Wielding Her Tampon

france logique

In a country where one of the tenets is égalite, there are, believe it or not, some people who are more “equal” than others. It’s one of the less-discussed French paradoxes. No, I’m not talking about the motor scooter drivers who ride roughshod through Paris, bombarding pedestrians on the sidewalks or breaking through traffic, cutting off buses, bicyclists, and generally wreaking havoc in their noisy, smoke-spewing wake.

It’s les bureaucrats.

bureau d'expertise

The other day I had to go to the bank. And in France, before you go to the bank, if you need to do anything other than make a withdrawal or deposit, you need to make an rendez-vous. Each client is assigned a bancaire who is in charge of your affairs. You can’t just go to any bancaire; you have to go to yours.

So it’s important that they like you.

But you also can’t get too cozy with them, since my bank forces you to change bancaires every two years because, I’m told, they don’t want you getting too cozy with them…if you know what I mean.

(Actually, I don’t know what they mean either, so if someone could explain it to me, that’d be great.)

Société Générale

You might have read about the bank scandal here where an employee lost five billion dollars of the bank’s money. Jérôme Kerviel, of course, denied all responsibility for his actions—”C’est pas ma faute!“—and public opinion seemed to be in his favor since everyone in France seems to hate their bank. And with good reason.

In France, the banks are all-empowering institutions and they issue what’s called a RIB. It’s an identification number that means you have an account and are solvent. You need RIB to open a gas & electric account and get power and a bill, which you need to present to get your visa to prove you live here.

(Okay, I don’t know what they mean again, either.)

To make a long story short, unlike in America, the banks in France treat you as though it’s a privilege to allow you keep your money there; that they’re doing you a favor. They pay meager interest, if at all, and the costs for keeping an account are exorbitant. I was paying €7.5 monthly for some silly bundle of services called ‘Jazz’, which I realized was a huge waste of money (I don’t know how to say ‘rip-off’ in French…) so I made an appointment to switch to a regular account.

To all those people in America who say, “I hate my bank too,” to them, I say right back: “You have no idea.”

In American, at least when you get someone to help you, they actually do help you, rather than belittle you and argue with you about their stupid policies. For years, when depositing cash at my bank, I had to hand it to them in a sealed envelope, which they dropped in a safe. I was like, “Um…aren’t you going to count it to make sure it’s correct?”

The banks don’t trust anyone around here I guess, even their own tellers with money. Although after losing $5 billion, I’m beginning to see why.

One time my landlord’s bank never got my rent check. When I asked at my bank if they could get me a copy of the check for proof, they said, “You need to get it from your landlord’s bank.

” Scratching my head, I asked, “Um…how can they give me a copy of the check—if they never got it?

“C’est pas ma faute, Monsieur!” she said, before I was turned away.

In a country of endless paperwork, banks can’t (or won’t) produce copies of checks. They think it’s weird American banks do. As someone who’s learned to save each and every receipt, no matter how insignificant, I think that’s pretty weird that you can’t get a copy of a check you wrote.

don't walk

It took me a couple of days to prepare, both in terms of paperwork, as well as psychologically, for my rendez-vous. And after an hour of haranguing and arguing, they finally let me switch my account. I think they make money since most people think it’s easier just to pay extra fees then spend a morning battling a bancaire.

I had lunch last week with a French business owner who had just come back from a trip to New York. “In France, the first words you always hear are ‘No!’, whereas in America, it’s always, ‘Yes!'” he exclaimed, which is somewhat true. The challenge here is to get them to go from “Non” to “Oui“, in your favor. And unlike in America, they’re under no obligation to get to “Oui.”

When I did manage to get to “Oui!“, I had to read and sign two 8-page contracts full of legalese. (With all the paperwork and photocopying around here, I think France is responsible for more clear-cutting of trees than all those disposable chopsticks I’ve been so studiously eschewing.)

tampons fax traductions

And when all is said and done, after you’ve dealt with any bancaire, bureaucrat, or fonctionnaire, they pull out their tampon, a massive metal contraption, a rubber stamp with a big pump-style handle. That is the all-important move. When they draw the handle down and leave an indelible impression, that’s when you know that victory is yours to savor. Depending on her mood, she’ll either lightly-stamp your documents and send you on your way.

Or perhaps if you’ve angered her at all, she’ll use that tampon as a final tool of grudging approval, slamming it down on the counter with as much force as possible, stamping your paperwork with so much force that everything else on her desk, and those around hers, jumps in response. And you do, too.

Part of that, I think, has to do with the fact that Parisians are always struggling for power. Knocking you off the sidewalk, cutting in front of you in line, and the idiot dangerously swinging his pointy umbrella on the busy Métro the other day unaware that anyone else was around him; they’re all by-products of that mentality.

