petite anglaise

November 23, 2004

tales from the goldfish bowl

Filed under: city of light — petiteanglaiseparis @ 11:29 am

Once upon a time, I had a holiday job working in a Thomas Cook foreign exchange bureau on the rue de Rivoli, opposite the Jardin des Tuileries.

It is fortunate that I do not suffer from claustrophobia, because this involved being locked in all day behind the (probably not) bulletproof glass (because the safety instructions mentioned ducking as well as pressing the panic button) until a security man came to let me out in the evening. And the office was rather cramped.

Fun aspects of this job were that I got to open a proper combination safe every morning – like in a James Bond film: 10 to the left, 100 to the right – to get my hands on the cash stash. Then there was the fact that I could read a book when there were slack spells, or sing along to the radio, and no-one saw/heard. I also got an (albeit small) thrill from wheeling and dealing. The French Franc was in its death throes and consequently the exchange bureaus were all in fierce competition with one another to make as much money as possible before the introduction of the euro wiped out half of their business. In order to win over customers who were wisely shopping around before changing their money I had to haggle. The rate shown on the board was for mugs. My goal was to entice people to change more cash so that I could give them a (slightly) better rate. I pretended to do lots of complicated sums on my calculator and this usually did the trick.

Bad things about the job were that I had to deal with a lot of very dodgy/ignorant people on a daily basis. There were the gypsy ladies who probably put Romany curses on me when I refused to change their huge bags of centimes into Francs (I wasn’t allowed to) and hassled my customers. Being in a glass bowl like a goldfish makes you rather impotent in such situations . There were shifty looking men (pimps?) who came to change vast amounts of low denomination dollar bills late at night, and didn’t take too kindly to my confiscating the forgeries that they had slipped in for good measure. (I was trained to recognise forged dollars: a missing tree here, insufficient detail on a president’s face there.)

Then there were the tourists. Some of the things they came out with left me speechless.

Female tourist: ‘Honey, I don’t understand. Can you tell me why the restaurant over there won’t accept dollars?’
Petite : ‘Ah. That’ll be because you are in France and the only legal tender in France is the French Franc…’

I then proceeded to change her dollars at the rate on the board because clearly this customer would not be doing any negotiating.


Female tourist to French colleague: ‘Oh my gawd, isn’t it cute the way everyone speaks French here? Y’all are so clever.’

I struggled to make sense of this one. Finally realisation dawned that she thought that every human being was born speaking English and that French people had learnt French as a second language from an early age. No really. That was what she meant.

The most distressing part of the job was however the International Money Transfer service. How I hated taking hard earned cash from some poor immigrant worker and sending a tiny fraction of it home to their needy relatives. Those services are outrageously expensive, but people without bank accounts have very little alternative but to use them. When I was working alone I broke the rules by trying to explain the cost of each transaction, but either I couldn’t make myself understood or the customer knew but wanted to send it regardless.

If you are travelling to France with large amounts of cash or travellers cheques, a word of warning. Life is harder for exchange bureaus these days, and they are consequently meaner. Don’t assume that because you have euro denomination cheques they will be exchanged without commission. I learnt this to my cost when my well meaning mum gave Tadpole some money in M&S Travellers cheques. There was a 10% charge. I was livid. No negotiation possible. Walking away and pretending to go to another agency didn’t have the desired effect (i.e. of them calling me back over to make a new proposition).

Evidently the rules of the game have changed since I last played.


  1. I love it when you quote !

    Comment by sans moi — November 23, 2004 @ 12:32 pm

  2. It’s funny, the whole language thing… I remember in 4th form french class getting that revelation that French people actually THINK in French…

    My excuse what that I was 13 years old… and fundamentally clueless back then…

    Marginally less so nowdays!

    Comment by deeleea — November 23, 2004 @ 1:56 pm

  3. I’m hopeless at languages. My school French was corrupted into a hybrid of German/French as I did the two languages together.
    My French accent was/is Del Trotter
    My German accent was/is shouty
    My Spanish accent is all Manuel.

