Monday, September 20, 2010

My number one interaction: paying for things

So I can’t say I am getting tons of French conversation going on here. My main interactions come from the post office, the market, the grocery store. But still, I have learned many things from paying for things: how to understand numbers, the implications of the tax system, the rhythm of the typical day, how people use cash, immigration issues, and codes of politeness to name a few. Really. You won’t believe the variety of checkout experiences I’ve had in three short weeks.

First, numbers. Early on, I realized that purchasing things involved mainly numbers. And how hard can numbers be? They are concrete, quantifiable, predictable things that even have the same symbols in both languages.

Well, if you ask me, numbers in French are dang hard. They have a weird system where you say things like “sixty twelve” for 72, or “four-twenties-ten-nine” for 99 (that would be 80 and 19, get it?). On top of that, I find the word for tens almost identical sounding to the words for hundreds. For example, 50, cinquante, and 60, soixante, just do not sound that different from cinq cents (500) and six cents (600).

Another difficulty is the word Euro. In French, this word seems almost entirely swallowed to me. There might be a bit of an R and an O coming out at the end, but mostly this word just vanishes. I listen for it and it is not there. Deux euros sounds to me like “dur.” And then the 100th of a Euro, is, again, a cent which just throws me for a loop all over again (see above). So deux euro cinqante cents sounds an irregular combination to me like “duh, 5 hundred hundreds.” Don't even get me started on "one euro."

And the don't say "one hundred" or "one thousand," they just say "hundred" and "thousand" when there is only one. At least that is what I think is going on...

Now I know it is possible to function well with these numbers because people here do it effortlessly everyday, so I am trying to hone my ear.

In our first week here I noticed a sign in the closest grocery store about new hours for Sunday due to the braderie on the street that day. So I looked up braderie and find out it means “cut rate sale.” I ask Carina, my key source, what is going on (thrilled that I managed to notice something was going on). She says it is an annual street sale on our main cross street. Kind of like a flea market, but more like a remainder sale for the businesses on the street. Basically the McGuckin’s tent sale for those of you from Boulder. (And I of course thought that meant the grocery store would be reducing its hours due the street sale, when in fact, these were added hours and the store is not usually open on Sundays at all---but I wouldn’t learn that until the next week.)

So on Sunday Rees and Kadin and I head out into the braderie. There is tons of cheap junk, mostly, but it is fun because there are people doing what they have been doing for millennia: looking for a deal, hawking their wares. There are pitchmen doing their thing in French and it all seems so timeless and universal. I can picture this same thing happening in the same place in medieval times: smells of bread and cheese and sausage, olives and sweets, people demonstrating the latest trick or gadget, buyers digging through piles for treasures.

Under the train bridge I find a booth selling fabric for 1 euro a meter. The couch cover in our apartment is a little too small for two boys to manage to keep on the couch and looking neat, so I thought if I found a source of cheap fabric, I would make another one that would stay put. I can’t believe the price, so I want to ask the guy how much. Rees gives me the words, “combien coût?” and the guy replies with something incomprehensible. So I figure I’ll try another way, “Combien trois metres?

The guy wonders if I can really be that dense. “Twaro,” is the reply. Eh? Rees translates: 3 euros, mom.

I eventually ask for 4 meters, and the guy explains something about how much is left on the bolt. He is repeating the words “samet sont” over and over. He looks to Rees for help. Hmmm.

I do not know this word samet. Is that a kind of fish? He should be saying something like 5 meters, why is he suddenly talking about fish? And then the light dawns, samet IS cinq metres. Now we’re getting somewhere! 5 meters 50 left on the bolt, he’ll give it to me for sanker (5 euros, mom, says Rees).

I should probably bargain, but what the heck, about $8 for 5.5 meters of fabric and I can’t go too far wrong. I could easily spend that much for lunch (or French lessons!). So I learn that the way I learn is to listen for what I think they should have said and then calibrate backwards. It is a very slow process! I will have to take Rees with me more often…

Now, on to taxes:

I am in line at the store where I bled all over the dressing room, waiting to buy my skirt. There is a long line (I’m slowly realizing through trial and error that shopping at the lunch-two-hour is not a great idea as many things are closed, and those that aren’t, are crowded). There is only one register open and apparently, it is possibly not working. It is amazing to me, but the clerk is writing every transaction down in a book. She writes down what each item is, it’s brand, it’s size and price, and then she writes the total, how much money she was given, and how much she gave back in change. Wow. This is a tedious process.

