French Customer Service

Before you scoff and say there’s no such thing, read on. It’s not the American brand of “the customer is always right,” it’s quite different, and it leaves you feeling tingly. If you’re a girl, that is. Pretty sure guys don’t get this one.

My first experience with it came when I was a fresh-out-of-college backpacker in Paris. I’d run out of clean clothes and had nothing left but a short pair of shorts to wear. As a naïve young thing from the deserts of Arizona, I had no idea that wearing shorts in Paris was an affront to civilized society. Especially during a pouring rainstorm. I walked down the streets, becoming more and more self-conscious of the stares I was receiving. I ducked into a pastry shop in search of my new favorite treat: a croissant. There, I was greeted by the incredulous stare of the shop’s owner.

“You are walking around like this in the rain?” he said in English; making the obvious assumption that I was Not-From-Around-Here. He pointed to my shorts.

I said, face flaming in embarrassment, “It’s not that cold out.”

He offered a smile and nodded. “Well, yes.  And I suppose with legs like that, you can get away with shorts like that anywhere. With legs like that, you should wear shorts.” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

I bought a couple of croissants, and a quiche. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d just been subjected to (or bamboozled by) my first round of French customer service.

Years later, I was in France with my husband, spending Christmas and New Year’s with his family. I came down with a horrible cold – every orifice on my face was stopped up. We popped into a pharmacy on the Champs Elysees and I instructed my husband to let me do the talking as I needed to practice my French. He agreed and stood behind me while I approached the counter.

A young male pharmacist stepped forward and I described my symptoms and asked for his suggestions.

He glanced at my husband and smiled at me. “You are so sick, yet you still have a beautiful smile on your face.”

He pulled out some decongestants and fever reducers and advised me on dosage and what to expect. He also counseled me on nutrition, fluid intake, and to go to the doctor if my symptoms did not get better in a few days. (Side note: this is typical of a French pharmacist; they have a much greater degree of autonomy, and often usurp the need to go to a doctor for many of the more common ailments people encounter.)

All of this he delivered to me intersperced with a smile here, an arched eyebrow there, a compliment on my French and my accent, and another compliment on my smile. My husband, true to his word, allowed me to complete the transaction without interfering. As we left, he smirked at me.

“He was completely flirting with you!”

“Was he? That’s kind of funny.”

“I think he assumed I didn’t speak French, since you were talking and you’re obviously foreign. He thought he could get away with it.”

I smiled, feeling a little smug that I could still entice some flirting, even with a ring on my finger and a few crinkles around my eyes. On a recent trip to Trader Joes in the eternally youth-obsessed southern California that I call home, I watched as a young cashier joked and flirted with the two college girls in front of me. As I pushed my cart up for my turn, I smiled genially, expecting the same treatment. Instead, his face grew serious, and he said politely, “How you doing tonight, ma’am.”

Ma’am?

Ma’am!

I’m thirty-incoherent mumble, for crying out loud! And I’ve been relegated to ma’am status? But in France – I’ve hardly reached my prime.

On another trip to Paris, I decided I wanted to get flowers for my mother-in-law. I entered a flower shop behind a stooped older woman. The shopkeeper, dark hair flowing to his broad shoulders like a hero from the cover of some bodice-ripper novel, came out and pressed his palms together, looking back and forth between me and the older woman and said, “which of you beauties can I help first today?”

We both smiled, and I indicated that the older woman had arrived first. He turned to her and proceeded to compliment her lovely scarf and then the flowers she had selected. He took his time to wrap them in three layers of different colored but complimentary tissue paper, and then finished it off by tying ribbons around it with a flourish. He tossed her one more compliment and she left with a smile.

He turned to my husband and I, and then spoke to my husband. “If I had a woman like that, I would buy her flowers, too.” My husband rolled his eyes at me, and I smiled and told the shopkeeper that we were actually there to buy flowers for my mother-in-law. He clapped his hands together. “Oh, what a beautiful daughter-in-law you are! So nice. And a great accent. Where are you from?”  We chatted, or he chatted me up, while he put our arrangement together. While we spoke, a mother pushing a stroller entered the shop. He called to her that he would be with her in a moment, then returned his full attention to me and my flowers. He took his time with our arrangement, and when he was done he handed it to me with a wink and a smile.

As we left, I heard him say to the mother, “I saved you for last so I could be alone with you!” It was so over the top that this normally cringe-worthy comment came out sounding charming and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.

Even though, at this point, I knew the flirting was all part of the game – all part of French customer service – as I left, I felt a little lighter on my feet, and my skin felt warm all over. I was a beautiful woman and a beautiful daughter-in-law. That shopkeeper made my day. And next time I need flowers in Paris, I’ll go straight to his shop. He’s found a customer for life. If that’s not the result of excellent customer service, then I don’t know what is.

