Tuesday, July 1, 2014

I'm nearing the age of reason

The other day, Max decided that he was going to spend the twenty euros that he had saved for several months on a remote control Fiat car that he'd seen for sale at Monoprix, which is basically a mini-Target. He'd wanted to buy this car a week before, but we were about to leave for a trip to Nice and I told him to save his money in case he saw something there that he wanted more. This led to an argument, with him insisting that nothing could be as wonderful as this junky, overpriced remote control car, and me maintaining that he shouldn't let his money "burn a hole in his pocket," a new expression for him, which he didn't appreciate much. We were also about to go to a swimming pool, and I wasn't in love with the idea of carting this car in its considerable packaging on the metro to the pool and back. I thought he would forget about it. But no. His memory is frighteningly good. The moment we returned from our trip, where did he want to go? Monoprix. For that car.

There was another reason why I wasn't dying to help make this little dream come true. The clerks at the Monoprix in our neighborhood are super surly. They all seem to hail from lands that are not France, but the fact that neither they nor I speak French as our native tongue does not endear me to them. I get no A for effort. Perhaps because they are always also making an effort, so big deal: who cares. We're foreign, but that's where our commonality ends, and we must all follow the rules of shopping in France. The rules at French stores are different. You must say hello (or good evening) when you enter. But you don't ask someone how they are or (god forbid) volunteer how you are. There's no banter exchanged, no chitchat about the weather, the crowds, the sales, etc... When we went to London recently, I was shocked by clerks calling us "Love," and wanting to talk like old friends as they rang up our purchases. There is also no attempt to speed things along at French stores. When clerks are dealing with the customer at the front of the line, they are oblivious to the crowd behind them. If you are in a hurry, maybe you shouldn't have gone shopping. 

All of this was on my mind as I brought Max to buy his car, because his savings--30 euros--was entirely in change, in an enormous and grungy ziplock bag. Much of it was his saved allowance of 6 euros per month (his age) but some he'd earned by helping carry the groceries home and up five flights. The guys at Monoprix who deliver groceries get a tip of 1 euro per bag, and I'd offered him the same rate, although I must say he complains a lot more and carries much lighter bags, and often gives up halfway home, and yet I still almost always give in and pay him, because I'm a sucker and I use him to get rid of change and lighten my wallet. As a result, much of his life savings was in the form of 10 and 20 centime coins. I considered exchanging the change for bills before we went to buy his car, but then I realized that I would be stuck with the bag of 30 euros in change, and that's about $45. You can't exchange change at the airport, nor would I want to. I needed to get rid of this money, which meant letting Max spend it.

I felt trepidation as we neared the Monoprix cash register, but I also felt ready for the challenge. I am by nature a conflict adverse wasp. I was bred to play nice. But since living here, I've gotten more and more used to the culture of debate and argument that flares up around me on a daily basis. I've come to appreciate it, and even to participate in it. At a pool recently, a cashier chided me for not bringing my identity papers to prove that I should get the residents' discount of one euro off. Rather than apologize, I informed her that as my identity paper was a passport, I was sure she could understand why I wouldn't want to risk losing it or having it stolen in a public locker. She gruffly conceded that I had a point, and I felt victorious. Arguing in French makes this bracing and fun. When Max was having issues at his school recently, not wanting to eat veal and pork in creamy sauces for lunch, the teachers telling him regularly that he couldn't eat a healthy vegetarian diet, some friends advised him to reply, "I am nearing the age of reason," before giving any argument on behalf of his budding vegetarianism. Apparently, age 7 is considered "the age of reason" here in France. It's a Catholic thing--the age when children are allowed to participate in the sacrements. I feel that I too am nearing the age of reason--a kind of finishing line that moves along with me, so that I'll never quite get there. "J'approche l'age du raison..." This runs through my head a lot, before I make any kind of argument.

In any case, knowing how long it was going to take the clerk to count our coins, I hovered near the back of Monoprix until it seemed like no one was going to come after us in line. Then I began by having the clerk ring up my groceries, for which I was paying like a normal person with a credit card. She did so in a typically surly fashion. I happened to be buying 3 packages of socks for Matt. After she rang them up, when I asked for a bag, she told me, "The bags are for clothes, not socks." The socks cost about $25 total, so it didn't seem wholly unreasonable to me that I'd want a bag for them, but I didn't fight this battle, as I was preparing myself for war. 

After I finished bagging my groceries, I put Max's car on the register. Just as she rang it in, I noticed a woman with one vial of nail polish in line behind me. Not wanting her to have to wait 10 minutes, I asked the clerk if she could go first.

"I already rang you up," she announced gruffly. "I can't cancel the transaction. You will have to pay."

"Okay," I said. "But I'm afraid this is going to take a while..." And with that, I placed Max's ziplock bag of change on the counter. My heart was hammering, my mouth dry. (Yes, these are genre novel tropes, and yet they were truly happening). 

"What is this?" she asked, with no trace of humor.

"It's his money," I said, gesturing to Max, whom she seemed to take in for the first time, looking down at him over the edge of her register.

"How did he get it?" she demanded.

"He earned it," I said. "Little by little, which is why it's in change."

"Doing what?" she asked.

"Chores," I said. "Like carrying bags of groceries..."

And suddenly, to my utter shock, her entire demeanor transformed. Usually being a kid here doesn't seem to earn you any extra points. But maybe things are different in whatever African country this woman originally came from. She was definitely moved by the fact that he was buying this thing for himself, with his own money, and more than happy to be part of the experience. 

"You earned this?" she asked him. I translated. He nodded. "Good for you," she said. "Let's count it together."

And as she spent more than 10 minutes helping him to count his change into tiny little stacks and then double-checking her math--totally oblivious to the pouting irritation of the nail polish woman behind me--I realized that sometimes the Alice in Wonderland nature of customer service here is a good thing. Cash isn't king. She could not have cared less if the next client was inconvenienced or took her business elsewhere. It's not as if she was on commission. We had her undivided attention for as long as we needed it, and I didn't even have to fight. 

And she even gave Max a bag to hold his car.