by here, you need to give them a reason to help you. And make it a good one.

At first it was baffling and frustrating to me. And still, frequently it is. But sometimes I enjoy it now, and once you grasp the concept of hearing “Non” the first few times (well, actually almost every time) you realize it doesn’t really mean “No” at all. It’s just the starting point for you to try to convince them to help you. It’s a game. You need to make them want to help you…so don’t be above anything—a self-effacing joke (especially if it’s anti-American), a chocolate treat, feigning a compliment, looking lost, whatever it takes, do it. You want to win them over.

And for women who are used to hiding their feminine wiles under the cloak of feminist principles, forget it. You’ve got a gift, girlfriend, so use it (or them)! Want a doggie bag? Smile coyly at the male waiter. Be polite. Be apologetic. Make up a good story (which is part of the fun.) Be sexy (yes, that’s okay too). You can even unbutton your shirt and lean forward a bit when making the request. Any way you can get what you want, work it. If I had them, I’d use ’em too. But I don’t, so I’m at an obvious disadvantage.

(Once again, shake that Etch-A-Sketch slate in your mind clean of what you think is right and wrong, what’s sexist, or what you should or shouldn’t do to get what you want. If you don’t, you’re not going to get anything. And don’t blame me. I’m just the messenger. I didn’t make the rules around here. I just learned how to play by them.)

And don’t think that if you’re a man you can’t participate in ‘the game’ too. Why do you think every time I go to the fish market, the jeunes hommes shove the grandes dames aside to help me?

Hmmm. Let’s see. It may have something to do with the Dulce de Leche Brownies a certain someone regularly delivers. Don’t believe me? Ok. Go ahead and wait in line like the rest of the losers. And yes, they always toss an extra lemon or two in my bag.

And a big bunch of parsley as well.

When was the last time you got a free bunch of parsley from a strapping young man in blue, knee-high rubber boots? Huh?

And the French have very, good memories. Unlike America, whose history is only a few hundred lame years old, French civilization goes back thousands of years, and any French teenager will be able to tell you the date, historical significance, and which King Louis was in power when any doorknob or lamppost in Paris was installed. Try that on your teens. They probably don’t even know who invented the Sony Playstation they’re glued to.

(Although to be fair, most French kids wouldn’t know that either. But I have heard some on the streets talking about the finer points of a certain bakery’s baguette.)

So take advantage of their acute memories and build good-will. If you come to Paris, shop in the same places every single day. Go to the same boulangerie. Re-visit the same restaurant several times during your stay. If you lived here, it’ll take you a good year or so before the woman at the bread bakery will acknowledge you, or the guardienne in your building will deliver your mail in a timely fashion.

If you’re a visitor, you’ll need to act faster.

After a while, with familiarity, you’ll be part of the ‘in’ crowd. You’ll be able to ask for a baguette cooked however you want. They’ll be happy to rifle through the basket looking for the best, most perfect baguette, no matter how many people are shoving you from behind.

Want to taste a cheese from the fromagerie? Forget it. Sure, they might sell more cheese that way. But they don’t really care if you buy cheese or not.

See what I mean? That’s the American part of you talking. I told you, which won’t do you any good. You need to make them want to help you. So buy your cheese at the same cheese shop each and every day. Do not spend your time in Paris chasing the best. Get what’s given to you and be thankful. But learn how to get what you want.

So as Thanksgiving approaches, I tomorrow I head to the market and go through the negotiations for a turkey. I’ve got a pan of chocolate brownies in the oven as part of my strategy, which I hope works. But I don’t know if the people who sell poultry like brownies or not.
I hope so.

Because if they don’t, we’re gonna be having halibut for Thanksgiving.

With lots of lemon.

And parsley.

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  • tom
    November 20, 2006 10:10am

    It’s all about personal relationships in “Latin” Europe, as you pointed out…you could repeat this entire description for those trying to get things done in Italy or Spain, too.
    Good luck with the turkey!
    One thing, though, don’t feel too bad about the average American teenager’s lack of historical knowledge. I remember when I was at a French lycee “en province”, and it seemed as if the typical lyceen was overloaded with geography and history by the end of their high school career, and would forget much of it…I would regularly get historical questions right about Renaissance French history that they would have forgotten completely…guess my Western Civilization teachers in the US were not too bad.

  • November 20, 2006 10:17am

    Darnit, why did you fail to mention strapping young men in blue rubber boots? I’d have visited a LOT sooner, David. Jeez.

    Fabulous post and definitely an eye-opener to those of us who expect the same service the entire world over.

    Now, about those boots…

  • November 20, 2006 10:25am

    Oh, David, I love you so. Good luck with that turkey, and Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Lisa
    November 20, 2006 1:20pm

    I like how you made a game out of it and are taking it with stride. I would get tired of it sooner or later…I guess i’m way too American.