But the worse offenders are those motos, the scooter riders who buzz between traffic, terrorize pedestrians on the sidewalks, and wreak havoc by honking, revving their engines, removing their mufflers, and disobeying every traffic rule that they can. People ask me, as a cyclist, if I’m afraid of getting killed by a Parisian driver. I assume they’re talking about Parisians who drive cars.

(Which explains those ten, nearly-symmetrical finger-sized holes in Romain’s dashboard.)

les motos

To me, the motos are the most dangerous, and like the tampon wielding-women, are indicative of the “Napoléon effect” of someone little having a bit too much power. I steer clear of them as much as possible, like I do bankers and other bureaucrats. I did score a victory last week when I changed my cable tv and internet provider.

Even though it required three separate trips to their ridiculously jam-packed, ventilation-free office, and even though the problems were their fault (and the promised “free” service call that, of course, fell into “Non” category, for which I was unable to get to “Oui”), I eventually succeeded on my own. Unlike Napoléon, I did not meet my Waterloo.

And I was so happy after that last victorious visit to my cable office, that I didn’t want to jinx my luck, and took the bus home. I don’t mind living a little on the edge around here, but I steer clear of obvious dangers. I can deal with Romain behind the wheel, but scooters and women with bone-crushing metal plungers?

I’d rather not.

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  • November 6, 2008 4:09am

    I believe “rip-off” translates simply as “jazz” ;-)

    Although i’ve had my fair share of French bureaucracy and people playing God in many institutions in Austria as well, don’t believe that it’s less hassle to open a bank account, get a mobile phone activated, apply for a parking permit (continue at your leisure) here in the UK. They might say everything with a smile, but the end result is still the same: you’re sent off on your merry way without having achieved anything… they’re laughing, you’re in tears.
    Glad they’re not wielding any tampons here, though… that could get a bit messy ;-)

  • Armelle
    November 6, 2008 4:23am

    It’s hysterical. I am French and I hate my bank, in fact, I switched to on-line banking a few years ago just to make sure I wouldn’t have to go to the teller, or worse the obnoxious conseiller bancaire. Yes, customer service is terrible in France compared to the USA, and that also applies to restaurants, utilities companies, shops and supermarkets, school administratives and civil servants in general (except the police and the IRS, who are usually very helpful). Wonder if that’s because we don’t have class action in France, or punitive damages.

  • November 6, 2008 4:28am

    Wow, I will not complain about my Italian bank (BNL with is now owned by the French bank BNP) again.

    I don’t have to pay 6.90 euros a month because I do everything online or at the ATM. If I see a teller I have to pay. I do find it fascinating that our accounts are taxed by the government. When I was told that I thought something was lost in translation.

    When I saw the title of your post, I had a very different imagine. ha

  • November 6, 2008 4:38am

    Oh. My. God. I hear ya. I’m Australian and although I don’t think we have the same eager-to-please customer service as the U.S. I was still pretty shocked by the French.

    When I tried to open a bank account in Paris, I was greeted with a barrage of questions and then told ‘I’m sorry madame, but we have a lot of customers at the moment and it’s just not worth us giving you an account…’. What the?

    A year later when I closed the account, *they* gave me the wrong payout, giving me too much money. I’d already left the country before I realised, and they started sending me emails asking me to ‘regularise’ my account – with extra fees for the closed account being overdrawn!. They were so incompetent at suggesting a way I could pay them from outside of France that I literally had to return to my branch in Paris to get it sorted out! And this from a bank advertising itself on being ‘international’.

    Sorry – end rant. I get very worked up even thinking about that bank! I wish you better luck than I ever had!

  • Kaytee
    November 6, 2008 5:07am

    Rip-off = Arnaque

  • November 6, 2008 5:22am

    the banks in Japan are similar…you can’t deposit money on the weekends, but need to pay a fee to take money out. their interest rates are 0.0001% or something like that…and they say they have the best customer service in Japan…maybe for other things…

  • November 6, 2008 5:42am

    Brilliant title!

    We have so many Crédit Agricole/France Telecom/EDF stories that I wouldn’t even know where to begin!
    Steering clear is the best option. No doubt.

  • November 6, 2008 5:50am

    Sounds Kafkaesque!
    Could you imagine, I ride my bike with my i-pod in midtown traffic!

  • November 6, 2008 6:17am

    Me too, me too! I bank with LCL… they just changed our bancaire.

    Before I moved to France, I used to dream of closing my account with a Federal Credit Union in the U.S. because they sometimes held my deposits for two or three days. I thought they weren’t very service oriented. (Mind you, that account has always been free, but that didn’t keep me from feeling ripped off.) Ha!

    As for the motos… we live at Chatelet amidst an almost constant buzz. They are the most annoying (and dangerous) thing about stepping of the curb.