My Daughter Started Preschool

My daughter started preschool at a French American school recently. I’ve been so excited about this. It’s important to my husband and me that she be exposed to both of our languages and cultures. There, all classes are taught in French by native speakers.

Still, taking her to school that first day was gut wrenching. She’s been my constant companion since her birth, or technically, since her conception. I chose to set aside my career, temporarily, so I could stay home with her and her brother. Something I never thought I’d want to do, but life changes us all, often in big ways. I’ve had babysitters, but never had I taken her somewhere and left her there. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotions as I turned away from her and walked out the classroom door, alone.

Sadness. Right away, I really, really missed her. Relief. I had a little more freedom for the day. Pride. My brave little girl was flustered when I left, but she hardly cried at all. Guilt. Was I doing the right thing? Was she too young for this? Would they be kind to her? She should be with people who love her, not strangers! Am I a horrible mother for feeling relieved right now? Excitement. She is going to learn so much and do so many cool things that I could never come up with for her. Curiosity. What will she experience today? Happiness. We are entering a stage where she’s becoming her own person and able to do so much more.

I’m so used to stooping just slightly so my hand can reach hers, accustomed to shortening my steps so she can keep up with me. Life suddenly felt too quiet without her little feet tap tap tapping along next to mine or her tiny voice chattering away. As I walked away, my arms swung loose, my back stretched and straightened, and I felt a piece of me returning,  the piece that is just simply Carol; not mom, not wife. I thought: This is a good thing. For both of us.

Then I started to cry.

The French Blow

The French have a trump card they can play in any conversation. I call it the French Blow.

For all of you who googled “blow” and ended up here, this is neither a sexual nor a drug reference. Sorry. See ya next time I shamelessly use key words to drive traffic to my site.

Here’s what it looks like: Tilt your head to one side and close your eyes or at least lower your eyelids to half-mast. Raise one eyebrow if you can, both if you must put that much effort forth. Part your lips and inhale through your teeth while making a lazy shrug, preferably with only the shoulder you’ve tilted your head toward. Now puff your cheeks and exhale forcefully. Drop your shoulder and gaze at some distant point with as bored a look as you can be bothered with. That’s your French Blow.

Here’s a video:

It’s the American “whatever” squared. It can be used in any situation:

“The French metro workers are striking!”

“You just ran over my daughter’s foot with your suitcase!”

“Your wife is cheating on you… with your brother!”

What can you say, once such disinterest has been conveyed? Such a complete lack of concern, nothing will get a reaction from the French person in question at this point. They. Absolutely. Don’t. Care. (Say this with a thick French accent). There you have it. Throw this into any conversation, and you’ll pass for French.

My Daughter Speaks French

 It’s strange, in a good way, to hear my daughter speaking in a foreign tongue. After surveying other bilingual families and doing a bit of research, we decided that the best approach would be one-parent-one-language. So my husband speaks to our munchkins in French and I speak to them in English. I do throw the occasional French song or French book in there from time to time.

Her first French word was “papillon,” which is butterfly. She said it with such a cute intonation that we went overboard pointing out every butterfly just so we could hear her say it. With her first words, her pronunciation was already better than mine. The French word for bear is ours (sounds like: oors), and while typically the “s” at the end of a French word is silent, it isn’t in this one. So when my daughter pronounced it, I looked to my husband and asked, “It’s ‘oor’ not ‘oors’, right?” He gave me a sympathetic smile. “No. She’s got it right. Not you.”

Well then.

When she was eighteen months old, I realized that her newbie brain had already begun to separate the two languages. She pointed to a toy car and said, “voiture.” I knew that she knew the word in English, so I said to her: “Yes, it’s ‘voiture’ in French. What is that called in English?” She answered, without hesitation, “car.” Thus began a fascinating game for me of pointing things out to her and asking for the French word and the English word. She does confuse things occasionally, like applying English grammar rules to French. It’s an amazing insight into how a young brain learns a language.

She quickly decided that only my husband could read French books to her, and only I could read English ones. She apparently doesn’t approve of either of our accents. But when she mistakenly handed my dad a French book, he went with it.

A few words on my dad and French. He doesn’t speak it. At all. But he pretends to, with great enthusiasm. Poor kid; as my dad crashed through the words with gusto, using a strange mixture of Spanish and Italian pronunciation complete with wild hand gestures, she first looked confused, then like she was about to cry, then she took the book from Pops and wailed, “Pops no read it! Mommy read it! In English!”

It’s both fascinating and humbling to watch my daughter becoming bilingual. She’ll be able to speak two languages fluently, with no accent. Wow. I can only dream of such a thing. I’m working on my French, now with greater determination, so that my husband and daughter don’t end up with a secret language.