So here I am in St. Flour, the middle of nowhere, deep in the heart of provincial France in the region known as “Auvergne”. It’s a warm, sunny day and I’ve gone down to the local post office to send some necessary documents in order to validate my visa so that I won’t be sent back to the U.S. in disgrace after a brief visit to jail. I am fortunate that, at this hour, there is no line ―a very rare occurrence back home. I am unfortunate, however, in that the post office is closed for lunch.
The first thing I’ve noticed while running around trying to get all manner of things done so that I can pause to take a breath is that French shopkeepers seem to have an awful lot of free-time ―certainly more than I have at the moment― and that customer service is not so much to be taken for granted as it is to be quested for.
This is not to say that the customer service is bad in France. In fact, overall I’ve found most of the French people I’ve dealt with, from the austere woman at the local boulangerie to the relaxed and well-fed workers in the post-office, to be quite pleasant and friendly and even more so when you start handing them money. The problem is that it’s often difficult to actually find them at their jobs. The French seem to think that the customer is not so much always right as to be avoided as much as possible.
Having been in the business of customer service myself until very recently, I can certainly sympathize with this sentiment but the regrettable truth of the matter is that, sometimes, people need to post a letter or buy parts for their ailing computer. Here in St. Flour, the locals have heard about the concept of bankers’ hours and have adopted them wholeheartedly on a larger scale. Nearly everything closes for lunch here, sometimes for as long as an hour and a half, before opening once again to brave the grueling two or three hours that remain of the workday. Perhaps this accounts for the unusual cheerfulness of all these people in professions that, in the United States, tend to breed folks who are very good at scowling and parroting corporate policies that basically state that the customer hasn’t quite finished parting with his hard-earned cash just yet.
Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to have landed in a place where so many people take the time to smile at me and not because they’re all in on some private joke at my expense ―at least not that I’m aware of. I suppose that’s worth occasionally looking foolish when waiting for over forty five minutes in front of the post office just so that I can ask someone if I’ve put enough stamps on my letter. It’s the little things in life that often count most ―like proper postage― and they count even more in a little town like St. Flour.
And, anyway, at least the restaurants are open for lunch.