I’m often bemused by the common, everyday problems my French family face and apparently can’t solve. Need to renew a piece of ID? Just fill out the form, attach supporting documents and get it done! Overzealous property management company? Tenants have rights, make a phone call and straighten things out! Problems with a utility bill? Dial the usual 1-800 number, big deal!
Easy to say as a pragmatic Canadian—I always forget that in France, problems are almost impossible to fix.
If I had to anthropomorphize France, I’d say it’s an experienced old lady with a few quirks. North America is very customer service oriented, Germany is supposedly an efficient country, punctuality matters in Switzerland… and in France, everything works relatively well—i.e. the government, institutions and companies are fairly trustworthy—even if people like to complain about the state of affairs.
However, whenever there’s a tiny blip in the well-oiled machine, you’re screwed. French people aren’t great at solving problems and mundane situations can turn into a Kafkaesque mess because the “machine” can’t handle exceptions.
I had many questions about French Mission #1, i.e. getting a prepaid cellphone plan for the summer, but I was pretty confident about French Mission #2, i.e. using the French bank account I had opened the previous summer.
Over the past 12 months, I have been saving money and transferring it to my new Euro bank account—a surprisingly tricky exercise, but I had about €2,000 by the time we landed in France, so I considered the first part of the mission a success.
I had never thought accessing the money would be an issue.
I opened a bank account with the Crédit Agricole in August 2018, at the end of the trip. My debit card and PIN code were mailed directly to Canada and I didn’t have a chance to use it until this year.
I didn’t need to withdraw money for the first few days in Paris—I still had enough cash in Euro from our 2018 trip to. However, when we arrived in Nantes on July 19, I went straight to the ATM, inserted the card and entered the PIN code. But instead of spitting out crisp Euro banknotes, the ATM displayed a message in bold, red letters.
“Are you sure you entered the right PIN code?” my mom asked.
“I was given a banking-for-dummies PIN code,” I replied. “Like 5566. Okay… let me try again. Nope.”
The bank was open so I stepped in and explained the issue.
“Let see… huh. That’s… weird.”
And just like that, I knew I was screwed.
“The card you’re holding isn’t linked to your bank account. I see your checking account here, for which no debit card was issued. And yet I’m holding a card with your name on it… but you can’t withdraw money—”
“…since it’s not linked to the account,” I completed.
“I’m going to ask for a new card.”
“Make sure it’s sent to the home branch because I need it right now, in France, and you have my address in Canada.”
“No problem. Should be here on Monday or Tuesday.”
I showed up at my home branch on Monday. Closed. Totally forgot that in France, banks are closed on Monday.
I came back the following day. Closed. Totally forgot banks also close between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
At 3:30 p.m., after queuing for 30 minutes, I explained the issue again and produced the card I couldn’t withdraw money with.
“There’s your name on it.”
“That’s because you sent it to me. Yet, it doesn’t work and a new card should have been mailed to you…”
“It’s going to take a week.”
“Really? That’s… inconvenient.”
The bank representative shrugged. “Nothing I can do.”
A week later, I showed up at the bank again.
“A new card was ordered on July 29.”
“Yesterday? But it was ordered on July 19!”
“Must have gotten lost in the mail. Happened quite a few times lately.”
And so I kept on coming back to the bank and being told the card was lost, in the mail, not yet available, etc.
Last week, I finally got really annoyed. I sent an email to my bank representative and the branch director.
Two days later, I received a no-reply email saying I could expect a reply within 24 hours.
I’m still waiting on it.
Once again, I showed up at the bank in person.
“Look, I have no idea what happened with the first card but it was your mistake, not mine. And where the hell is the replacement card? And how come you’re not replying to emails?”
“I’m tired of seeing you and I can’t answer your questions. Now there are other customers behind you…”
I swear I’m not exaggerating. My mom and Mark were with me and I was polite, although clearly annoyed. I also swear I usually solve minor work, business or life issues as logically as possible.
But I have come up against a brick wall.
I was patient but the new card never materialized. I asked to see the branch director but I was told he wasn’t there or that due to staffing shortage an appointment was out of question. I wrote an email no one bothered to reply to. I went to the bank in person seven times and I was never given a proper explanation or solution. I asked to switch to another branch—it’s a work in progress but apparently, it takes weeks because both directors have to meet (!). I could (and should) switch banks but it involves a lot of paperwork I didn’t have the time to do this summer. There’s no “1-800” number to call, customer service isn’t a priority.
And this is France for you. A relatively simple issue that snowballs into a giant Kafkaesque mess because the machine can’t handle the initial error.
Meanwhile, I spent the summer withdrawing money in person at the bank and it was a pain in the ass due to very limited and inconvenient business hours.
I’m one of them—a French person with a stupid and impossible-to-fix issue.