It was one of those Days

Written by admin on February 28, 2009 – 12:29 pm -

No matter how long you live in a country, there are days expatriates feel as if they arrived the day before. Whatever you touch turns to mush, and there must be a full moon somewhere in the sky and it’s glowing on you, emitting bizarre vibes.

Having lived in Paris twenty-one years, I’m fairly confident I understand the French system. How wrong I am. No matter how fluent you are in the language, cultural differences get the best of you.

The day started with a cracked front tooth. My dentist retired last year so I had to scramble to find one who would take me tout de suite. I contacted one who came highly recommended and explained to his assistant, who recently moved to France from Romania, that this was an emergency. 

She offered me an appointment four days later and our conversations were mysteries to each of us. Even though we were both speaking French, let’s say our accents would cause members of the Académie française to wonder and shake their heads in disbelief. 

I sent frantic emails to the dentist, who speaks numerous languages, was trained in America, and practices in London, as well as Paris, begging for compassion and an appointment. That seemed to do the trick (plus, asking my friend to intervene), and I was being drilled on before 2:00 p.m. that day. The song “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” kept going menacingly through my head.

In the process of getting that appointment, I had made numerous calls on my land line. Each time I called a number, a recording played that I wasn’t authorized to make calls from this number—eh? My phone bill is automatically deducted from my bank account and I’d been receiving incoming calls; however, I’d been making out-going ones from another phone which permits me to make unlimited calls anywhere in France, so I wasn’t aware until then that I had this problem.

After dialing France Telecom’s (now Orange’s) support line and playing the “if you’re experiencing this, push that…” game and being cut off four times, I had lost any semblance of patience. Finally opting to speak to a real live person, and being placed on hold for 20 minutes in order to have the privilege of paying to do so, he informed me that another company had high-jacked my phone. He couldn’t tell me which or when, but I would have to file a complaint. And by the way, I shouldn’t be surprised if I receive a hefty disconnect bill from the culprit group that never received my authorization. 

Clearly, this was going to be a problematic day. I stopped in a France Telecom/Orange boutique thinking that if I were able to make eye contact, the problem would be resolved. Not quite. Giving up on that, my next errand was to go to the bank where I’ve been doing business for more than 15 years, albeit with a few name changes. It was a little more unsettling when I realized the bank was no longer there. We’re not talking out of business (thank goodness), but it no longer has a physical office in Paris. That meant not being able to deposit or cash checks or speak to someone. Anyone.

I had been contemplating opening an account at one of the 42 banks within a mile of my apartment. So it was time. I went to three branches of one bank and was told there were no available advisers authorized to open an account, and would I like to make an appointment for next week? 

At branch number four, I made a discovery. My French is less than perfect until I get angry. Then I am amazingly communicative. Insisting there must be someone in one of their branches available immediately to open an account, I suspect that bank manager guessed that this American lady with the expensive-looking coat might a.) have real money that she could put in another bank, or b.) have a meltdown in the bank worthy of a two year old or c.) both of the above. 

I was ushered to my new best friend’s office. Sébastien had been with the bank for ten years and was more than willing to open a bank account. I was not depositing big bucks (the manager didn’t need to now that), but as we talked (in part English and some French), he got the idea that I might become a decent client and yes, he could refinance the mortgage on my Paris apartment.

But first things first: I signed multiple papers and numerous copies, initialized each page, signed where appropriate and took care of the essentials, including signing copies of 1099 US tax forms.

I gave him my ten-year residency card on which my address is noted, my press card and some checks and cash with which to open the account. He could see I had more than a few US credit cards since my wallet was in the process of disintegrating. When Sébastien requested a utility bill in order to prove I was domiciled in France, my mouth must have fallen to my knees. He conceded I could email him a copy, as it’s the law. 

We hit it off swimmingly. I was getting my way and he was signing up a client. No, there weren’t big bucks involved. But before I left his office, I promised I would send him clients as his English is good and he understands customer service. He even has a Blackberry and said he would email me as soon as my checks and credit card arrived. 

Americans are used to banks begging for their business. French banks and, I’m told, banks in the U.K., are more cautious. Bankers are on the lookout for people wanting to launder money. If a cash deposit is made in excess of 10,000€, the rule is that it must be reported to the French banking authorities.

With all the awful news about the economy, frozen credit, and big-time scams, it never occurred to me that not having a checkbook would be a major disaster in my life or might even be related to the awful news. But it was and it could be. 

Even so, the day was a success, if you believe two out of three ain’t bad. I not only have a front tooth but a bank account as well as a private banker. The phone line is still on hold and in the system. The reality is that it probably wouldn’t have been any easier had I been in the U.S. Since I’m here, I might as well believe that.

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