Thursday, May 14, 2009

Home, and the Absurdities of Travel

I am back home, and sick with something I hope (actually am confident ) isn't the swine flu.

Travel always points up its share of absurdities. For example, there are French ticket machines. To purchase an RER ticket from CDG to Paris, you use a machine. Unlike most such machines in the US, you don't insert your credit card and then withdraw it in one motion. This doesn't work. You have to leave your card in the slot. But nowhere on the machine is this explained. Since most people using the machines have just arrived from some other country, this causes enormous frustration and leads to long lines. Fortunately, on one machine, someone has taped a piece of paper that says to leave the card in the slot. In French. As people decipher this message, the information passes to travelers standing in line at other machines, and gradually the stalled system begins to move again. Until a new generation of line-standers accumulates, and the whole hesitation waltz begins again. This might be taken as a metaphor for France. Some economist ought to propose a model. The paper could be called "Information Bottlenecks, Wasted Time, and Economic Stagnation."

At a borne électronique in an SNCF station, you can withdraw reserved tickets by entering a reservation number. The machine gives you the choice of withdrawing either the aller or the retour of a round-trip reservation, or both. Being a clever sort, I thought, Why withdraw both, I may want to change the return ticket and anyway I might lose it. But when I later went to pick up my return ticket, it turned out that taking only the aller meant that I could no longer get the retour from the machine. I had to stand in line for a guichet. When I finally reached an agent, I explained what happened, and he gave me that look that people at ticket windows reserve for the benighted and dull-witted: Ah, monsieur, ça risque de vous coûter cher. But he was just having me on. A few button presses and he had my ticket. I asked why, if there was a problem with taking only one ticket, the machine gave me that option. His answer: "Why, monsieur, these are very bad machines, the government didn't pay much for the software." This struck me as the sort of answer Tocqueville would have loved. Here was a cog in the bureaucratic machine who knew that a problem existed in the system but did nothing about it, preferring to blame that vague but ominpotent tyrant, "the government." So who knows how many agents in how many stations spend how many hours rectifying an error that could be changed by a simple modification of the software, if only there were some way to get the bureaucratic machine engaged. (Or perhaps the window agents are protecting their jobs; if the machines worked, fewer of them would be needed. Le Phénomène bureaucratique indeed.)

Last but not least, there are machines that take credit cards but don't have any indication of which way they should be inserted. At a place like the Louvre, where dozens of people line up at every machine, this simple oversight wastes countless hours. Of course it's better than the RER station at the Luxembourg, where the machines accept some credit cards but not others, with no explanation at all of why the cards are "non lue." Since there are four possible ways to insert the card, and the entire menu has to be repeated for each insertion -- well, you get the picture ... And of course the ticket window is under construction, and there is no sign to tell you that there is a temporary window across the street, by the Jardin.

But lest I be accused of French-bashing, the US takes the cake for bureaucratic absurdity: a new card for visitors without US passports asks the following question: "Are you a terrorist, or are you engaged in espionage against the United States?" I feel quite protected knowing that all foreigners who enter the US have answered these questions in the negative.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

very funny

Diomede said...

Actually most questions on the US card that you mentionned are quite funny. I once brought one back to an american collegue who thought I was pulling his leg.

But what I prefer, is that after all these questions the card reads something like "if you naswered "yes" to any of these questions, please contact the American embassy in your country". Althought these card are available at embassies, travellers usually find out about them when the plane crew distribute them, just before landing...

Anthony said...

In defence of SNCF, all European card readers in my experience require you to leave the card in the slot. I am always confused on my trips to the States by the 'in and out' card readers.

As for the landing questionnaire, I was once a British civil servant and as part of my application had to answer a question on the form that read "Have you or any of your family been involved in an organisation whose aims include the overthrow of Parliamentary democracy by violent means? If yes, give details."

Boris said...

SNCF has a reputation for terrible user interface - their website is a nightmare. If you do the slightest mistake, you have to start all over again.
As for the ticket agent, with his nowadays compulsory (bad) humour, there's no wonder he's blaming the machine's software. For one thing, it does indeed take their jobs, and agents are rarely pleased when they have to fix disorders caused by their mechanical rivals Then there's the story with the software they have to use, which is very complicated and caused enormous lines when it was first introduced, some years ago. This one though, as we were told, was bought from a US airline company, as their ticket marketing turned to airline-style time-dependant prices.

James Conran said...

I agree that leaving the card in is the standard in Europe, certainly I've never experienced an in-and-out one.

As for the "are you a terrorist?" card, I remember the first time I went to the US with my parents my father joking to the American official at Dublin Airport that he wasn't sure how to answer the "have you ever committed genocide?" question on my behalf (I was ten years old).

"Excuse me sir?" was the not-seeing-the-funny-side-at-all-response. We got through though...

bernard said...

all sorts of amusing questions indeed on US landing cards for as long as I can remember. They have whanged too over the years. The point about these silly questions though is that you actually sign your answers. So if they catch you later having lied about something, you can easily be prosecuted: you've already delivered the proof. That, I am sure, is the not so foolish rationale.

typewritten said...

You're so right!