It’s Complicated! Pt. 1
As we have worked hard to understand the French language and the French and their customs over the past 7 weeks, we have constantly come away with a feeling that many things are complicated. So many simple tasks that we do at home and take for granted require much more effort to accomplish here. Of course, we are at a slight disadvantage due to the fact that our French is very limited and we, well… we aren’t French. Maybe if we had been born and raised here, it wouldn’t seem so complicated. Maybe.
Cases in point…
Inevitably you arrive in France on a weekend. You crash on Saturday after your long flight and you get up late on Sunday, a little jet-lagged but ready to roll. Too late if you’re planning on getting groceries. Many grocery stores chains are closed on Sundays or only open till noon. In fact, most stores are closed because the French believe retail workers deserve a day of rest. Sunday is often a big shopping day for Americans because they’ve had to work a 6-day week to make ends meet. We are accustomed to everything being open all day on Sunday so it’s difficult to adjust to this in your new environment. This happens repeatedly throughout your vacation because all the places you have scheduled to stay for a week require you to rent Saturday to Saturday generally with no check in sooner that 4 or 5 PM. Convenient for them but not necessarily for us. Eventually we trained ourselves to get groceries en route between destinations with just enough time between purchase and check-in so nothing would spoil.
You get to the airport which of course is not really in Paris and you need to get to your apartment in the city about 45 minutes away. No problem. Paris has an outstanding public transportation system. Very convenient… if you are French. The machines which dispense tickets for the train you need to take only accept coins not bills which is all you have if you arranged to get a few Euros ahead of time. There are no change machines anywhere and no airport merchant wants to give you change unless you buy something. Plus, you need a LOT of change. Two tickets cost €18. But wait, the machines take credit cards. We have those. Ah, but we’re not French. So our cards don’t have the special security chip that makes them work in French machines. Eventually you finagle enough Euros in coins out of someone and you’re finally on your way.
This is a recurring story. Parking is rarely free. You are lucky enough to find a parking space and now you have to figure out how to pay for a ticket. There are usually machines located along the street every so many meters. You find a machine, you figure out the directions in French for using it, and then you realize it doesn’t take any kind of coin or paper money — only credit cards. So… You can’t park there.
You’re driving a car so you also need gas. As we have already mentioned, gas or in our case, diesel (known as gazole — I love that word and I plan on using it when I get home and need to fill the tank) is very expensive here. You get excited when you drive past a gas station and find “cheap” gazole, but you quickly learn that you can’t buy it because all the stations that carry cheap gazole are only manned by… you guessed it — automated machines that only take Euorpean credit cards. Many stations that do have an attendant are only manned by a real person who will take your real money during certain hours and definitely not on Sundays. Again we had to figure out how to plan ahead. There were many days when our first daily goal was to buy gazole and then we could breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the rest of the day.
Even if you’re not driving a car, buying a ticket for the Metro can also be a challenge. The locals who use it daily buy long-term passes that are easily rechargeable (the Navigo — another word I like). These are not practical for the temporary visitor. There are several other options for travelers, but depending on the station you pick to begin your Metro trip, you may find that the ticket machines only accept coins or 🙂 credit cards. Ah, if only we were French! In the end, you learn how to beat this game too. You save your change — you don’t need it for tips anyway as they’re always included in your bill when you eat in a restaurant — and you buy carnets which are packets of 10 tickets so they’ll last you a while. And once in a while you have to resort to buying something small like a pastry at a local shop and handing the clerk a large bill (not popular) in order to get the change you need.
Laundry and shopping also present similar dilemmas. If you have an apartment or gîte for a week as we did most of the time, all you have to do is figure out how to use the French washing machine. However, if you have to go out to do your laundry, you will need change… again. You hope you have enough to get through your wash and dry, or you just throw it in the car to dry on the way back to where you are staying. Most grocery stores have the plastic baskets, often rolling ones that you can use. But if you want a shopping cart, you will have to get one in the parking lot where they are all line up and locked together. Hmmm… how to get one loose? You need a coin, or even more challenging, a token to unlock it. And where do you get the token?? We never figured that one out. There was only so much work we had the energy to do. We always managed with the free and easily available baskets. After all, we were on vacation for heaven’s sake and it shouldn’t be so complicated!
To Be Continued…