  • November 6, 2008 6:30am

    The funny thing is that when I moved to France, I used to wonder why so many stores sold coffres forts (safes). Now I know! It’s so much easier, and cheaper, to keep your cash at home.

    em: I’m surprised you even responded. If they made the error, it’s up to them to rectify the situation. I would’ve just said, “Tant pis!”

    LouLou: As part of my internet package, I now have phone service so I cut off my France Telecom line. When I went in to do that, the woman there asked me why I was doing so, and when I told her, she said, “Je comprends, monsieur.”

    Although I shouldn’t speak too soon. There’s a France Telecom bill that just arrived today, and I’m sure there’s some “disconnection” charges, or something like that, tucked away in there!

  • November 6, 2008 6:44am

    Rip-off > arnaque, en effet :) ou alors ” Mais c’est du vol ! ” :D

    Bancaire> conseiller bancaire, ou banquier. ( or LPEBECCSLELT : little pesky empowered bank employee choosen for his cloth style, lack of empathy and long teeth !)

    the bill is asked as a proof of adress because it’s the simpliest way to see if you really live somewhere, where they go catch you if you don’t pay bank fees of make debts :D. It’s an official document unlike renting contract, that can be false because it’s sometimes homemade on plain paper by the owner of the rented property, it prooves nothing. When you own your house, you could presen the papers you got when you bought it, but not every bank customer is owning his home, so…

    The electricity bill is also a way to see if you’re paying bills in this home, another point to show that you’re ot in debt with thoses main fees any people has every month (if you have difficulties to pay electricity or heat, you’re probably broke enough to make debts with this new account, and they will not give you one).

    The rib is a mainly a document that prooves you already have a regular account and this paper gives the references from it. it’s mostly asked to see if you are “interdit bancaire“, “bank banned”. And there’s worst : to contract some credit, even insignificant, you’ll probably be asked to give also a cancelled check, to proove that you still detain the right to give personnal checks with this bank account.

    what you say is exactly right, here you need to proove the bank that you worth opening an account. After that, you need to discuss every fee, and when you do it strongly or charmly enough, most of those fees dissapear, but it’s a real struggle anytime : it reminds me a french saying : ” t’en sors 5 par la porte, il t’en rentre 10 par la fenêtre !” :D (you manage to get 5 out the door, 10 come back by the window !).

  • November 6, 2008 7:57am

    Cher David,

    First of all, brilliant title. I think it has a magnetic force that makes one incapable of NOT reading on.

    I share your French bank woes. Trying to get a small business loan from our local French banks almost drove me into a mental institution (and I’m sure if it had, I wouldn’t have been the only one there for that reason).

    Another thing that still stuns me is that French banks continue to deny the concept of Money Orders and Bank Drafts in foreign funds. We need these on a daily basis in order to refund our vacation rentals clients in US, Canadian, etc. dollars but when we tried to describe them to the French banks they just shook their heads and said (of course) “Mais Non! C’est impossible.”

    “Why?” We asked.

    “Because what you are asking for is a cheque in a foreign currency.”

    “Exactly, in every other country banks do it and it is called a M-O-N-E-Y O-R-D-E-R.”

    They shake their heads, pretending to be “desolee” but actually smirking a bit.

    We have been forced to come to the conclusion that money orders and bank drafts truly do not exist in the french banking system, so we have to order them from our bank account back in Canada, if you can believe that.

    However, we have befriended a lovely banker in Beaune who slips us bottles of his clients’ wine, so that does go some way in healing the battle wounds.

    Laura (from over at http://www.grapejournal.blogspot.com)

  • November 6, 2008 8:01am

    I admit, I’m one of the suckers who always pays my monthly JAZZ because I can’t face trying to get them to lift it. Your story just confirms that (although now you have 7 euros month a more for macarons or kirs!!!! or whatever tickles your fancy).

    My favorite with SG is that I held a bank account for two years with them while I was here as a diplomat (duly closed when my post was over). I returned this year to join my husband, who has had an account with SG since 2001.

    We went to get me added to his account so I could have a card — you know, your life is nothing in France without the CB with the PUCE . . .a stinkin’ old American card won’t work in half the essential places — metro, SNCF, péages, etc.

    So, in request to add me, a former client, to my husband’s account. “No, sorry, that won’t be possible. He has a single account, and we can’t make that a family account.”

    WHAT? I had just received my first (meager) paycheck from my part-time job and needed to deposit it. “Okay, well at least I can sign over my check and deposit it in my husband’s account.”

    “No madame. The check is made out to you and can only go into an account with your name.”

    “You just told me I can’t join his account.”

    “Well madame, I am sorry, but it is a security issue; we can’t be depositing checks into your husband’s account that don’t have his name on them. If we did that, anybody could deposit anybody’s check anywhere!” (Hmmmm, funny in the States we do this all the time simply by signing the check over). “And anyway, you can’t open an account until you have your status in France.”

