Having lived in the U.S. my entire life before relocating to France, I am often struck by how much Americans prize efficiency and how quick we are to embrace new technologies to speed up and smooth out everyday activities. Uber, Apple Pay, Grubhub, Task Rabbit…the list goes on.
In France–especially in the more rural areas–change often comes at a slower pace. Stores and government buildings here still shut down for two hours at lunchtime. And you can forget last-minute grocery runs on a Sunday afternoon–everything is closed.
Paperwork tends to be an onerous process here as well. Even the French roll their eyes at the mountain of paperwork that accompanies any activity. For instance, registering my kids for school requires filling out 20 sheets of handwritten paperwork each and every year (for each kid). I haven’t experienced hand cramp this bad since my days at university!
But one could argue that this slower pace of life can have its charms. Who couldn’t benefit from easing off the accelerator every now and again? And once you get used to how things are done here, you’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.
However, there is one thing that I have never quite gotten used to in my three years in France. For me, one of the most mystifying practices of the French is their penchant for writing checks. Since the mid-90s, I had only written a handful of checks. That is, until I moved to Provence. Here, it is required for nearly all day-to-day business. In fact, many people still use them in the grocery store, which takes forever. (How I wish the French would adopt the American practice of stocking the checkout line with trashy magazines to help pass the time!)
One recent day in particular summed up how prohibitive my life is when I don’t have my checkbook handy.
“Honey,” I called out to my husband as he was getting ready to leave for work. “Please leave the checkbook for me. I may need it for the fuel delivery–their credit card reader doesn’t always work.”
The fuel is what our boiler runs on and without it, we have no heat or hot water. The bank only awarded us one checkbook when we opened our French account and asking for a second one was too arduous (again with the paperwork). A few hours later I realize the checkbook is nowhere to be found. This should be interesting.
A knock at the door. It’s not the fuel delivery. It’s the mail lady. Whew! At least I don’t need my checkbook for the mail, right?
“I have two packages for you,” she explains in French. “This one you need to sign for and this one requires that you pay a customs duty and tax.”
Ok, this is a first. The post office is charging us €74 on a package teeming with Christmas gifts from a well-intentioned relative in the U.S.
I don’t have enough cash in my wallet. “Can I pay by credit card?” I ask hopefully.
“No, but a check works.”
Of course it does. So, as my checkbook is M.I.A., there will be no package of Christmas joy for my children today.
After an hour (and a few tears) of muddling through French homework with the kids, the fuel man makes his appearance and promptly gets to work. As he wraps up the job, he hands me the paperwork. I present my credit card. He explains that his machine is defunct. Merde. What the heck do I do now? He can’t syphon the fuel out of the tank. Fortunately, he’s lovely about my predicament and tells me I can stop by office to pay the bill the following day. Phew!
I decide that will be hubby’s job. Followed, of course, by a trip to the post office to pick up our hostage Christmas package.