Getting a cell phone: In France, the customer is not always right

French salespeople have a reputation in America for being quite rude.  Looking at it from their point of view: they know their job.  You’re on their territory.  If you don’t know what you’re doing, you mess them up unnecessarily.  Even bearing that in mind, my cell-phone-buying experience seems exceptionally painful.

Buying a cell phone works something like this:

  1. Spend two hours on the phone company’s web site trying to figure out services, different phones, and where there’s a physical store so that you don’t have to have the phone mailed to you, since you need it by the day after tomorrow.
  2. Go to the metro station to buy a Passe Navigo (subway/train pass), since that’s cheaper than paying for a million subway tickets.
  3. Stand in line at the metro station cashier’s window.  Cashier: “Good morning.” Me: “Good morning.  I’d like to buy a Passe Navigo.” Her: “Do you have a photo?” Me: “Yes, here’s my ID card.” Her: “No, I need an actual photo.  You can go to the Monoprix, or go across the street to the subway station.” (Go to the Monoprix.  Get a photo. Return to the cashier’s window.  Stand in line.  Buy a Passe Navigo, which has your picture on it, in which you look like a criminal, because the instructions on the screen were very clear that you’d better not smile.)
  4. Take the subway to the Madeleine station.  Slowly figure out the crazy intersection.  Walk to the store.
  5. At the store, stand in line.  Finally get to the attendant.  Me: “Good morning.  I’d like to buy an inexpensive cell phone.”  Her: “Fine.  Do you have service with us?”  Me: “No.  I’d like to subscribe.” Her: “You need an ID card, an (incomprehensible), and an (incomprehensible).” Me: “I have an ID card.”  Her: “You need an ID card, an (incomprehensible), and an (incomprehensible).” Me: “Could Madame speak more slowly?  I don’t speak French well.”  Her: “No, I can’t speak more slowly.  Do you have an ID card, an (incomprehensible), and an (incomprehensible)?”  Me: “I have an ID card.  I don’t understand what the others are.” Her: “Fine.  Here’s a number.”
  6. Wait for your number to be called.  While you’re waiting, pick out a phone and select a plan.
  7. Salesgirl: “What would you like?” Me: “I’d like to buy this phone and get the 15.99 Euro plan.”  Her: “That phone is not available.” Me: “OK, this one.” Her: “Do you have an ID card, a credit card, and an (incomprehensible)?” (Show her your ID card and your credit card.) Her: “We have to mail the phone to you.  What’s your address?” (Tell her your address.) Her: “Is your name on the mailbox?” Me: “No.”  Her: “Then, what IS the name on the mailbox?”  Her: “You have to know the name on the mailbox.  I’ll sell you a SIM card and the service, and then you can go somewhere else and buy a phone.”  (Follow her to the touchscreen to pay.)  Her: “Where’s your credit card?”  (Hand her your credit card.)  Her: “That kind of credit card won’t work.”  (Put the credit card in the machine.  It works.)
  8. Leave the store, having purchased a SIM card and service, but without a phone.
  9. Go to the Monoprix and buy wine and cheese, because after that experience, you really need the wine.


The lexicon of cell phones

My Verizon phone service sucks here, and would be quite expensive, even if it worked.  I need a phone just to be able to find my way to work on the first day, so my first chore is to figure out how to buy or rent one.  Like everything else, this requires a new vocabulary.

  • abonné: As an adjective, this means used to, habitual, or seasoned: Il est abonné aux seconds rôles.  As a noun, it can refer to a subscriber of a magazine or service, a season-ticket holder for the train or a sports team, or a pre-paid customer in retail.  Its use on the mobile phone service web site that I’m trying to navigate is probably that of the subscriber or the pre-paid customer.
  • location: Not “location,” but rental!  This took quite a while to become clear to me.
  • comptant: Up-front (payment), cash payment, buying outright.
  • haut débit: This one puzzled me–I couldn’t figure out why I kept seeing it in advertising posters for phones.  “High-speed.”
  • gérer: To manage, handle, organize, as in managing your account.

Even with your new-found vocabulary, getting phone service turns out to be an ordeal.  See the next blog post.


My first surreal French moment

My first surreal French moment: I’m getting off of the plane in Paris.  In the row behind me, a little girl is happily conjugating a verb: “j’aurai, tu auras, il aura, nous aurons, vous aurez, ils auront.”  That’s the futur simple of the highly irregular verb avoir, for those of you who weren’t paying attention in French class.  Oh là là, says the mother (really).  “I’m good at conjugating,” says the little girl, proudly.

I think I’m going to like this country.

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