    Finally after I had a social security number (and the dreaded rendezvous), I went back to open an account. Again, although I was a former client in good standing (with a newly minted carte de séjour), and my husband HAD AN ACCOUNT IN THIS SAME BRANCH, the conseilliere had to go upstairs to her bosses to see if they would DEIGN TO GIVE PERMISSION for me to open an account (i.e. give them 7 euros a month for my stupid JAZZ so I could deposit my measly 400 euros a month and have a debit card).

    Luckily they came back and said yes. Because it’s true without an account, you can’t get a cell phone or land line or Passe Navigo or all sorts of things.

    GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!! Ah, the glories.

  • November 6, 2008 8:12am

    The title drew me in. It reminded me of a time when I worked for a group of Engineers who always needed me and constantly captured me before I actually made it to the ladies room. It was impossible to get to the bathroom… until, that is, I carried a tampon in my pocked and whipped it out at them. They ran for the hills and left me alone.

    Not the same, I know, but you took me to that place with your title.

    I love reading your posts about life in Paris. So very entertaining!

  • angiemac
    November 6, 2008 9:16am

    Wow David, you have definately hit it on the nail. I am currently living in Paris and although my husband deals with the bank primarily, he does come home grumbling about his interactions with the bank personell including asking the bank to cash in a $500 bill to a more manageable amount, which they refused. He’s says, ” but you’re the bank, if I can’t do it here where can I do it.” I am well aware of the motos also, as they are constantly blocking the crosswalk, impatiently waiting to hit the road on anything that looks slightly green. I have to remind them that pedestrians cross crosswalks, and give us some room to cross? Yikes!

  • November 6, 2008 9:43am

    Krysalia: The funny thing is that you need to live here, before you can get a visa—to live here!

  • Ashalama
    November 6, 2008 9:57am


    I’m French and i do agree with your vision of French bureaucracy: it is both annoying and ridiculous…

    Just for you to know, the translation of “safe” in French is “coffre-fort”, and not “coffret forte” ;-)

    Keep going!

    Oops. I fixed that. It’s funny, because I’ll even ask my French friends, or partner, about written French and they often give me conflicting answers.

    Another paradoxe français? ; ) -dl

  • November 6, 2008 10:01am

    I do pray that the cuisine, chocolate, cheese, pastries, wine and beautiful countryside make up for all of the other unbelievable hassles you encounter doing some of the simplest things. Good God, and to think we Americans find an excuse to complain if any of our free services are temporarily down or slightly delayed. You’ve got to have the patience of a saint David, or as I said earlier, the cuisine du jour must be to die for!


  • Shanna
    November 6, 2008 10:04am

    Although I think your experience is way worse than mine, I can’t stop myself from talking about my pet peeve with my American bank. They do always say yes, even when they are lying through their teeth. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a beautiful customer service experience, been assured that everything will be taken care of right away, all things are in order, only to attempt to access my money and be denied.
    I do everything they tell me to, wait the 24 hours processing time they assure me of, take them all the documents they need. In return, they smile through the phone, inquire about my day, confidently assure me that all systems are a go. Then I try to buy a two dollar cup of coffee, and my card is declined. So, we begin the brilliant customer service cycle again.

    I know, I’ve noticed that the last few times I was in the states: everyone’s eager to help you, but they don’t always know what they’re doing, or they don’t do what they say. The good thing about France is when you get to someone to help you (which, admittedly, can be longer than one might hope for…) they’re usually very good. -dl

  • kayenne
    November 6, 2008 10:16am

    I think I’m scared enough to even consider moving to France now. Should I dare just visit?

  • elizabeth
    November 6, 2008 10:36am

    I MUST come back and read this after preparing dinner! Opening an account here (Nederlands) was an unbelievable red tape angst filled day.

    I would so love to know if you have written (or know where to read) about the baking differences in Europe and the U.S. I followed (from my head) a pizza recipe I make regularly but it tasted very different. Everyone raved, so that is a good thing – but now I am wondering (worrying) about all other baking.

    Also – how do you travel back and forth with any food items? Even from Italy to Paris? What is allowed, how do you know – how do you pack things to make it safely, even if hand carrying it.

    Thank you!

    You might be interested in American Baking in Paris, which is mostly about France, but may be applicable to other places in Europe, too.

    I bring cheese and sausages back from Italy. And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee…-dl

  • November 6, 2008 11:18am

    This is why we maintained our account when we left–we don’t dare let it go, we’re afraid we’ll have to set one up again!

    That being said, our bancaire was fabulous, spoke English well, and really set us at ease (which I was absolutely shocked and thrilled by.) Her name is Natascha Murgeon (sp?) at the Le Crédit Lyonnais at Place d’Italie. I hated the Jazz crap, too, but she was wonderful.

