Sunday, August 29, 2010
Shopping in Paris: Je ne comprends pas!
Shopping. The simple, sometimes perfunctory, sometimes fun, often gratifying act of searching for and purchasing goods for yourself and/or your family. We have been doing some back-to-school shopping for Raelyn and Nola. We have discovered that although the exchange rate keeps the clothing from being a true bargain, there are amazing children's clothes at great prices, better quality, and that are more fashion-forward too. Much to my surprise, I do not understand how to shop in Paris (yet!). I am a great shopper. Most people I know are probably aware that I'm a little too good at it. However, if you were to ask any Parisian who happened to be in my midst as I shopped over the past week, they would likely have a different opinion of my shopping skills and knowledge. Apparently, there is an unspoken and unwritten code of French shopping rules and ethics that venture above and beyond the one rule that I have read about: Always, upon entering a store, greet the owner/employee/cashier with, "Bonjour Madame/Monsieur." I've got that rule down. I even kid myself that I say it so well they can't even tell I'm a foreigner. That bubble burst quickly when my lack of manners in other areas pertaining to shopping quickly indicated that I was not at all French. First, I asked Soren, who was returning an item that did not work out, to request the original receipt back (in case we needed it later to return anything else). I was pleased with myself that I remembered to think of this and knew that Soren, even if he butchered the request a little bit, would still get his point across through pointing, miming, and all the other tricks he's been using to communicate in French. The cashier's response to his request, which he actually spoke quite eloquently, was an abrupt version of essentially, "No! We are keeping it." And with that, the cashier stapled our original receipt to the return receipt and filed it away. There was no customary exchange of goodbye pleasantries after this either (no "au revoir", or "bonne journée"). We felt dismissed so we just slinked away wondering why in the world it was so important for a modern, computerized store to hang on to our receipt. Target always gives us our original receipt back. As luck would have it, Raelyn later decided that the coat we purchased on that original receipt was a bit uncomfortable and she would like to return it. I had to explain that the coat was a keeper, like it or not. Guess what she said? "Target always lets us return things with our credit card and not even the receipt." I miss Target right now. Fast forward a week later when I did not have Soren along as my usual crutch and I was venturing into the underground shopping world of Les Halles with the girls. This was not a planned shopping outing. I had taken the girls to the Les Halles park but the day had grown somewhat humid and the best part of the park was under construction and not at all accessible. The parts of the park that were available were a bit too young for the girls' interests. So, even though I recalled from my previous Paris trips that the shopping forum that lay below us was not my first choice of shopping destinations (to me it feels like I'm in a metro station that happens to be a shopping mall- too crowded, too smelly, too windowless), it seemed like a decent idea at the time. My first mistake (second actually, my first mistake was venturing down to the forum in the first place) was that I got too brave and did not keep my own boundary limited to window shopping. We went into a shoe store. The girls need new shoes and they are trying to decide what to get. I see a shoe and I pick it up, turn it over, and look for a price. I hear someone talking behind me. They keep talking. Next, I feel a nudge. It's a customer poking my shoulder. She is trying to get me to pay attention to the store clerk who is fervently trying to tell me, and now gesturing to me, that I need to put the shoe back where it belongs on display. I am so caught off-guard that I completely forget my French manners and don't say "Je suis désolé," because, in my moment of embarrassment, every word of French that I know has completely left my brain. It would have been easier if I did not know how to apologize in French, then maybe I could have had my own personal sense of humor about it. But knowing I know the words for "I'm sorry," and not being able to recall them when I most needed to felt terrible. My only move at that point- get out, and fast! So we did. Of the shoe store. My third mistake was not getting out of the Les Halles completely at that point. Instead, I let Raelyn talk me into going into H & M. They are a cookie cutter operation. If I can shop at an H & M back home, I can shop at an H & M in Paris right? Wrong. More unwritten rules to be broken here too. Raelyn was in the dressing room. Nola and I were sitting outside on the bench facing her dressing room door. The dressing room attendants were busy with customers so I fetched Raelyn another size of what she needed. Upon returning to the dressing rooms, I see that a line of customers had formed. They were waiting for an available dressing room. Since the attendant had previously checked us into a room, I passed by the line and walked the item to Raelyn's door. Upon which, the attendant rushed to me and spoke animatedly while pointing to the end of the line. I was determined not to get flustered this time. In my best French, I politely said, "Pour ma fille, Madamoiselle," and motioned to the door where Raelyn stood behind. How could she think that the tiny leggings that I am holding in my hands were for anything but my daughter? But no, apparently, this did not matter. The attendant continued to gesture towards the back of the line. I was resolute and said, "Je suis désolé. Je parle seulement anglais. Pour ma fille." I again gestured towards Raelyn, who by now, had opened the dressing room door. I even took a step towards her to hand her the leggings. In English, the attendant explained, "No madame. Because there is line. You must wait." Do they want to sell my kids some clothes or not? Apparently, marketing strategies and keeping the customer happy are not prime motivators at this H and M. Do they really expect Raelyn to stand half-naked in the dressing room for who-knows-how-long before I get to the front of the line to pass her the leggings? So I improvised. I told the attendant, "Non, merci." and sat down on the bench with Nola while Raelyn began to get dressed. "Quick!" I said to Raelyn, "Take the leggings!" The attendant had turned the other way as she was helping the next customer in line and her back was turned towards us. I then realized that I did not want her to turn around and see me empty-handed for surely she would know what I had done. I had Raelyn hand me the other pair of leggings so as not to arouse suspicion. Then it occurred to me that I would have to explain to my daughters why I was breaking the rules. Drat! I decided that a rule cannot be broken if it isn't written down.