You were wrong today, Mr Wrong

“A rainy day is like a lovely gift — you can sleep late and not feel guilty.”
― Elizabeth Jane HowardMr. Wrong

Unfortunately that is not always the case. Today was the date for TOH’s eye operation in Montmorillon. It was an early-morning appointment and is quite a way from us, so we had to be up at Horrid O’Clock. As is always the case when we have to be awake particularly early, neither of us slept well. I woke at 5.00 am, while TOH was awake on and off most of the night. Although we both set alarms, neither of us fully trust them, consequently we sleep badly, if at all.

Never mind. He would have a few hours to doze in the hospital, while Tally and I enjoyed another day of exploring the town. The morning started dull and grey, but as we neared Montmorillon the sun was making a timid appearance. Once TOH was dressed in a fetching, if somewhat sloppily fitted pink gown and he was installed in bed to await the operation, I skipped out of the door looking forward to taking some photos and walking Tally by the river.

Alas and alack, it was hammering down with rain and continued to do so for the five hours that we had to spare. Tally had a brief walk and wee on a small patch of very wet grass beside the river, then I parked the car in town and went to a café, where Tally behaved impeccably and was a subject of  great interest.

Back we walked to the car, in the rain, and sat there for some time, while I read my Kindle in between bouts of nodding off, and Tally dozed in the back. We drove around again in search of something that was worth photographing, but even the cherry blossom is at its resplendent best failed to lift the relentless grimness of the weather.

 

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Having had to abandon the idea of a riverside picnic, I settled for a pizza, freshly baked in a wood oven while I waited beneath a dripping awning, and eaten in the car.

To compensate for the miserable weather, however, I treated us to some of the famed Montmorillon macarons, pistachio flavour. Here they are, traditionally served by the dozen, glued to a sheet of paper.

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TOH reports no ill effects from his operation, other than feeling tired after a sleepless night. He is tucked up in bed. If we didn’t have chickens, I probably would be too, but they are a wilfull trio and refuse to go to bed until the last glimmer of light has left the sky, so I’ll be up for a few hours yet.

Tomorrow we have to back to the hospital for a check-up. Another early morning, another long drive, but there is only one word for the standard of cleanliness, friendliness and professionalism at Montmorillon hospital: Impeccable.

 

How to turn a Gallic shrug into a charm offensive

There are many joys to living in France, but until recently dealing with customer service has not been one of them. ‘French customer service’ was in fact something of an oxymoron. Our first unpleasant experience, 16 years ago, came courtesy of a major supermarket chain from which we bought a computer one Friday evening. After plugging in our new acquisition, a message popped up on the monitor: ‘No hard drive.’ We unplugged, replugged, rebooted, switched on and off several times. ‘No hard drive’ insisted the monitor.

On Saturday we returned the computer to the supermarket, and told Service Après Vente there was no hard drive. Impossible, they said, all computers have a hard drive. Not this one, we said. After switching it on and twiddling, they reluctantly agreed there was no hard drive, looking at us suspiciously as if suspecting we might have whipped it out for fun. Begrudgingly, they gave us a replacement.

We plugged it in and it whirred into life! Four hours later, it was stubbornly refusing to connect to the Internet, and it was too late to make another 50 mile round-trip to the supermarket, so I phoned the helpline, which was premium rate. Put on hold for an hour, I finally gave up. Same result on the Sunday.

On Monday I took the machine back and said it would not connect to the Internet. After leaving it with Service Après Vente for an hour, they assured me the problem was fixed. They had connected to the Internet and tested the machine fully. It was in perfect working order. Back home, another 50 miles and 4 hours later, it was still not connecting to the Internet. An engineer was despatched to fix it. After taking it to bits and scratching his head, he announced that there was no modem in the machine. But surely there must be, I said, if Service Après Vente had connected to the Internet? They could not possibly have done so, he replied. There is no modem in this machine.

Disheartened with the machine and with Service Après Vente, on Wednesday I took the machine back and asked for a refund. That was not company policy. I could only have another replacement machine. I didn’t want one of these machines, I wanted a different make, one that worked. That was not possible. It wasn’t company policy. I drove home with a third machine.

14 frustrating months later the computer still didn’t work properly. If the modem worked, the monitor didn’t. It constantly crashed, froze, switched itself off. I can’t recall how many trips I made to the supermarket, where I was asked if I had owned a computer before, knew that there was an on/off switch at the back, had plugged it into a power source and was generally treated as a trouble-maker and object of ridicule. I am fairly patient and never resort to rudeness, but my patience and politeness were making no inroads into the intransigence of the supermarket.

A French friend gave me a telephone number for our local AFOC – Association Force Ouvrière Consommateurs – a consumer rights organisation. I phoned for an appointment, and the next day, armed with three A4 sheets detailing the whole saga, sat in a small office facing a man with a bristly beard and brusque manner.

‘Tell me what has happened’ he said, ignoring the papers. After two sentences he raised a hand, snatched up the phone, dialled the supermarket and proceeded to shout and roar. Three minutes later he replaced the phone, tore up the papers, and told me to go immediately to the supermarket and collect my money.

