mercredi 28 novembre 2007

I'm cooler than you because I know Le Chat's cousin

Recently, our friends Will and Erica were in town. Walking around the neighborhood with them, they noticed a piece of graffitti on a building just down the road from us which features a cute, grinning cat. I had never noticed it before, but now I see it all around Paris. Here's a picture of the one at Place Jules Joffrin:

Last weekend another friend, Angela, was visiting. We were at Gare du Nord and she noticed a girl carrying a big cardboard cutout of the cute, grinning cat. I went up to the girl and asked her what was the deal with the cat and she said her cousin was the cat's creator. Indeed, her cutout cardboard cat was autographed "Le Chat est mon cousin".

I was excited, kind of like if I had just met some minor celebrity: the cousin of a prolific graffiti artist.

Hey, I don't get out much.

But I know Le Chat's cousin and you don't, so there.

But from now on, I will carry around my camera and try to capture any "Le Chat" spottings to post on this blog. Watch this space!!

P.S. I just saw this website that talks about "Monsieur Chat"

"Toll Free" French style

In the States, I, like so many others came to complain about calling customer service numbers where you're made to spend ungodly amounts of time listening to recorded voices telling you to punch on keys, only to then be put on eternal hold and eventually transfered to some call center in Hyderabad where a thickly accented "Bob from Atlanta" will ask you to repeat all the information you just spent the last half hour punching in to the automated system.

But hey, at least they don't make you pay for it.

Here in France, the concept of "toll free" isn't very widespread. Most customer service numbers start with 08. 0800 numbers are free to call (but good luck finding a company that actually has one). Other 08 numbers are special rate.

A few weeks ago, our phone service was cut off. I wanted to call the company to check on the status of the line, but I can't call "special rate" numbers from my cell phone. I tried calling from a public phone on the street, but that wouldn't work, either.

Every time I call IKEA to check whether a sofa we want is in stock yet, I have to call a special rate number that starts with 08.

Virtually every customer service number in France is a special rate number starting with 08. Some of these numbers are "local rate", meaning that theoretically you will be charged the cost of a local call no matter what part of the country you're calling from. Our phone plan actually includes unlimited free calls to all land lines in France, but of course, that doesn't include 08 numbers, so we would still have to pay to call "local rate" numbers.

I can kind of understand customer service helplines making you pay for the call (as long as I get to speak to a human being promptly, I don't really mind). But the French carry this idea to lenghts which seem, well, a little absurd.

Even numbers you call to BUY stuff are special rate. Who is going to want to call one of those?

Some of the more extreme examples are pictured here:

That's right, if you want to order a pizza from Pizza Hut, you don't just call a local number, you call a special rate number that charges 0.15 Euro per minute (more expensive than most international calls! I might as well call and order my pizza fresh from Napoli!)

Even more surreal is the following: a public service ad posted on a cigarette warning label.

"Get help to quit smoking: call 0825 809 810" That's right, 0.15 Euro per minute. Hmmm, maybe I'll just keep smoking! Or I could call my mother in Miami and get her to make me stop smoking: it will cost significantly less than calling the number advertised on the cigarette package.

Oh, and phone bills in France are sent out every two if you're the sort of person who likes to call tech support, just imagine what a nice little surprise might show up in your mailbox after two months.

vendredi 9 novembre 2007

A smuggler, a lesbian, a racist African, a stowaway and two tourists are in a train compartment...

Sorry for the long absence. As some of you may know, we were away in Italy for my brother Seb's wedding, and after we got back the whole tribe descended on Paris and I showed them around.

So, some observations: it's COLD in Italy. I took a bathing suit but no warm jacket. I had to purchase one of questionable quality from a street hawker in Florence. Italians are much better looking and much better dressed than the French: so much for the world capital of Chic and La Mode. On the other hand, are they ever temperamental. I can't count the number of times I was yelled at and told to "va fanculo". The reserve and indifference of the French was a welcome relief on our return.

The title of this post is not the introduction to a bad joke, it is a description of our return journey on the overnight Rome-Paris train. As soon as we take our seats in our couchette compartment, a large group of Africans laden with ridiculously oversized luggage comes into the comparment, places as much of the aforementioned luggage as they can squeeze into our compartment's luggage rack and then disappears to the neighboring compartment to stow the rest of it. Their senior member, who shall from now on be referred to as "el coyote" took his seat in our compartment briefly and then disappeared. Then came the butch French woman who was chatting up a storm, and then a fellow from the Cape Verde islands. Soon after leaving the station, the conductor came around and asked for everybody's tickets and passports (they keep these until you arrive in Paris, supposedly so when the Swiss border officials come on board in the middle of the night, they don't have to wake you up). He asks "el coyote" for his passport and he replies "I don't have one", laughing the whole while. Some sort of discussion ensues outside our compartment and all is apparently resolved.

The Cape Verdean then decides to lie down in one of the top couchettes, scooting a few suitcases out of the way in the process. A while later, el coyote comes back to the compartment, sees the Cape Verdean lying in "his" couchette, and proceeds to kick up a stink. "Hey, what are you doing there? That's MY bunk, look at my ticket. Did you move my bags? Why did you move my bags? How dare you touch my bags without my permission, what's wrong with you? I don't go around touching your bags without your permission". Maki, Butch and myself exchange nervous glances, wondering whether a fight is about to break out and we should scram. Cape Verdean moves out of the bunk. You would think, at this point, that El Coyote would take his place in the bunk he fought so ardently for, but no, he closes the door and goes back to the compartment next door. Cape Verdean man goes on a rant about how "these Africans think they own everything and they should all be sent back to where they came from" (like Cape Verde?) I reach an accord with our cabin mates that if Swiss customs comes and asks us questions about the ownership of the bulky suitcases in our compartment we will all shrug and look the other way.

The train stops in Florence and a stinky young backpacker is added to this bizarre menagerie. He takes his position on one of the top bunks. The train conductor comes to our compartment and asks "anybody boarded in Florence?" Silence. He then looks at Mr. Stinky and asks him: "did you get on at Florence?". Mr. Stinky replies "no". Conductor takes out a piece of paper and starts counting and recounting us. El Coyote wasn't there, so we were only five. His paper said five, so he figured it was all right and left. Is it just me, or does anybody else suspect that Mr. Stinky doesn't have a ticket to ride this train? Mr. Stinky leaves and doesn't return. Cape Verdean tells us a story about how a stowaway bribed the conductor on the train he took to Italy.

In the dead of the night, I am woken by the sound of banging on the door of the next compartment. "Swiss border police, your papers please!" I look out the window and we are stopped at a place called "Brig". El Coyote is nowhere in sight. A loud discussion ensues: "what do you mean no passport? No residence permit? Sorry, you have to get off the train. Hurry up and get all your things, now. The train is leaving." More loud discussion. El Coyote enters and leaves our compartment repeatedly. The train starts moving. I fall asleep.

The following morning, El Coyote is soundly asleep in his bunk. All the bulky suitcases are there. I take a look at the neighboring compartment and all the Africans (along with their bulky suitcases) appear to be there, too. How that was resolved, I have no idea, but apparently nobody ended up in the Brig. At this point, El Coyote is christened thus as Maki and I conclude that he's probably a smuggler of humans rather than goods.

There ends our little adventure. Stay tuned for more craziness when we visit Amsterdam next weekend.