Is it the legacy of centuries of observing Catholic liturgy and royal court protocols? Millennia of evolving a language with no fewer than 82 basic verb conjugations? Hours of printing out “C’est Ironique” articles and running them page by page through a shredder?
For whatever reason, the French tend to be much more devoted to rituals than the people in the country where I, in keeping with the principle that everybody’s gotta be someplace, happen to have been born (the United States). And the world of retail commerce probably provides the best illustration of this phenomenon.
Actually, it probably provides the 11th or 17th best illustration, ranking well below state dinners, Legion of Honor induction ceremonies, cheek kissing and the daily lineup at the bakery for a fresh baguette. But, in keeping with the principle that every “C’est Ironique” article’s gotta be about something, here goes anyway…
With some exceptions, like jewelry stores, car dealerships and crack houses, retail establishments in the States use a simple self-service method that can be summed up in five steps: you wander around the store until you find what you want, take it to the cash register, pay for it, take it home and faint when you get your credit-card bill.
Fast, easy and labor-efficient. And quite common in France as well, but by no means universal. Like an old-fashioned general store out of a painting by Normand Roquebien, many shops here still require customers to wait for a clerk to fetch them what they want.
Greengrocers’ stands are one common example, as I’m sure many readers have learned the hard way. In most fruit and vegetable shops in France, helping yourself to the apples and lettuce is a good way to get yelled at. The French grocers’ policy on produce is like the Bible Belt fundamentalists’ policy on premarital sex: you’re not supposed to touch the goods until they are officially yours.
Come to think of it, according to the fundamentalists, you aren’t supposed to touch the goods you were born with either, but that would be a different metaphor.
Anyway, the point is that a great many French retailers still cling like a wet baptismal robe to the old-fashioned way of doing business. By which I mean the old-fashioned, complex, ritual-ridden way of doing business. By which I mean the old-fashioned, complex, ritual-ridden-to-the-point-of-being-fascinating way of doing business that is, no kidding, one of the things that I love about living in France.
On Rue Rochechouart, a few blocks from my building, is a traditional French pastry shop whose creations are so elaborate, fancy and colorful I call it “The Glycemia Gallery.” There is always a long line there. Not only because its pastries are as good as they look, but also because the traditional French pastry shopkeeper who runs this traditional French pastry shop does things the traditional French pastry shop way.
In other words, she devotes about half of her time and energy to making the line move as slowly as possible. Here is a rundown on how flour, sugar and butter are converted into cash at this particular pâtisserie:
When you reach the front of the line, you exchange polite bonjours with Madame (speaking of rituals) and tell her what you want. She removes the desired tarte, torte, gâteau or whatever from the display case and moves it to another counter behind her, where she lowers it gingerly into a cardboard box.
Then she walks across the store to cut a sheet of fancy wrapping paper, by hand with a pair of scissors, from a roll sitting on another counter. She brings the paper back across the store to where the cake box is sitting and wraps it as carefully as any gift under Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas tree.
Then she walks across the store again to get a piece of ribbon, cuts it by hand, walks back across the store again to tie up the package, meticulously curls the ribbon ends with the scissors, and finally carries the finished treasure (where else?) across the store to yet another counter that serves as the cash desk.
This process is repeated, step by step, for each requested item, redoing any steps whose initial results are not up to standard. I have seen her discard a ribbon that didn’t curl just right and make another round trip to the far counter for a fresh piece.
Only when everything is wrapped, packed and perfect do you pay and, after exchanging polite au revoirs, leave the store with your pastries, deeper wrinkles and five percent more gray hair, as Madame turns her attention to the next person in line, who has knitted a full-length hooded bathrobe during the wait.
That’s what one shopkeeper can do by herself to keep the French economy in the slow lane. But to see an entire team working together in coordination to make the simple purchase of an everyday consumer product as complicated as a double kidney transplant, you have to go to La Maroquinerie Parisienne on Rue Tronchet.
It’s actually my favorite leather-goods store, with hundreds of different models of high-quality, low-priced handbags, briefcases, suitcases, wallets, belts and gloves. And one gauntlet: the one that customers have to run to make a purchase.
The layout is perfect for self-service, with the goods arranged on rows of shelves and the cash desk right at the door. Customers could easily browse the stock, pick what they want and carry it up front to pay.
But apparently that would be too, ahh… Let me think. Easy? Obvious? American? If you want to buy something in this store, there are four clerks, two slips of paper and three hunks of plastic between you and your goal.
It goes like this:
You decide what you want. You show it to one of the clerks roaming the floor. Clerk N°1 writes down the stock code on a sheet torn from a notebook and takes it, you and your item to the front of the store, where she hands you a numbered plastic token and hands your handbag or whatever, with its own dupe of the token, to someone in the back room.
That person (Clerk N°2) sets to work wrapping and bagging your purchase while you wait in line to pay Clerk N°3, who has somehow in the meantime received the price tag and Clerk N°1’s stock slip, possibly through the intervention of other clerks unseen. After you pay, she hands over your receipt and, of course, the one thing that you’ve been waiting for all along: yet another token.
Just when you think you’ve been trapped as a pawn in a “Twilight Zone” human board game, you finally reach Clerk N°4, who gives you your completed package in exchange for both of the tokens now in your possession, leaving you reunited with your purchase at last. It can be quite an emotional moment.
There is, of course, a logic behind these seemingly superfluous niceties: it’s about presentation. As most French people know, sometimes appearances are as important as utility. After all, this is the country that gave the world the Gothic cathedral, the frilly maid’s uniform, the “pom-pom” poodle clip and, more recently, the trophy first lady.
In keeping with this heritage, the pâtissière wants her pastries to look as good on the table as they do in the display case, and the leather vendor wants its products to be properly packed up, protected and, if desired, gift-wrapped.
Similarly, I want “C’est Ironique” to make it seem as though I know what I’m talking about. As even some not-quite-French people know, sometimes appearances are everything.
© 2014 Paris UpdateFavorite
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