With trepidation born of months of abuse and disdain, I announced myself at the reception desk. The previously scornful salesman appeared at a sprint, wiping sweat from his brow and waving a fistful of bank notes and apologising excessively. Quelle satisfying volte-face!

A couple of years later we had ordered a supply of crushed limestone. The man who delivered it tipped three cubic metres of sharp stone chippings onto our drive. We had a mighty argument when I said it was not what we had ordered and that he would have to take it away and replace it. He shook his fist and called me an English whore, furiously shovelled the stuff back into his truck, failed to deliver our order, and sent an invoice laced with threats. After two months of invoices and threats, I telephoned the shouting man at AFOC, who shouted at the rude man while I listened on the other line, and that was the end of the invoices and threats.

Two years ago we bought a coffee machine from another supermarket. It failed after two months, so we took it back and asked for a refund or replacement. It was not company policy, explained the man at the counter. It would have to be sent for repair. How long would that take, I asked. No idea, he replied with a Gallic shrug. It was August, the factory would be closed, there was a backlog ……

Four months later, he was still shrugging, so I mentioned that I would pass the file to AFOC as the machine had been in repair twice as long as we had owned it. Within an hour, we’d received a full cash refund, warm handshakes and profuse apologies.

A friend who bought a new professional coffee machine for her café asked for a refund or replacement when the expensive machine failed after two days. She was told she would have to be patient until it was repaired, which could take several weeks. The fact that the machine was crucial to her business was of no concern to the supplier. When she pointed out that under European Law the supplier was obliged to give her a new machine, or a refund, she was told: “Madame, you are not in Europe. You are in France.”

When discussing customer service, lack of, with a French friend, they explained it thus: After the Revolution, all French people became equal, so being a customer does not make you superior to a waiter or salesman. Therefore, do not expect deference, and be thankful if you are treated courteously. The customer was not always right in France. In fact, he very seldom was.

Happily we have seen a radical change in this attitude over the last few years, both in the private sector and among the ‘fonctionnaires‘ who are generally unfailingly polite and helpful. We are all still equal, of course, but customers are treated with respect.

However, if you are unfortunate to find yourself with defective goods and faced by indifference and insolence, it’s comforting to know that help is available. Keep Calm and Mention AFOC. You can find your nearest branch on the Internet from their site: http://www.afoc.net/rubrique.php?id_rubrique=10

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Vive l’entente cordiale. :)

Oops – j’ai dropped un clanger!

The region in which we live – the Poitou-Charentes – is primarily an agricultural area, and one of its best-known products is goat cheese.  It comes in a variety of tastes and forms, from soft mild creamy curds, gooey rolls covered in ash or wrapped in oak leaves, through pyramids and onto small, withered brown discs that stink of ammonia and burn your throat. There’s something for nearly everybody – except confirmed goat cheese haters.

One of the most charming sights when we arrived nearly twenty years ago was Madeleine, the tiny ancient goat lady from the next hamlet. Bent over like a comma, with a cape over her shoulders, her knitting in the basket of her bike, a folding stool strapped to the pannier and her Collie frolicking beside her, she led her little band of goats down the local lanes, where they could graze from the roadsides and among the fields of stubble. In all weathers she would find a suitable area, set up her stool, dig out her knitting, and sit for a few hours while the goats wandered around nibbling contentedly, before it was time to turn for home and the milking shed.

Hélas, grazing goats are a rare sight now. There was a flock just up the hill from us until last year, but they seem to have vanished and been replaced by cattle.

But that is not to say that there are no goats in the area. On the contrary, there are more than ever. It’s just that you won’t see them unless you go and visit one of the gigantic barns that have sprung up in what were once fields of crops. For now goats spend their entire lives inside those barns. Pampered, knee-deep in fresh straw, heated, vaccinated, fed on cereals designed to give optimum milk yield. As they are born into those conditions and know nothing else, I suppose they are happy enough with their lot; being herd animals they have plenty of company of their own kind. But when I watch our two pet pygmy goats nibbling at the hedges, rolling in the sand and chasing each other through the fields, I feel for the animals that will never know that pleasure.

Recently a gigantic complex of barns has been built just outside town. I asked one of our neighbours from the village when he came round for a coffee what the barns were for.

Goats, he replied.

But why are the buildings so huge?

Because there are 1,200 goats in them.

For their entire lives, without ever going out?

Yes.

That isn’t natural, I said.

No, he agreed, but it’s profitable. That’s all that counts now.

His parents and grandparents were all goat farmers, here in our hamlet.

What would they think, I asked, if they saw the horrible way goats are treated now?

Actually, he said, my mother and father were among the first people to keep goats in barns.

Ah, I said. Would you like another digestive biscuit?

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 It’s early morning, the sun is just rising over our frosty field. We have 24-hour access to a barn with a thick straw bed, and we can come and go as we please. This morning we are starting the day with a little violent head-butting.