I had the most frustrating day I’ve had in a while today.
First I woke up late, thanks to my battery-powered alarm clock that decided to die at 3 AM. Then as I was walking out of the house, I forgot my cell phones (yes, plural, I have one for France, one for the USA) and had to unlock the complicated front door which literally takes 10 minutes.
To make matters worse, as I was walking to the RER Pont d’Alma station, I stepped in a fresh pile of dog poo. To me it seemed like a scene right out of a movie: I was already having the worst day ever, and to top it off I stepped in the nastiest of all things. Little did I know the morning was just a warm-up for the rest of my miserable day.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have the privilege of working at the BNF (Bibliotheque Nationale de France) for an advanced History course. Well, today, things didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped they would. I had reserved 10 books, and 2 “microfiches,” which are reproductions of old manuscripts. When I went to pick them up, I only received 5 books. The lady working the book bank told me that my card “does’t have the correct documentation” to pick up the rest. Naturally, I was extremely confused since a week earlier I was given full access to all of the library’s collections.
Very confused, I rushed to the “Information Desk” to figure what the problem was. Of course, they told me the book bank was wrong, and there was nothing more I needed and “to insist I have the books.” Well, France is NOT a place that you “insist” anything. There is a very different understanding of “customer service” here. In the United States we swear by the motto “the customer is always right,” whereas in France the customer is only sometimes right, which I learned today.
When I returned to the book bank, I told the young lady working there that the Information Desk said there wasn’t a problem and possibly her machine was acting funny (exactly what they had told me to say). She literally looked me up and down (imagine Regina George in Mean Girls), and said in broken English, “I told you it no work.” I again explained, very politely and with a big smile, in French, what the Information Desk had told me and asked to speak with a supervisor. What a mistake! As soon as I said that she huffed and puffed at me, ran to the back and got TWO people.
I can understand French pretty well now and basically they were mocking the way I spoke French, the way I was dressed, and saying what I was asking them to do was somehow outrageous. Finally after almost 20 minutes of talking about me, they made me a new card and told me to “wait until Monday to use it.” Somehow, I was inconveniencing the employees of the library to actually do their job!
To say the least I was upset, frustrated, and mad. I had to keep reminding myself that things are different here: they speak a different language, their idea of customer service is completely different, and I am a foreigner. After calling my mom and dad almost in tears, I calmed down and rationalized the situation. In the USA, there are people just as rude to foreigners as the girl was to me today. I will have to adapt to that situation and work my best around it. I’m going to run across rude people, whether it’s in Paris or Dallas!
The experience taught me two things today:
1. I’m really NOT in the USA. Attitudes are different here, and I better get used to it and make it into a learning experience. These obstacles only teach me how to deal with “real life” situations and give me questions to ask my French teachers about what to say in certain situations.
2. At home, I should be more patient and understanding of people who can’t speak perfect English. They are at least trying!
Not only is France teaching me important French and history lessons, but France is also teaching me valuable life lessons! Hopefully, next week when I go to the BN with Dr. Kahan, we can figure out exactly what’s wrong with my card!