Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Working out the world of work

Relative to the U.S., French business hours and practices are extremely inconvenient and, from an American perspective, downright rude. To start off it can often be difficult to even make it to a business while they're open. France works a 35-hour week. Shops and services open late, then close again shortly thereafter for a two hour lunch break. (Fortunately, some of them stay open later than they would in the U.S.--for example, the Cité Universitaire Post Office is open from 2pm-8pm, which makes a lot of sense when you realize that the French start their days later and don't usually eat dinner until 9pm or so). By law, most of France shuts down on a Sunday, and many stores opt to take a Monday or Tuesday off as well.

There is also little to no concept of "customer service". As I discovered through my Hertz battles a few weeks ago, the customer is NOT always right in France, nor even valued. Part of this is due to the fact that many of the retail and food service jobs that are snubbed as low-class and low-paying in the US are salaried careers in France (with the notable exceptions of the "Arabe" 7-11esque stores, kebab vendors, Asian traiteurs--basically anything minority-run), meaning that hostesses and waiters don't feel compelled to debase themselves for tips, and to the contrary are often very proactive in maintaining a mutual power/respect balance. The benefit is that people take a lot of pride in their work, are good at what they do and are generally recognized as such. The bad news is, well, let's take the example of my friend Barclay. When we went out to get a post-class pint, we opted to sit at one of the outdoor, street-side tables underneath a heater. As the waiter was placing our pints on the table he got bumped from behind by a pedestrian, spilling most of Barclay's beer onto her lap. Although he apologized and immediately ran in to grab a towel, he left most of the clean-up to us and didn't offer anything in the way of compensation (a pint on the house, or a discount, for example). This would have been totally unacceptable in the US, but in France no one near us even batted an eye.

And yet, most of the people I interact with on a daily basis are, if not more polite, at least a lot more competent and knowledgeable than their American equivalents. After an episode of intestinal angst this past weekend I found myself visiting a string of pharmacies. Never did I wait longer than three minutes in line, and I was extremely appreciative of the medical expertise expected of pharmacists here, who are able to evaluate symptoms and distribute mild prescription drugs without the hassle of doctor involvement (or inflated US prices). I also love bakery or open air market staff, who exude quality, from their food, to their promptness, to the care they put into the wrapping of their products. Apparently I'm not the only one--here's a BBC piece about Parisians that seems to agree (and reads like what my blog aspires to be).

I've been spending a lot of time lately considering this system, browsing job listings and trying to imagine myself as an employed woman in Paris next year. As an employee, the late starts, long lunches, frequent vacations and short work weeks would seem luxurious rather than irritating. Until my own country sorts things out, the health care would be lovely. And another year here, this time as a "real" adult with an apartment in a cosmopolitan city wouldn't be too shabby. First task: tackle the French formatted CV, which is surprisingly're expected to list hobbies and "competencies" and to attach a photograph, which surely invites racism/other appearance-based prejudice, but hey, it's France. If customer service is in its infancy here, the idea of political correctness has yet to be born.

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