24 August 2012

Les files d'attente

In a French book I just finished, about the experience of the two young French brothers who survived the Titanic sinking (as it is imagined by the daughter of one of those survivors, Les enfants du Titanic: l'histoire vraie de deux rescapées, Elisabeth Navratil, 2012), I learned a very useful phrase, les files d'attente (the waiting lines).  I have written about waiting lines in France several times earlier, and unlike what must have been a line of increasingly desperate and impatient Titanic guests waiting to get on life boats, the French in general seem to endure waiting lines more complacently and certainly very frequently.  The French faire la queue (stand in line) multiple times a day, at the grocery store cheese counters, check- out aisles (see Je ne sais quoi), bakeries and butchers, and I've been told more than once to take a book with me if I need to do business at the government offices for car registrations and immigrations (see Les Documents for a remarkable photo of the wait list screen at the Marseille prefecture last summer that shows how slowly government workers seem to move; only the officer at counter 10 was seeing a client, #828, at that moment, while there were hundreds of others waiting to see someone about their immigration papers.).  I have also recounted the rain that preceded my driving theory exam (Humilité) but I neglected to mention the nearly 2 hour wait for the start of the exam: scheduled time 8:00 am, actual time after 10:00.  I can tell you now that that experience was followed some weeks later by another file d'attente, this time in the hot sun in a dingy parking lot, for the practical driving exam.  The posted time of the exam, 9:45, was actually the time that the four students from my driving school were to arrive at the parking lot, driven over by one of our instructors.  After a private conference between the instructor and examiner, each student drove off with both instructor and examiner for about 25 minutes while the rest of us waited.  My exam, the last one, was underway finally around 11:15.  (Despite the heat and too much time to worry, I did pass, by a comfortable margin.  Even there though, the French tested my patience, because I had to wait an entire day for the results!)

While it might seem that there is some French exceptionalism to waiting in line, it is also very likely that French companies and organizations are quite aware of and use the copious scientific data available on line-waiting.  Alex Stone describes some of this research briefly in his recent New York Times piece.  ("Why Waiting is Torture." August 18, 2012. The New York Times online ).   For example, psychological studies suggest that consumers wait in lines more easily and with less complaining when they are occupied.  The larger supermarkets in Aix keep their shoppers who carry les cartes de fidélité (club cards as we call them in the U.S.) busy by letting them scan their own groceries with individual, handheld scanners, as they shop.  The shoppers then place the goods into their carts, directly into bags they have brought from home.  Then, these special shoppers stand in separate, purportedly shorter, automated check-out lines to process their scanned purchases.  The time-savings is questionable though, as we have been stymied more than once by long check-out lines for completing these transactions and by 'error' messages requiring assistance from clerks anyway.  Consumers though feel less frustrated if they are doing something worthwhile even if the wait isn't shortened.  At another smaller grocery store, I can get the weather report and my weekly horoscope on the television screens above the check-out area as I wait for the customers ahead of me.

Another line-waiting 'trick' detailed in the research is to provide customers with a sense of their progress in line, as they also tend to be more satisfied when they feel they are moving along quickly.  The inflated waiting times at Disneyland attractions as described in Stone's article are likely mimicked by French companies.  Recently, while waiting to chat online with a customer service representative at Orange.fr, my French cell phone service provider, I was periodically updated with my 'wait status', and even if there really weren't 10 customers ahead of me already chatting, I was able to do something else at my desk while tracking the dwindling number of chatters ahead of me until it was my turn.  It seems we all appreciate knowing that there is a clear end to our waiting.  I can tell you that when confronted with uncertainty in this regard, the French are every bit as impatient as people elsewhere.  We hear furious car horn honking multiple times a day as files d'attente appear along our narrow old town street when delivery personnel stop their vehicles suddenly to make a delivery, or as private individuals load or unload their cars or parallel park their cars into tiny spaces or simply can't decide which way to go.  I have even been yelled at by an impatient, rude, gesticulating French driver as I was standing on the street when my departing visitors held him up for a few minutes as they loaded their car with their luggage.  That was at once a uniquely French experience as much as it was a universal one.