    Way to say it, David. You really describe it to a T! :)

  • November 6, 2008 11:30am

    I really hated my bank until this morning. Now I’m feeling pretty good about it.

    That is the best post name ever. Thanks for the belly laugh this morning.

  • November 6, 2008 11:56am

    It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? My favorite was when we were trying to open our bank account and they asked to see a gas or electricity bill. My husband pointed out that we didn’t have those things yet… because we didn’t have a bank account! Ah, circular logic.

  • Steve
    November 6, 2008 12:25pm

    Hey, SocGen has to make up that $5 billion somehow, right?

    And speaking of customer service, I see the metro is on strike again this week.

  • Phyllis Dickler
    November 6, 2008 1:06pm

    David, it all sounds so complicated. Why do you stay? Come back to the states where there are less complications and I could take icecream and chocolate lessons from you!

  • Jenn
    November 6, 2008 1:22pm

    Ah, the memories your post dredged up! So true. Next time I start pining away for France and life there I’ll take a quick look at this post to remind me that it’s not all red wine and chansons francaises…

  • Terrie
    November 6, 2008 2:45pm

    David, the more I read about these sort of adventures, the more I wonder if I really do want to live in Paris. Thanks for the reality check.

  • November 6, 2008 4:18pm

    Terrie: The more I live these sort of adventures, the more I wonder if I really do want to live here, too! Thankfully, with the internet, one can do a majority of their banking abroad. And with the time (and money) I save, I enjoy Paris a teensy-bit more.

    Steve: Who takes the métro anymore? That is so, like 2006…

  • November 6, 2008 4:19pm

    Very, very funny. I hope while you experiencing this agita you were at least able to think, “Well, at least I can get a pretty funny blog post out of the ludicrousness of this situation.”

    Because it really is nuts.

    Honestly, though, I don’t think it’s any better over here in the States. Maybe the banks are better, but anyone who has ever tried to downgrade their cable or phone service knows that it’s not as easy as it should be. (“Please note that an independent third party service provider will be calling you back in five minutes to verify that you no longer want your HBO….”)

  • Murasaki Shikibu
    November 6, 2008 5:09pm

    “And when all is said and done, after you’ve dealt with any bancaire, bureaucrat, or fonctionnaire, they pull out their tampon…”

    LOL…..thanks for making me laugh, David. :)

  • November 6, 2008 5:58pm

    david said> Krysalia: The funny thing is that you need to live here, before you can get a visa—to live here!


    hé ouais, Welcome To France :)

  • amused
    November 6, 2008 8:48pm

    David you are good writer and I enjoyed “the article”. Having written that, I don’t understand why you live in Paris…but whatever gets you going.

    The reason why the banks in France and other parts of Europe (not all) suck is b/c they are nationalized, government interference in almost every aspect of a European’s life. Europeans have always been jealous of the US, they want us to be just as miserable as they are.

    David you seem like a nice guy and not dumb, so I find it unfortunate that you don’t cherish the American system. True, it has changed, more gov. under Bush and now even more gov. under Obama.

    Bye Bye Miss American Pie.

    I’m assuming you will reply and tell me all the wonderful reasons why you live in Paris and how great Paris is. I saw your apt. on foodie gourmet, sorry but that looks like absolute poverty.

    Don’t get me wrong I like Europe, to visit, but the opportunities just aren’t there and sadly they are slowly not going to be here either. There is no mobility everybody is stuck in one class with some crappy health care that they overpay for. And as for education being free in your Europe, again it’s not free they pay for it indirectly. Regardless they have degrees but no jobs.

    And since this is a food blog. I’m not even that impressed with European imports into the US anymore. I find that American cheese and chocolates are way better than the European counterparts at least they are on par.

    I’d move back to America in a minute, where everything is indeed splendid, but then I wouldn’t have anything to complain about. So I’d better stay in Paris…-dl

  • Linda
    November 6, 2008 11:19pm

    Friends of mine moved to the US after having lived in Italy for years. They were utterly astounded that they were able to open bank accounts almost instantaneously. They could scarsely imagine such a thing.

