Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Little Things


The traveler is a fox as well as a hedgehog. He notices not only the one big thing (see previous post) but also many small things. Take the petty inefficiencies of French life. At Carrefour gas stations, for example, there is one entry and one exit, both gated, with the gates controlled by a single cashier, who has too many other responsibilities, such as resetting the pumps, which consequently sit idle for precious seconds when she is too busy to monitor them all. When entering, drivers must fan out from the choke point into, say, a dozen lanes to refuel. But only half of the lanes have diesel fuel, and when the service station is crowded, it's impossible to see which ones these are. Confusion ensues. Then the twelve lanes must converge again into one at the cashier's station, and when there is a crowd, the delay backs up into the pumps, so that some stand idle when they could be pumping. On a high-traffic day, the waste--in time and fuel consumed by idling engines--is considerable. Does it never occur to anyone to change such practices?

Or, again, take the national phobia concerning the supposedly lethal courant d'air. As a result, everything is underventilated. The heat in the Métro is unbearable even on cool days. On Tuesday it was 65 in Paris but in the RER B to the airport it must have been 110, even though the woefully small movable window panels in the car were open.

Even the TGV, admirable as it is, has too little air circulation, but even worse is the inadequate space provided for luggage. Admittedly, I was traveling by train on the weekend that Bison futé tagged as the worst of the year, but surely one designs a railroad car to accommodate a full load of passengers with luggage. Or so one would think. And the SNCF seems to have adopted le service minimum as its full-time labor-saving standard. Agents on the trains are scarce, and nowhere to be found at boarding time, so that inevitably TGV passengers end up in the wrong car or the wrong seat. I had to displace a bewildered foreigner who spoke no French (or English) and had no idea what the writing on his reservation meant (he was in car 15 rather than car 7). Even worse, I also had to displace a Frenchman whose ticket read "car 16" and who refused to admit that he was actually in car 15. Since there was no conductor in sight to adjudicate this dispute, it became a collective altercation, with other passengers chiming in to insist that it was indeed the fifteenth car, while entering passengers, dragging suitcases down narrow aisles because the luggage rack was full, fumed that the aisle was blocked.

Still, the rail system is a marvel that the US ought to envy. Even with the drastically undervalued dollar, I was able to travel from Paris to Lyon at 1/3 the cost and in 1/3 the time of a trip from Boston to New York, and Avignon to Paris was almost as good a bargain even on the year's peak travel day.

7 comments:

Unknown said...

I think french people (and I am one of them) are very stubborn. Wether it is not to believe in what someone says or not to change bad habits/practices.

The worst part about the gas station is that, ask any customer, he will say that it has to be changed. But try and change things (credit card payment possibilities for instance) and 200 people will object that you are destroying a job.
(I have had this discussion at a family diner. Next time, I will avoid such a subject).

David in Setouchi said...

I know what you mean Arthur.
When I lived in the US, every time I returned to France it was the little details that stroke me (annoyed me) the most... I guess I never lost sight of the big picture for many reasons, but I had forgotten how poorly organized my country was in many fields...
The funny part (not funny "ha! ha!) is that now when I try to explain that things can work smoothly, they don't have to be messed up, I always receive looks of mistrust (even worse if I cite the US as an example).

Concerning the people that are on the wrong car in the TGV (happens in every car of every trip I think), I still can't understand how people manage to do that...

Anonymous said...

Conversing recently with a Frenchman living in New York, I found out that he as a Frenchman is questioned regularly on the bodily smell of his fellows countrymen. He said that it is embarassing but eye-opening, because when he went back home this summer he was shocked "pour la première fois de trouver comment Paris puait". This was the first time I encountered the myth du "français qui pue" and I am still wondering how sound it is, how old it is and what can be its connection to the "courant d'air" phobia. Any input?

doomed to be fabulous said...

I was not aware that the French in actuality had stronger body odour than Americans. I was under the impression that this was a myth whose origin stems from the liberation of Paris. Four years of occupation meant that Parisians had to conserve water and scale back their hygiene habits, so when the American soldiers entered, they found a populace that only bathed only occasionally.

I suppose the rarity of air conditioning and good circulation in France might explain if some French seem to smell, but I've never noticed anything.

David in Setouchi said...

Yeah, I don't mind a bunch of idiocies I hear about French people and France, but the body odor one really peeves me...

French people do wash and don't stink anymore than Americans do.
And yeah, the metro stinks, just like any place where you cram a bunch of people together without A/C and ventilation...

And yeah, some people do stink in France, but they're rarely French (I won't name names, and there's no racism implied here, just that the concept of washing is not the same in every culture) or they're homeless.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

I have been very frustrated by the limited space that the TGVs provide for luggage--on the TGV Atlantique from Paris Monparnasse to La Rochelle, and also on the duplexes--especially the duplexes--from Paris to Lyon. They seem set up for business travelers, not vacationers. Perhaps the "vous" in the SNCF slogan (à nous de vous faire préférer le train) means "hommes d'affaires." That said, I prefer the most crowded French train to Amtrak, even if my last trip from Lyon to Geneva involved a scene from Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot in which half of the passengers on the platform did not hear the announcement that the train from Lyon Part-Dieu to Geneva had switched platforms with that from Part-Dieu to Perrache.

I've never used a Carrefour gas station (Les Mousquetaires in the southwest, but never Carrefour), but my beef with Carrefour, at least in Paris, the banlieues limitrophes, and Lyon, is the presumption of the security staff that customers are shoplifters until proven innocent. In the Part-Dieu Carrefour I once had an unpleasant exchange with a security person when I stopped at the guichet outside the cash registers and then entered the store via an unattended register. It was not blocked off, it was immediately opposite the escalator to the food level, and I did not have any bags or other items from outside the store. Nonetheless, the security officer who confronted me insisted that I walk back where I had come and then enter through the main entrance.

I complied because my wife was upstairs shopping and I did not want to get thrown out and be unable to meet up with her. Nonetheless, I wondered at the assumptions involved: someone entering (not leaving) through a cashier's line was doing something wrong, and the reaction to that was belligerence, not a polite request to not do that in the future.

But I was sorely tempted to ask the security person to explain why they thought I might be trying to smuggle something into the store, especially since it was obvious I had just stopped at the guichet to get cash.

Don't get me wrong: US supermarkets spend just as much on anti-shoplifting measures. It just seems that their approaches don't involve the presumption of guilt. As a historian, I balk at facile explanations involving the difference between the common law presumption of innocence and the civil code, but sometimes it's easy to understand why those explanations are appealing.

David in Setouchi said...

- Brian:
Sadly, the reaction to almost everything is belligerence in Paris...