17 August 2012


Back in the 1700s, one Tobias Smollett traveled from England to France and then Italy, and in the letters he wrote back home, he complained quite a bit about travelers' lodgings and the auberges (roadside inns) in France, finding them in general dirty, uncomfortable, and exceedingly expensive.  (He was quite a curmudgeon, but many of his observations seem to remain relevant today.)  These were not like tourist spots of today but rather simple stops along the road where travelers could get food and rest while exchanging horses for the next leg of their trips.  Perhaps the most appropriate modern day equivalent might be the aires (or rest areas) along the French highways, and I'm afraid there is still some room for improvement 250 years later.  These rest stops are run by private companies and typically feature full service gas stations, toilets, and a range of dining options, but I wouldn't describe them as terribly clean or inexpensive or of good quality.  To be fair, this is generally true of rest areas in many places around the world.  On the other hand, in 21st century France, one can still take care of private business in many of these aires standing up, using the simple but primitive hole in the floor!  As for overnight accommodations, our experiences have been limited to Paris, Lyon and northern and eastern France, where we've stayed generally in teeny, tiny hotel rooms or generic hotel chain rooms and one condominium.  Overall, comfort and exceptional cleanliness aren't at the top of the list of adjectives I'd use to describe these mid-range accommodations.  (I know that there are many more impressive luxury holiday rentals, especially here in the South of France, but then we veer into a price range quite outside ours.)  Within our budget range, we haven't slept on many comfortable French hotel beds or enjoyed sparkling and well-supplied hotel bathrooms.  Sometimes the service seems a little begrudging too.

Perhaps this is one reason that we choose to spend some of our holidays in Germany; we truly appreciate the gemütlichkeit (a German word denoting comfort, coziness, friendliness).  We enjoy the friendly greetings and generous service, the airy down comforters and comfortable beds, and the exceptionally clean and bright furnishings.  For our recent summer holiday earlier this month, we stayed within the German-speaking world, opting for Austria, with some side trips to Germany.  In our limited experience, we unanimously award the gold medal for the best mid-range holiday accommodations...to Austria!  We rented a holiday flat for a week, adding two days to our original agreement almost immediately when we realized that this was going to be an excellent stay.  We had space, we had comfort, we had super clean windows, linens and floors, gorgeous petunias in overflowing flower boxes on our terrace, and a dishwasher that literally sparkled after its cycles.  We had free bicycles for the entire week, free secure parking, free use of tennis courts, pingpong, and swimming pool.  We had access to hiking trails and swam in an alpine lake not far from our flat and shopped in the nearby village.  Fresh rolls were delivered to our front door each morning, and when we weren't eating in, we had some delicious meals for almost half of what we'd pay in France.  (We did eat a lot of heavy meals, with meat and potatoes and apple strudel and beer, rather than the fresh produce we enjoy here in the South of France, but one can eat like that while on vacation, right?)  To us, the level of service and the accommodations seemed exceptionally generous but to the Austrians providing these, this was all very normal.  

Yet, I suppose one seeks different things from different places.  For our Austrian sojourn, we were seeking greenery, alpine views, cooler temperatures and we were even open to some rain, and we got those things and more.  In France, we look for different things.  One isn't going to find the same kind of gemütlichkeit and good beer as in Germany or Austria, but here we have Paris, we enjoy wonderful food and wine, we have seen amazing collections of art.  In the South, we appreciate the amazing climate and the wonderful Mediterranean.  In the 18th century, Smollett was seeking a cure for his physical ills, and despite his negative experiences at the French inns along the way, he was restored by his stay in the South (he stopped in Nimes, Montpellier and ended up in Nice).  Likewise, while we certainly enjoyed our brisk and uncrowded alpine lake swim in the Austrian alps the week before, we continue to seek the pleasures provided by the turquoise seawater, the warm sand, and the beach atmosphere of the Med.  So do thousands of others who visit our part of France each year.  Here is a small portion of them at the beach at Ste Croix near Marseille this past Assumption Day (August 15). 

Smollett, Tobias. 2010. [1776.] Travels Through France and Italy. London: Tauris Park Paperbacks.