September 27 2017, Bureaucracy and Daily Challenges
We were seeking pretty stamps. It seemed a simple quest. Always before, we had gone into the corner post office, and said we wanted to bring back some pretty stamps for friends in the US. The clerk would pull out of her drawer the folder of current stamps of all denominations, and we would choose those we liked and buy them. Piece of cake. Smiles all around.
Traditionally, the “Poste” – the post office — has been a big deal in French life. As in the US, letters were once delivered in half a day, and there were two daily deliveries. Today, email and texts have made this service completely redundant, and it no longer exists.
When I was first in France, in the early nineteen sixties, the agency was called “The PTTs” – Poste, Telegraphe et Telephone.” Many people did not have phone lines at home, and to make a call, one went to the corner PTT office to use the pay phones. Also, the only real way to call from France to the US was to use a PTT operator and phone.
I remember having made calls home a few times back then – what a production! I had to tell the operator how long I wanted to the call to be and pay for it up front — in cash, of course, and it wasn’t cheap! Then I provided the clerk with the US number and went into a vacant “cabine” to wait. Sometimes it took five minutes, sometimes ten, sometimes longer, for the international operator to finally come on the phone in the booth where I was waiting, to say that I would be connected presently. After many clanks and clicks, if all went well, the call went through, and I was talking to a familiar voice, until the pre-selected time limit was reached, at which moment the call was unceremoniously disconnected with an abrupt “click!” Those were very nervous calls, threatened moment to moment by abrupt termination as we tried to squeeze everything we wanted to say into a few precious metered moments!
Today, in the age of Internet and cell phones, the French government has gotten out of the direct business of electronic communications, in favor of a hodgepodge of individual companies and plans similar to the chaotic cell phone industry in the US. Instead, the post office has now become a bank providing savings and checking accounts as well as mortgages. And I guess that as electronic communications cut ever further into the revenue from “snail mail,” the “Poste” is also phasing out postage.
In any case, a couple of days ago, we went into our friendly corner post office searching for this year’s pretty stamps.
First, we had to find a time when the office would be open. When the place is closed, the front door is obscured by a pull down gray corregated metal cover that obliterates it – tight as a drum. We’d found the metal cover down often as we passed by, and finally realized that the post office still closes every day for a two -hour lunch period! From 12:30 to 2:30 pm every weekday, the graffiti-scrawled steel shutters are all one can see of the post office branch. This realization about the persistence of the sacred two hour lunch tells us something about the implacability and hidebound resistance to change that has traditionally characterized French bureaucratic agencies. In most kinds of establishments today, the two hour closure during lunch is much less prevalent than it once was. But apparently not in the post office.
Once we figured out when the post office would be open, we went in to search out pretty stamps. I asked in French if we could see pretty stamps to bring home to friends in the US. Imagine my surprise to hear, growled from another counter, the answer, “No pretty stamps here!”
“What??? No pretty stamps???” I replied, a bit taken aback.
In response, the clerk riffed through the folder of stamps of all denominations, showing me what she had. Indeed, in each pocket resided sheets of monochrome abstract line drawings on uniformly small perforated paper squares. There were NO pretty stamps at all! France used to have such magnificent stamps – multi-colored reproductions of beautiful scenes or of art masterpieces! Now, only these drab, uniform little scraps??
So I bought twelve dull monochromatic stamps with which to mail the post cards we had purchased and written, and asked if pretty stamps were available anywhere else. This question precipitated a perplexed huddle of all the branch’s employees. No one seemed to know. Finally, after a prolonged discussion, one of the clerks finally explained, “Well, perhaps you might find some at one of the really big post offices, but we don’t actually know, and we don’t know where to tell you to go.”
I’m sure it’s much more efficient to just have one model of stamps of various denominations – but even Euros — currency – are more varied and colorful than these stamps! What were they thinking? They certainly didn’t tell anyone what their plan was or their rationale. Someone at the top echelon obviously made an executive decision and wiped out a long French tradition of beautiful postage stamps. So much for the value of beautiful things in life!
Interestingly, although bureaucracies in France used to be intensely frustrating to deal with because of their dogged dedication to following the letter of every rule without allowing any individual expression, many offices have become more aware of the possibilities of customer service. Bureaucrats whose main function in life used to seem to be using their petty power to impose misery on unfortunate clients have now mostly become smiling ambassadors of good will. It’s still important, of course, always to acknowledge the equality and civic merit of all government employees by wishing them at the start of an interaction a cheery “Bonjour!” But that mannerly acknowledgment now opens the door to a relaxed concern for customer well-being.
The transport service in Paris, for instance, the RATP, has actually made life quite convenient with its choice of monthly or weekly passes usable on all public transport vehicles for the same fare. The Navigo pass is electronic, and you pass it over an electronic panel at the entry to subway stations, buses, funiculars, and trams. You don’t even have to take Navigo out of your pocket or wallet for it to register. You can purchase it in your nearest Metro station for a week or a month at a time, and you can purchase the weekly pass whether or not you are French or live in Paris. For the first purchase, you need to present two passport pictures, because your pass will be personalized and permanent. We bought ours 5 years ago, keep them from year to year, and recharge them at the first possible moment each time we’re back in Paris. It’s remarkably pleasant and convenient!
Or when we went into the Mairie (the town hall) for our sector of Paris a couple of days ago, employees were actually in the foyer conducting a poll of visitors about what services they most appreciated in this district and which ones they wanted more of, or wanted to experience in some different way. This cheerful attention to clients’ desires would have been unthinkable in previous times.
I don’t know if it’s the European influence, or some other benevolent energy at work, but the end result is a vastly improved experience of living and moving around in Paris. Bureaucratic stonewalling is a traditional feature of French life that I will not miss a single bit! And I’m happy and willing to trade a smiling, liberated corps of civil servants for the new impossibility of finding a pretty stamp!