Still, it is a step up from the Indian grocery where I went the other day. There, the old, grandmotherly lady didn’t even write anything down or use a register at all. We just added up the price of everything together in our heads and I gave her the money and she gave me the change. Like a garage sale!

Still, I am a bit stunned. This is a chain store and it seems so old fashioned to me. Other people too seem to think it a bit odd, but no one in line seems put out. They seem ready to wait. I think that in America, turnover would be key to store viability. Don’t make the customer wait, etc. Not a concern here.

Later, when back at the same store, the register is working. I again ask Carina and we hypothesize that it might be a tax thing. Either the register truly wasn’t working, or for a day or two a month, they do not record transactions electronically for some reason.

It is interesting that while people here seem to really enjoy and benefit from their higher level of social care from the state, they also pay higher taxes. One side effect is that they seem more open to finding ways to avoid taxes. I wonder if that wasn’t the cause of the retro payment systems I experienced at these two stores.

Big bills:

Next payment pickle I find myself in is at IKEA. I try to use the self-checkout to pay for the three items I have scored for a total of 5 euros (very psyched: two new---so gluten free---cutting boards, a salad bowl, and an analog clock). Unfortunately, I find there is no place to insert money into the machine and I am then informed the self-checkout is only for use with bankcards. Still don’t have a bankcard. Sigh.

So I go wait in line again. There are only two people in front of me, but the man paying is paying a HUGE amount in cash. There is some delay, which I can’t understand at all. A manager has to come over and go through every item on the 2-foot long register tape again. He is holding what I believe are several 1000 euro notes and a couple of 500 euro notes. He is paying in several batches or something.

I can’t really believe my eyes. Those are some big notes! I don’t think I have ever seen a $1000 bill or a $500 bill. Still not sure if I really did see a 1000 euro note, but definitely was tuned in by the time I saw the two 500s. At one point, one 500 sort of fluttered down to the floor. The person in front of me wistfully rolled her eyes. We were both sort of stunned.

Finally he finishes his elaborate transaction, the woman in front of me is uncomplicated, and when I get to the register I hand the clerk a 20 euro note. She asks me if I have anything smaller! I don’t really get that at all.

And my most recent foray into cultural codes:

Last Saturday, Kadin was brave enough to accompany me to another one of these gigantic super huge über stores. He wanted a French plug to charge his DS. So we head to the equivalent of giganto-Walmart. It is packed. Masses of people everywhere. It is located in an area of town where there is lots of diversity and a large immigrant population. It is closed on Sunday, so Saturday is THE DAY.

We find what we need and we opt to use the self-checkout. Not only do I now have a bankcard, but the lines are shorter and we only have a few items. Still, I am alert to any restrictions there might be at the self-checkout: how to pay, how many items maximum, etc. etc.

I find a sign and it says something about “for the comfort of other customers in the self-checkout area, please limit the number in your party to 3 people or fewer.” Wow. That is a new one. There is some logic to this since the space is tight and there are many large families shopping together, but I had never seen it spelled out like that before. Again, a whole new category that had never occurred to me.

The final lesson of this trip is how people let you know when it is your turn to go. I was again about the 3rd person in line when there were at least 2 self-checkout stations open. Perhaps the people in front of me were new, I don’t know, but they were hesitating. The woman who was monitoring the self-checkout area was not making any signal that they should proceed. I had no idea what the protocol was. Then two people behind me noticed the stations were free and just loudly started saying, “Pardon, pardon” and pushing their way through the crowd up to the waiting machines.

So that is how it is done here. In America, you would show someone how to go ahead by pointing out the free station and encouraging them to go. In France, they show you by example, by just doing it themselves. You’re not going to go? You don’t know what to do? Okay, I do. And that is perfectly acceptable. You are expected to take care of yourself and take your own initiative. No blame, no fault, no apologies, just action.

I can completely see why the French and the English have such a hard time getting along.


cda said...

Just caught up with your blog this morning. Loving it!

garett said...

Missed you at VB last night, Jenny! Thanks for writing--your accounts are hilarious!

Love to you and yours! garett

George Swain said...

I agree, I could never quite understand the word "euro" when utter by someone speaking French. It sounds like a non-word. I wasn't sure if this reflected any ambivalence regarding the unified economy or the EU in general or if it's just not a good word for French speakers to try to pronounce. Maybe they should come up with something different. Like say - the franc?