  • Sandra
    November 7, 2008 7:21am

    I can tell you a few stories about bad experiences with some American banks–strange ones indeed. Several years ago, my mother-in-law in Vermont, was asked to show id to cash some checks in a bank she and my father-in-law had accounts in for years. Turns out, he had been endorsing checks made out to her for deposit in their accounts and the clerks there hadn’t seen her in a while. She was pissed and closed the accounts, probably not to mention the earful she gave my father-in-law.
    We also had two bad experiences in a bank we had accounts in, years ago in NJ. The first time was depositing a check into a personal checking acct from our business acct. It was posted back to the business acct unknown to us, and then we had 3 personal checks bounce. When I found out about this, along with the bounced check fees from that same bank, I went in there and went ballistic in the main branch where the accts were. The female VP who received my wrath, was made to write letters of apology also indicating the bank’s error, in my presence to those who the checks were for, and pay the fees. My voice could have been heard all over town. A second bad experience at the same bank, about a year or so later, was that they claimed it would take at least a month to cash savings bonds I had for my kids’ college tuitions, and we had a bill due immediately. They apparently wanted to squeeze every last drop of blood out of my money before releasing it. I went home and told my husband Mike, who called the head of the bank, telling that person he was going to call the state banking commission and possibly the Treasury dept. There was an immediate change of tune and we got our bonds cashed. Needless to say,when I went back to get the cash from the bonds, I also loudly announced again that I was closing all accounts there, and did promptly. The bad NJ bank was ultimately ripe for takeover for which I was very happy. But the very big American bank I have used ever since has been no problem and I did not have to close accounts and open new ones when we moved to MA–it was Bank of America. And they are courteous.

  • Rachel
    November 7, 2008 8:11am

    I have never been to France so I cannot comment on bureaucracy there. However, I have had weird experiences in Israel with banks and right here in the good ol’ US of A. The most recent bank “experience” occurred here, just several months ago.

    Most of the time, I do my banking online. I rarely, if ever, hand write any checks (only to my cleaning woman and to the dry cleaners). Most of our incoming funds are electronically submitted so I rarely, if ever, make actual deposits. I also carry very little cash on me. If have $20 cash with me, that is a lot!!

    However, one day I needed a larger sum of cash, about $500 for a purchase I wanted to make in which I would save a substantial amount of money if I paid cash for it rather than with a credit card or check. So, off to the bank I went to retrieve the money.

    Now, for some reason, I did not have my bankcard with me (not sure why, but I had left it at home), and I was in NYC (I live in NJ and work in NYC) so going home for it was out of the question. However, my bank does allow withdrawals from accounts without the bankcard. Simply go up to a teller, fill out a withdrawal slip and show her your ID.

    Now, my legally given name is Rochelle but I am called Rachel. I have signed Rachel on EVERYTHING these days. The only two legal docs I have with Rochelle on them are my passport and drivers license. Interestingly enough, my social security card has Rachel on it. All my credit cards have Rachel on them and my bank account shows Rachel. My full name is Rochelle Shoshana Jacobs OR Rachel Shoshana Jacobs. Both names are associated with the same social security number and both names associated with the same address.

    Anyway, I went to a teller with a complete withdrawal slip and my id (I had both my passport and drivers license with me). She sees Rachel on my bank account and Rochelle on the ids. She refuses the transaction. I show her the soc sec card, she still refuses. My signature matches the signature card they have. I show her all the credit cards I have and some mail I have in my name of Rachel…she still refuses. I went to the bank manager and was still refused. This was AMAZING. I could not get my money.

    Finally, I went to my office and contacted two people: my account manager at the branch where I opened the account (she knows me and the whole name story) and a fraud officer of the bank. Both spoke with each other and both called the branch of the bank near my office and told the branch manager that I would be back in the bank and that they were to comply with my request to withdraw the funds.

    I returned to the bank again, and again they refused. I asked the branch manager if she had gotten a call from my account manager and/or the fraud officer. She said yes but maybe we are all in cahoots. For a lousy $500???? I said, “Lady, if we were in cahoots it certainly wouldn’t be for a lousy $500.” At that point I resorted to yelling, since nothing else was working. And then she wanted security to escort me out of the bank. Now, I have a not insignificant amount of money in that bank and at that point I decided I was going to take it ALL out. I called my account manager and told her what was going on and then handed my cell to the bank manager.

    This part was really funny. I wish I could have videotaped the bank managers face. I think her job was threatened. She immediately told me I could have my $500.

    Later, I asked my account manager what she told the bank manager. She smiled and said that she told her that her husband was sleeping with some other woman at the bank and if she wanted to know who it was she would comply with the withdrawal request. (She was not bluffing, it was true…)

  • Molly
    November 7, 2008 8:14am

    LOL @ Wielding her tampon. Really interesting post. I’d never even heard stories of French banks before. But what you guys have been saying about American v French banks seems to make sense.

    I work in a bank in Australia, and I find that our Aussie customers tend to be really relaxed about the whole banking thing. On the other hand, when we do have American customers, they tend to be a bit more demanding and expect a much higher level of service (e.g. expecting courtesy calls when their next mortgage payment is due, etc). Things that Aussies just don’t expect from their bank. I guess that’s just how banks in the US work???

