Monday, 18 August 2008

Proving politeness can go a long way

This might well read like one of those seemingly interminable reports often found in the French press, where all the pomposity and flowery language comes at the beginning of the piece, and somewhere towards the end the actual "news angle" kick in. There again maybe I'm giving myself too much credit for prose that simply isn't there.

Whatever the case may be, my apologies in advance. And for those wondering what the "Charles Dickens" I'm on about, maybe they should skip the beginning and head straight towards the last couple of paragraphs (A surprise in the post). Alternatively of course, they could pass on to the next story.

For anyone else with a little bit of patience, bear with me I'll get to the point - eventually.

I've lived in France for nigh on a decade now, and at the beginning tried to "fit in" by assuming that I could appear as arrogant and rude as at least those in the nation's capital are reputed to be.

Living the cliché

I took my chances, and priority, when crossing the road as oncoming traffic threatened to mow me down. Regular sessions of practising becoming fractious and enraged behind the wheel of a car when I negotiated the rush hour traffic home, made me feel almost as though I "belonged".

And then of course I did battle with shop assistants, many of whom are typically and often not inaccurately portrayed as believing the customer, far from being king, is only there at the sufferance of the staff.

Sure I found it helped to speak the language, but only to the extent sometimes that I was really able to appreciate when people were being rude.

Then of course I had to get used to what most of us would call "staring", but the French insist is just "looking interested".

Let's forget about the bureaucracy, as the way things are done here is justified as being "because that's the way things are done" and any sort of complaint is met with the hugest of shrugs.

Cliché following cliché perhaps, but there is some truth in it. And I quickly learned to accept, ignore, behave and observe as the situation required.

But things are changing apparently - so we're told - and sometimes there's the proof that makes you sit up and take notice as you're forced to re-evaluate all your prejudices.

The country of 350 + cheeses

Last October I celebrated my 40-something birthday. No, I'm not going to give away my exact age, but it's definitely the wrong side of the big four-oh. And no, that's not the "news" bit yet.

My birthday treat was a mystery trip somewhere not too far away. It couldn't be. I don't much like flying and limit myself to as few visits beyond the clouds as possible.

So I realised that anyone who knew and cared for me, would not spoil the surprise by making me haul myself inside that hunk of flying metal. After all, if we were meant to fly we would have wings - right?

Turned out I was correct (not about the wings) as the destination was none other than Venice, on the overnight train from Paris - First Class sleeper. Luxury. Extravagence. Bliss!

Except it wasn't any of those things. First class on what proved to be an Italian train, even though the booking had been made through SNCF - France's state-owned rail operator - was 12 hours of "four-to-a-cabin, cheesy feeted, non-communicative strangers" time.

A great start to a birthday weekend and guaranteed to blight my time in Venice at the thought of having to make the return journey in similar conditions.

Now I'm no snob - oh all right maybe a little of one then - but I like my creature comforts and I "did" all the budget backpacking, hauling my life around with me for a couple of months back in my teens, when I still had the energy.

Plus I've lived in France long enough to delight in what the first president of the Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle, famously referred to as the country of at least 350 cheeses, not to want to spend my R&R cooped up in the smallest of spaces exposed to a smell reminding me of the very ripest of Bries, dripping off the plate.

So somehow even though the train was full, we managed to sweet talk the conductor into finding us an empty cabin, where I then spent the rest of the journey wide awake, cursing SNCF for having mixed up the booking, wondering how I would survive the return journey and feeling much, much older than my 40-something years.

When we pulled into Venice at nine o'clock the next morning, I had made a monumental decision. We would indeed - at huge expense - book a flight back on the Monday so that at least I could enjoy my time not worrying about another 12 hours spent in potentially intimate and unwanted contact with pieds du fromage. The alternative of girding my loins and full of alcohol-induced Dutch courage suddenly made the thought of flying seem much more "appealing"

Moaning politely

And that's exactly what we did, enjoying three fabulous days and two nights gorging ourselves on pasta, overdosing on culture, travelling everywhere and anywhere the excellent Vaporetto would take us and otherwise walking ourselves. silly.

On our return to France, I was determined not to let the matter lie - best to get these things off my chest immediately, I thought. And as politely as possible - as is my philosophy in life - I whipped off a letter to the customer services section of SNCF.

"Very disappointed", "My birthday treat" (thought I would play the emotional card and spread it with the thickest of knives) "Felt we had been misled" blah, blah, blah. Nothing mean. Nothing untrue and no "outraged of Paris" sort of stuff. Just a simple moan.

Once signed, stamped and delivered, we basically thought nothing more of it. After all there were still the fabulous memories, some great photos (none of them taken by me, I hasten to add) and a self-bought present or two I purchased along the way.

The months passed and we basically forgot all about it. And besides I've since attended another fear of flying course to get my act together and am almost able to remain sane when aboard a 'plane.

A surprise in the post

Imagine then last week, how completely floored we were when we received by recorded delivery the nicest possible response in the form of an apology.

"Dear Sir, we were sorry to read of any discomfort you may have incurred during your trip, blah blah blah.

"We apologise for the any unnecessary inconvenience, blah blah blah

"We appreciate and value your custom, blah, blah, blah."

All very proper and polite.

Even better, there was a voucher included for €130, "to be used on any SNCF train within France at your own pleasure."

Compensation, which we hadn't even asked for.

Now that's after sales service at its very best, and was quite a slap in the face for all those clichés about French businesses not really caring about their customers' needs.

So there you have it. One dissatisfied customer (well two actually) complaining politely about something and receiving a response. Perhaps it really is as my late ma used to say "manners (and clothes) maketh man."

Bon voyage et merci.

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