Monday, November 3, 2008

Why the French don't worry about credit card fraud

I dropped my friend Canaan off at the gare bright and early this morning after a weekend of gabbing, eating, museum-hopping, online t.v.-watching, and beer-, wine-, and cider-drinking (and smuggling the empties out to the recycle bin, after). Since I was already there, and since I still have three more days of vacation left (I have already been off a week, and seriously, is this vacation never-ending or what?), and since I had no train to catch and nothing on my agenda, I decided it would be an ideal time to recharge my monthly Navigo pass for November. Since the machines only accept coins or French bank cards with a computer chip, and as I had only an American card (and paying 58€ in change seemed a little outside the realm of possibility), I joined the queue in front of the ticket agent's window. A dozen impatient commuters shifted impatiently and huffed and puffed and murmured "putain" under their collective breath when they felt someone had surpassed their allotment of window time with too many questions or too complicated a transaction. But as I had nowhere to go, and nothing more pressing on my schedule for the day than perhaps seeking out a membership at the local library, I waited patiently in line. A new employee arrived and waved anyone recharging a Navigo pass over to the next window, and so I jumped in that line instead, and soon I was able to state my request through the plate glass and place my (American) card in the sliding tray. "Oh no," she said, with something approaching disdain, "I can't take this kind of card."

"But," I said, "I just came from that line, and..." I looked over helplessly at the other window and the line that had grown even longer in the meantime. Shit. I guess I should have stayed in the other line after all. But instead of sending me packing, she hesitated, and I knew I had her. Because, though many French people believe otherwise, a card with a magnetic strip functions equally well as a card with a computer chip, as most credit card machines here have the ability to accept both. I mustered my assertiveness and told her, "Madame, if I had a card with a puce I would be able to use that machine over there." Implying, or so I hoped, that using the machine would be far preferable to dealing with the likes of her, and so if I was at the window presenting my puce-less American card, it was because I had no other choice. She took my card gingerly, and held it up to the machine.

"Like this?" she asked, miming a swiping motion. Since I am always happy to advise the French on how to perform their jobs, I nodded. And lo and behold, it worked, which of course surprised me not at all, but which is always regarded as a minor miracle of sorts by the French, who are accustomed to inserting their card in the machine and entering a pin code. She handed me my receipt to sign as if I was dealing in cowrie shells. Signing receipts is so primitive, she was probably thinking.

It reminded me of a similar experience I had had at a tabac as I was attempting to purchase a phone card. After initially expressing skepticism as to the likelihood of my foreign bank card actually working, and after I had once again instructed him as to the proper swiping motion, "Eh voilà!" he exclaimed in surprise and amazement. You would have thought it was the Virgin Mary on toast. "You should be careful with that," he warned as I signed the receipt. "Comme ça, anyone could use it." I thanked him and walked away, a bit bewildered and unable to come up with a response. No, really, it's ok? Where I come from everyone does it? But for some reason these arguments didn't seem convincing enough to me. I tried to conceive of Americans as this French tabac-owner saw us: naive, trusting lambs but one mugging or misplaced wallet away from losing everything. And then I thought of the alternative: a country where you can buy a Coke from a machine with a 5
€ bill, but apparently you're supposed to pay for your 58€ train pass in coins. I realized then that my mentality will never be truly French, or truly American, but somewhere between the two. And though I may have French tastes and sensibilities, my accent and my magnetic stripe clearly label me as American. And so I will continue on my way, one foot in America and one in France, forever straddling this cultural divide.


  1. I always got similar reactions when using my American card here, but I didn't use it often since the fees and exchange rates equated to extortion. I'm curious if your American bank gives you a good exchange rate and low fees.

  2. "Since I am always happy to advise the French on how to perform their jobs, I nodded."

    Rachel, you make me laugh.

  3. Misplaced Texan - It doesn't, that I'm aware of, but at the moment I don't have any other choice. Since I arrived over a month and a half ago I've been living off of a pitifully small amount of savings (eek!) I have finally received my New French Bank Card (avec puce!), and now I just have to wait until I get paid (hopefully sometime before 2009) so that I can have money in the account so I can use it!

  4. its lucky you have long legs.

  5. So it took only one more frustrating experience before you found the best way to deal with the French...pretend to be one. Treat everyone like they're idiots and they'll do whatever you tell them.

  6. PS, I'm surprised that they're not more used to dealing with regular (American) credit cards, particularly with all of the tourists they must see.