    For example, Sandra’s experience of the bank posting the cheque back to the business account. If that happened in my bank, we’d definitely verbally apologise to the customer, fix the payments and reverse those fees straight away, but there’s no way in hell we’d be writing apology letters as a fuming customer watched. Similarly, we wouldn’t take a customer shouting at us. No matter how frustrated the customers are, the staff are still human beings and deserve to be spoken to respectfully!

    Apologising for and fixing a mistake? Yes. Letting a customer humiliate the staff so they can feel they’ve extracted an appropriate punishment and their anger is satisfied? No thanks!!

    I wonder what it would be like to work in France and be able to tell customers, “nope, it’s not worth it for us to let you have a bank account with us”.

    Great post!!


  • November 7, 2008 9:46am

    Hey Molly,
    I don’t know if Australians are necessarily more relaxed about banking, I think maybe we’re just better at ‘not shooting the messenger’. I feel like the banks here have been systematically downgrading customer service and automating things to cut costs and being Aussies we’ve all just learned to like it or lump it. My dad worked in a bank 20 years ago and he got in trouble if he didn’t answer the phone before the third ring. Ha!

    Still, the new way is probably more efficient until you want to do something a bit unusual. (Like banking a cheque in Euros. Hello! It’s 2008 – how can that be SO hard and expensive?). But as you say, the tellers are usually pretty helpful and nice, they just give you the straight answer – ‘no worries we can do that… but it’ll probably take ages and we’ll charge you big fat fees’. Then again, given the way things operate in France I’m not sure if I want over-attentive customer ‘service’ back after all…

    Sorry David – what a can of worms you’ve opened up here! Maybe you should stick to the weather and the roads. Though this is way more amusing – both the post and the comments!

  • Judy Conger
    November 7, 2008 12:54pm

    Why don’t you get a scanner and scan your checks and store them on you computer? In that way you will always have a copy.
    Just a thought,


  • November 7, 2008 3:54pm

    Heh… as a former employee of “Votre banque, partout dans le monde” I find all of this highly amusing.

    Not in a ‘haha eff y’all’ sort of way, but in the way of understanding all too well being an employee and being told “oh no, we can’t do that.” … But.. but… I work here …

    Yeah.. nothing.

    The only perk working at that institution was not paying ATM fees anywhere in the world. I’m going to Mexico in 2 weeks, I’ll find out for the first time what it costs me to no longer be an employee making an international withdrawl.

    Le Sigh…

    You might want to check and see if your bank has affiliates in other countries where you don’t have to pay ATM fees. Bank of America, for example, is affiliated with BNP, Deutsch Bank, and a bunch of others, so travelers can use ATMs without any fees at those other banks. -dl

    PS: I was the program Capital on M6 where they exposed the hidden fees in French banks that I think got people to question their bank and go in and demand changes. At least that was true in my case!

  • November 7, 2008 4:24pm

    That reminds me of the time I had to make a deposit for the estranged ex of an Istanbul friend. The FAVOR was to deposit a 1,500 euros to in a branch of Belgium largest banking institution.
    So I’m back in my depressing home country — in Liege, to be exact — for a few days and head to this bank. Strike one: As I drive in to their parking lot, I realize I can’t get the automatic gate to open because that’s got to be effectuated with a customer card. I’m not their client so I have to park outside. The second strike: I also need a customer card to get into the so-holy bank. I manage to hail a guard, who tells me, “Excusez-moi madame, mais nous ne pouvons pas vous aider!” I know, I know I don’t bank here. And I really couldn’t care less coz I bank in Istanbul and Los Angeles. And, pour vous dire la vérité, je n’en n’ai rien a foutre! I really don’t care about depositing my OWN cash in here. But this is for a dear friend of mine, vous comprenez?
    I get in, feeling like I’ve accomplished a great feat. I take a number and wait for my turn. And as soon as it comes up I amble to madame bancaire, who reiterates again that I can’t deposit CASH into one their clients’ bank accounts because I am not one of their customers. STRIKE THREE!
    But I won’t go down without a fight! I take out the 100-euro bills from my exclusive credit card-filled Louis Vuitton wallet, which also holds a variety of passports, with my majorly blinged hand. AND, lo and behold, madame smiles, takes my money, deposits it, and cuts a receipt.
    The kicker here is that she asks me if I’d like to open an account with them! I must have looked at her with a look of such disgust that prompted a shocked look on her face.
    But seriously, my bankers in the US know the names of my kids and will do everything in their power to execute my banking over the phone or by email. And I’m proud to call the bankers with whom I deal in Turkey friends and financial advocates because ultimately if I’m happy and I make money so will they. Wow, I guess that’s called customer service with a SMILE!

    It’s funny because last time I had my visa appointment, and had to provide bank statements from France and the US, she asked why I had so little money in my French account, but much more in my American one. I said, “Because with my American one, I can take money out and put money in whenever I want, very easily.

