Perhaps the most common expression we've heard so far in France is: “Je suis désolé...” The French are very sorry – often very, very sorry. But they still can't help you. Eric was advised by a colleague to always begin each request in this way: “Je suis désolé" which roughly translates as “I am sorry but...” For a country who is stereotyped as rude, the language of the French often seems elaborately polite. The most recent correspondence we received from the bank roughly translates as: “We thank you for granting us with the privilege of your managing your account, and we hope to serve you sufficiently to meet your expectations.” Reading it, I felt like royalty, rather than a temporary resident who's just trying to use a bank as the most convenient way to pay rent. But, it turns out that I am granting them a great privilege, and they are eager to meet my expectations! Or at least, according to the form letter.
Which brings us to the first big challenge in living in France – the bank account. The question is, will the everyday mundane chores like setting up a bank account, getting a phone, and paying bills be more romantic because we're living in an exotic location and speaking French? The answer is: “Je suis désolé mais,...non."
Adventures in banking:
By necessity, this was our first priority when moving to France. We needed an account to pay rent and utilities, so we had the bypass some touristy things at first and set out on our quest. We tried:
Bank #1: Barclay's. Chosen primarily because it's an English company, so we were confident there would be English-speaking staff. Turns out it's an investment firm – not at all interested in being there just to pay our rent. Fair enough. They spoke excellent English though, setting us up for future disappointment.
Bank #2: Bank of France. This place is huge. And intense. As we warily climbed the massive stone steps, I somehow knew this would end badly. After shouting into the crackly intercom in bad French for about 2 minutes, a kind customer showed us how to press our passports against the glass just to be allowed to enter the bank. Turns out they only issue bank accounts to French citizens. Fine by me – I was all too eager to leave. As we were leaving, Bea asked: “Why don't any of these banks give out lollipops?” Eric muttered something about “Gringotts doesn't give lollipops.”
Bank #3: The man who helped us was courteous, polite, and spoke excellent English. The only words he stumbled over were: “How you say,..uh..tax evasion...and.. money laundering?” Turns out this particular bank was in a little trouble with the US because some American citizens had tried opening some accounts to hide their assets. Thus he said – as expected - “Je suis désolé mais,...”
Bank #4: Initially helpful. Until they checked our address, and told us we lived in the wrong arrondissement. “Je suis désolé, mais..."
Bank #5: Finally, we went to get the advice of the tourist office (which should have been our first stop.) They advised us to go to the Banque de Poste – which is about a stone's throw from our apartment. After waiting a very long time, trying to decipher “la langue du banque” we were told “Je suis désolé, mais...” They could not accept the photocopied version of our lease, only the original. This presented a problem since our landlady lives in Paris and we'd never even seen an original copy of the lease. The rental agent was very nice, but explained that “Je suis désolé, mais...” she did not have an original copy of the lease. So, she wrote us a note - an original, handwritten note, explaining the situation. I almost felt as though I should pin it to my coat before walking back to the bank.
We return the next day, documents in hand, and sheepishly hand them our note, which, after some brow furrowing and mumbling, turns out to be sufficient. It is now that Eric pushes me forward and I am initiated into “la langue du banque.” None of my high school studies prepared me for any talk of equities, guarantee of sufficient funds, or payment plans. My moment of glory came when another bank employee came in to answer a question, she sighed and offered to look for a translation, at which point our agent said: “That's alright, she speaks French.” My first thought was “Ha! Fooled her.” It took a lot of repetition, a little pantomime, and the drawing of one Venn diagram, but I think we may be on our way to a “compte bancaire.” Unless, yet again we hear yet another “Je suis désolé...” Stay tuned.