  • November 20, 2006 1:54pm

    hmm, some pretty good tips for me to test next trip to paris! ;)

    happy thanksgiving :D

  • Vicky
    November 20, 2006 1:57pm

    LOL – this is *so* true. But the absolutely BEST evidence of the difference between France and N. America is that only French firms would dare charge the customer 35 euro cents a minute to phone their help line and ask them to fix a problem at THEIR end!!!

    …But after 10 weeks I am already getting free clementines ;-)

  • Alisa
    November 20, 2006 4:51pm

    love you!!!!

    Now trying to shake the etch-a-sketch vision of you with boobs out of my head…….

  • Nicole
    November 20, 2006 5:02pm

    When my friend Tuija, from Finland, was spending a semester in the States…she told me how insulted she felt that the men behind the counters (fish, deli, bakery) at the grocery stores didn’t flirt with her. She said all of the fishmongers and green grocers in Finland flirt with the women when they come to shop. And she MISSED it!!!

    The UK is also known for charging customers to call their HELP lines : ) – and you don’t even want to get started on what it takes to open up a checking account there.

  • Gary
    November 20, 2006 7:57pm

    I don’t know any European who wouldn’t love brownies.

  • Gary
    November 20, 2006 7:59pm

    When I lived in Basel, I found that chocolate chip cookies with walnuts were also worth a lot!

  • November 20, 2006 8:22pm

    You forgot to bring a cute dog to the market–this worked for me. :) Especially when she’d try to duck under the stall to join the owner in back or leaped up to catch a tossed bit of fruit, or maniacally licked the dripping ice from the edge of the fishmonger’s. The butchers especially loved her and tossed her raw meat and laughed as she licked her chops for about five minutes. Of course, this may be because she wasn’t a piddly little french lapdog–our baby weighs 27 kilos. She always got a smile at the Marche Auguste Blanqui (Paris 13ieme).

  • Connie
    November 20, 2006 9:50pm

    Happy Thanksgiving ! Would be so willing to play the games, just so I would not have to shop at the local mega mart , miss the small shops.

  • Nicole
    November 20, 2006 10:02pm

    halibut? how about garlic roasted pigeon… I’ll Fed-Ex-trade you my free-range bird for fresh pigeon.

  • November 21, 2006 6:37am

    I’m afraid that your basic premise has become a bit flawed in the 21st century. People in shops, banks, etc., might be “nice” and “friendly,” but (especially in big box retail stores, including large supermarkets) they are also often clueless and unhelpful since they don’t know very much. Ask them a question (like where something is or whether they carry something else), and they’ll often respond, nicely, “I don’t know.” But go out of their way to find out? Not on your life.

    The counter-reaction to all this unhelpfulness and cluelessness is a customer base that will pay extra for quality PLUS service. Hence, the explosive growth of farmers’ markets across the US and the immense popularity of such stores as Whole Foods, LL Bean and others where the staff is actually TRAINED, fairly knowledgeable and rather helpful.

  • November 21, 2006 7:33am

    Great post, David! Can I add two other small points?

    1) Add to the clean-slate concept the idea that sometimes it’s a VERY GOOD IDEA to just lie. Yes, Madame, my foolish husband bought me this item when I specifically TOLD him that we already have one. Yes, Monsieur, I have tried turning off my Noos cable box, lighting votive candles and dancing the jitterbug on it – to no avail.

    and 2) Validate their existance. I always get offered cheeses to taste when I appeal to the cheesemonger’s superior knowledge of what cheese I really need. : )

  • Lili
    November 21, 2006 8:25am

    Vous exagérez un tout petit peu, quand même…
    J’adore votre blog, by the way.

    Une fidèle lectrice

  • November 21, 2006 8:36am

    WEll, a free bunch of parsley is not exactly what I’d be wanting from a strapping young man in blue, knee-high rubber boots. However, you make a very good point. Here in Switzerland there seems to be an even rougher time at getting people to help. I have given up and instead, learn to do with less. Another difference between the two places.

  • November 21, 2006 9:46am

    Think David with big jugs – and not afraid to use them – think evil overlord of the civilised world MWWWHAAHAAHAAAAAAA!!

    You are my hero!!

  • November 21, 2006 10:41am

    I was going to comment on your excellent chocolate post, but the comments were closed. Loved the photo of the marrons glaces. And your description of the swaggering, hair-gelled men was priceless.

    Btw, service is about the same in Israel. Perhaps a little worse. Over there, people have been known to shake their heads and insist that “there’s no such thing” when you ask for an unusual product they don’t happen to carry. “Valrhona chocolate? Wot ees dis, Valrhona? Dere ees no satch fing!”

  • November 21, 2006 4:28pm


    Je n’exagére pas!

    I’m not exaggerating.
    They really do give me free parsley.

  • November 22, 2006 5:20am

    Christmas cookies did wonders for the bus driver.

  • November 22, 2006 5:20am

    Christmas cookies did wonders for the bus driver. He stops between stops only for me.

  • November 23, 2006 2:43pm

    LOLOLOLOL! God, you’re priceless. (No wait. I’m not calling you God.)

  • November 28, 2006 7:59am

    You are such a good observer :)