Friday, July 29, 2005

You Had Me at "Hello"

The thing I miss most about New York--and no, it's not the luxury of air-conditioned subway cars, the Grey's Papaya hot dogs, or the month of August when all the annoying people have migrated to the Hamptons--is the customer service. Specifically, the fact that it existed.

The fact that you could walk into any corner deli and order a sandwich just the way you wanted it, or tell a cab driver your preferred route to get crosstown. It was the subliminal pleasure of being told to "have a nice weekend" by your dry cleaner or wished "good morning" by the coffee cart guy on the corner. It was dining out and having a waiter that didn't permanently disappear sometime between your appetizer and entree, never to materialize again. And at the very least, it was being able to complete a transaction quickly and efficiently, so that even the grumpiest of people didn't have time to leave a permanent scar on your consciousness.

In England, the sandwiches come pre-assembled, the cabs are too expensive to take, dining out would try even the patience of Job if he wanted to be home before midnight, and one should count themselves lucky to get eye contact on making a purchase. The words "May I help you?", "Hello", and "Thank you" may as well exist in a foreign language, replaced instead by "It's not ready yet", "There's been a problem with your [insert item]" and "That's out of stock", all delivered with utmost indifference or even masochistic pride.

The greatest irony is that the British are somehow renowned for their politesse. I have the sneaking suspicion that somewhere along the line, politeness was confused with stoicism, but at this point, I'm willing to forsake polite in favor of a pulse. I've racked up enough time to learn to cook, speak French AND garden in the hours I've spent standing in deserted shops at cash registers, deflatedly watching employees argue amongst themselves, chat up friends, and finish multiple consecutive smoke breaks before resignedly--as if they're dredging up every remaining cell of willpower--turning to sigh out a weary "Yes?" And incredibly, despite the apathy with which it’s delivered, this mere one syllable word manages to convey all-at-once utter disbelief that I'm still standing there, great disdain for my gnat-like presence, and supreme irritation that I've encroached upon valuable employment time.

But even this mono-syllabic contempt is preferable to being asked, after 20 minutes having passed standing directly in someone’s line of vision, if I've been helped yet. If I've been helped yet?! Only if little green invisible men have landed on the roof and rung up my purchase in order to play a great cosmic joke.

The situation is even grimmer in Paris, where you are not necessarily granted even gnat-level status and "follow-thru" seems to be a four-letter word. This became patently clear after I attempted to take a French language class there last week. Unfortunately, the school had never responded to my multiple e-mails (naturally written with liberal usage of inquiring about my class times. Having come to the conclusion that I was persona non grata for cheating on the written exam, I was all set to relax and log some serious hours sitting at a sidewalk cafe. That is, until my zealous husband Steve intervened.

In an attempt to "surprise" me, he had his colleague--who conveniently speaks fluent French--phone the school to inquire on my behalf. As embarrassing as this was, I couldn't be too upset since two weeks earlier I'd begged him to have this same colleague call the school impersonating a female voice and pretend to be me during my interview.

Through this French-speaking intermediary, the school said, Why, bien sur, they were expecting me there at 9:00 a.m. that Monday. Well, they certainly had a funny way of showing it by never bothering to respond to my emails. Steve assured me that I should not take offense or feel like a charity case, as unresponsiveness was merely "the French way". That should have been the first inkling that "the French way" and I were not to be long-acquainted.

Showing up at the appointed time, bleary-eyed and without benefit of coffee (the French don't believe in coffee "to go" or in hotel rooms with coffee makers), I waited. And waited. With my limited language skills, I was pretty sure the receptionist had said "Attendez un moment." Well, it was "un moment" that turned into an hour and a half, long by even British standards. When at last le professeur ambled in, scarf tied jauntily around her neck, animatedly chatting away to her colleagues in the language that I was supposed to be learning, I was escorted to a small room where two wide-eyed Japanese students expectantly awaited. From what I could make out, we are all at the "Faux Beginner" level, which, in my eyes at least, was a step-up from the Beginners, even if it did sound vaguely insulting.

Le professeur began with the classic conversation-starter of our likes and dislikes. Giddily, I realized that I could handle this! But my elation quickly turned to dismay as it became evident that Makoto and Masaki's facility with the French language was even worse than mine. Way worse, as it so happened. The session soon devolved into a review of basic verb conjugations, during which the sweet M&M's would smile and nod along in apparent comprehension, then stare at me blankly (while still smiling) every time it was my turn to initiate a question. It was like having a conversation with my language tapes, though at least the tapes spoke back. And didn’t charge me 55 Euros a session every time I hit “play”.

The next day, with renewed determination, I asked in my broken--but at least functional--Francaise to be placed in the next level class. The school agreed and I wished that I could say it was all smooth sailing from there on out, but this group was a sullen lot of chain-smoking Russians whose conversations all seemed to revolve around socialism. Or so I gathered from their repeated and animated invocation of the phrase, “Le Marxisme”. The closest I came to participating was a tentative and apropos of nothing, “J’aime Dostoyevsky.”

Sadly, that day marked the death knell of my attempts at French study. I know when I'm beaten, the same as I know the futility of thinking that anything in Britain will be done in a New York minute, or that, on my next trip to the cleaners, hostility will give way to "Hello!"