View from Rue Saint-Georges

Service With a Scowl

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In France, the customer isn’t always right

Tuerkis Doerky/Flickr

By Thomas Chatterton Williams

April 11, 2018


 

This past weekend—a gorgeous one—in Berlin, I ordered a taxi to the airport, deposited my bags in the trunk, and slinked into the backseat, watching the city flit by my window, its colorful inhabitants sipping pilsners on the many sundrenched terraces along the tree-lined streets. Berlin is mostly a gray town, gloomier even than Paris, and setting such a pleasant scene may be misleading—or misrepresentative—in some way. But it could have been snowing for all I care. What struck me, and what lined up neatly with my experiences two weeks prior in New York, was the general conviviality of the experience of riding in the taxi with my German driver, who was polite, kind, gently inquisitive, and in no discernible way furious about his position in the national labor market.

A couple hours later, having arrived at Charles de Gaulle, I attempted to put my duffle bag into the open trunk of a waiting taxi. The middle-aged French driver hopped out of his seat, not to assist me, as it turned out, so much as to pressure me into paying with cash instead of credit. When I insisted that he had to provide me a range of payment options, as required by law, he slipped into a performatively foul mood that, frankly, ruined my ride home after a long trip. Once we’d exited the highway and entered the city, he passed by a BNP Paribas and asked again if I wouldn’t like to withdraw some cash. I told him that we’d already reached an agreement at the start of the trip—one that he was legally required to provide in the first place. He then launched into a tirade about the unfairness of the credit card process. He would be forced to bear the burden of the transaction fee (1,50 euro) instead of me being saddled with it at the ATM machine ($5.00). How unjust!

I’d recently had a conversation with my French wife, who explained to me that in other countries—America most of all—we may assume the worker is there to serve the customer. But in France it’s the exact opposite: the worker is there for himself; customers may come or go, but their comfort is at best a secondary concern. It all put me in mind of the case of Guillaume Rey, a French waiter in Vancouver, who though competent at his job, was nonetheless fired for being “aggressive, rude and disrespectful.” In his defense, he filed a complaint against his former employer with British Columbia’s Human Rights Tribunal, citing “discrimination against my culture.” I’m becoming more and more convinced he has a point.

 


Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.

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