    And she agreed….! -dl

  • November 7, 2008 6:35pm

    I love the title! Hillarious!!!

    You are a very patient man, David. Truly.

    Clearly one of the only downsides to living in Paris, and the only thing that would ever prevent me from moving to France. I loathe just having to go to the DMV every 4 – 8 years to renew my Driver’s License photo!

    Nonetheless, I am destined to become an expat/French resident sometime in the next 20 years. It’s just a matter of time and location. And clearly, a great deal of patience.

    Thanks for the laugh!


    ~ Paula
    (from Ambrosia Quest)

  • November 8, 2008 2:43am

    I have to admit, I don’t hate my bank. In fact, I am much happier with the HSBC in Paris than the branches in California. Those are filled with completely braindead individuals with a smile.

    I certainly welcomed the assistance of Graziella (Acta Services – http://acta-services.com/), a relocation manager. She cut through the BS and got all of my accounts set up for me. Come to think of it, maybe I don’t hate my bank because Graziella hid the awful parts of it from me…

    I usually visit my branch once every 3 months when I need to transfer money to my American account. Washington Mutual could not accept it directly. So I had to transfer to a Swiss bank, that transferred to Wells Fargo, who transferred it finally to WaMu. This usually involves two emails from HSBC people in France making sure that I had the correct information and eventually the money appears.

    I do remember the wave of relief the first time the tampon hit the desk. I think that is the first time I have written such a sentence.

  • Natalie
    November 15, 2008 2:35pm

    I’ve always dreamed of living in another country (France, Italy, etc.), thinking how much simpler things must be, than they are in the U.S.

    I guess the grass really IS greener on the other side!

    I can not believe I got so ultimately side-tracked and read this entire post/comments for the last hour… lol

    First time visiting the site.

    More bureaucracy :-D

  • Matthias W.
    November 16, 2008 6:12pm

    The french system might suck, but the American isn’t much better. Do you really still pay bills by sticking a check in an envelop and mailing it? Most of Europe has abandoned that in the 70ies.

  • November 17, 2008 12:01am

    Matthias: With my American bank, I have the option to pay bills all online, which I do. Here in France, I get a monthly bill from France Telecom and my cable tv and internet provider, in the mail, which I pay by sticking in an envelope and mailing with a stamp.

    Although one can have their bill payments automatically deducted from their bank accounts here, every time I go into my bank, there’s someone in there fighting and arguing with them about some charges or funds that aren’t supposed to be deducted from their accounts.

    And I try to spend as little time in my bank as possible, even though it is near the store that has the most extraordinary butter I’ve ever tasted…

  • Susan
    November 17, 2008 9:14am

    During my student days in Paris way back when, it was easier to fudge your way around the documentation requirements (pre-computer, pre-Schengen). But even then no ex-pat spent extended time in France without experiencing a significant amount of frustration.

    A few years later I wanted to do some research in a Paris library — it wasn’t a huge deal since I wasn’t asking to photocopy the Magna Carta or anything, plus I knew the head librarian. But when my home librarian gave me a letter of reference she pulled out a huge seal — that letter looked like something you’d get from the Reader’s Digest sweepstakes. The French do love their seals and notarized copies.

    Now, however, I am about to face the Parisian bureaucracy in the course of arranging for care of an elderly and not-quite-with-it relative, and I’m pretty clueless and quite terrified. But on one trip I’ve already observed the need to “work it” and get those fonctionnaires on your side des que possible.

    Someone once commented that the bureaucracy and rules were invented to make life difficult for the people you don’t like. Maybe since the election Americans in Paris will have a slightly easier time of it.

  • November 19, 2008 9:39am

    David, this was simply wonderful to read. Finally, there is someone in the world who knows European Bureaucracy. It was like that for me, living in Berlin. There is a very complicated method to actually becoming a resident which requires one to (1) visit a bank and get an account — but you can’t do that until you’ve got proof that you live somewhere — but you can’t do that until you rent something — but you can’t do that until you have a bank account…

    Your post was well written and made me laugh… and sigh.

  • Christine
    November 29, 2008 7:11pm

    You are so right on. I hate the French banking system. I’m currently studying abroad in Paris right now and I have to go to my bank every month to show them paper work about my Carte or housing or some other annoying stuff and every time I leave, I always think, “But you can do this in the States!” The more I’m learn about French banking, the more it scares me, but that’s because I’m looking at it from an American point of view. Oh well, it’s just another French bureaucracy thing we have to deal with, at least it makes for a good story though.

  • Camelia
    March 31, 2010 10:42pm

    I’m pretty sure that the verb for “rip off” is arnaquer :)

    I learned that in a terrible novel called “in the merde for love”

    I love your blog, and have been dutifully reading the backlog and bookmarking recipes. Everything looks delicious. Thank you!