    My English accent is pretty naf too ;-)

    Comment by Legomen — November 23, 2004 @ 3:03 pm

  4. You mean they didnt try to speak English to you ONLY SLOWER AND LOUDER SO YOU COULD UNDERSTAND?


    Comment by ViVi — November 23, 2004 @ 4:25 pm

  5. Ah, work is so much fun, no? :smile:

    Comment by yayaempress — November 23, 2004 @ 9:19 pm

  6. Oh dear. You’d like to think that the Americans (presumption based on dollars and use of language)that travel are the broadminded intelligent ones, but it’s not always the case is it? The Husband’s family used to run a restaurant right by Windsor Castle. They regularly got asked why the Queen had built it under the Heathrow flight path. The FIL was at the end of his tether one day with the stupid questions, so when he was asked by two American ladies where they signed up for tea with the Queen he pointed them in the direction of some very burly policemen and told them they would arrange it for them…You’d like to think they were arrested, but that would only happen in the US, where you would immediatly be incarcerated as a suspected terrorist. Whoops, blathery comment. Good post PA, is what I really meant to say.

    Comment by Claypot — November 24, 2004 @ 10:40 am

  7. I was careful not to mention the nationality of the tourists in question – I don’t want to be accused of being anti-american (and I’m not!).

    I’m sure tourist of other nationalities made similarly dumb comments, they just didn’t stick in my mind. I do recall sometimes pretending to be French to annoy people and being on the receiving end of the ‘I’ll just speak English more loudly and slowly’ approach. But even my dad is guilty of doing that.

    Comment by petite — November 24, 2004 @ 12:39 pm

  8. Great post! Really, the perspective is unique and I love your style.

    Comment by viktor — November 24, 2004 @ 1:26 pm

  9. So, as a former soldat of the bureau de change army, would you say that it’s best to use bank cards when traveling & changing money? Or does that all depend on the destination?

    Comment by Nigel M. — November 24, 2004 @ 3:55 pm

  10. it’s quite scary really, such ********an tourists, such ignorance. lovely description. I feel quite CLAUSTROPHOBIC now, imagining your bullet proof case… :shock:

    Comment by vitriolica — November 24, 2004 @ 3:56 pm

  11. Nigel

    For Europe I think as a rule pay with your card as much as possible and draw cash out from the wall only in largish amounts (as there are minimum charges).

    Or take, say, amex euro travellers and change them at amex for no extra charge.

    That was another thing. Thomas Cook was located about 500m from Amex. But when people came asking where it was, I was supposed to pretend I had no idea.

    Comment by petite — November 24, 2004 @ 4:05 pm

  12. When I worked with American tour groups in Paris, I had the following comments (I’m BRITISH btw)

    “You speak such good English. Where did you learn to speak like that?!”

    “Gee, you can write English as well as speak it!”

    And no, I do not have a pointy head or webbed toes, so I really fail to understand. Unless of course the people in question were complete imbeciles …

    Comment by heath — November 24, 2004 @ 9:23 pm

  13. Sorry to hijack, but Heath’s comment made me laugh out loud. I worked in the US for about six months in a restaurant. On my first day of work all the other staff gathered round me in amazement. Finally one of them tentatively said ‘Do y’all speak English in Ireland?’

    Comment by Claypot — November 25, 2004 @ 7:42 am

  14. Were you surprised Claypot? I was once asked, in all seriousness, whether we had television in Scotland. REALLY REALLY wanted to tell them about John Logie Baird, but would have been wasting my breath.

    Comment by Suziboo — November 25, 2004 @ 3:06 pm

  15. Suziboo – priceless!:lol:

    Comment by Claypot — November 25, 2004 @ 4:35 pm

  16. You never cease to entertain me. Please be certain that all Americans, though most perhaps, are not this way.

    Comment by M.J. — November 26, 2004 @ 6:39 pm

  17. Stumbled onto your blog through some other blogs – this is great stuff! :smile:
    I had a similar experience in a cafe on the Rue de Rivoli, when I was in Paris last year..this is how the exchange went:-
    Bimbo (B) : I wanna see the Danish palace….
    Geetanjali (G) : *smile*
    B : Do you know where it is?
    G : I am not from Paris..what does your guide book say?
    B : Is it in Paris or in Denmark?
    G : I wouldn’t know..I’m not from France or Denmark!!!
    B : Well I wanna see it…
    G : Why don’t you look up a guide book and see what it says? Or ask one of the guys in the cafe?
    B : What city in the US did you say you are from by the way?
    G : I didn’t say I am from the US…
    B: But you speak good english…
    G : There are other countries in the world apart from the US where people speak excellent english…
    B : So where in UK are you from?
    G : Guess again…
    B : Then it must be Australia…thats the only other country…
    G : Nopes wrong again…I’m from India…
    B : But isn’t that a small village in Asia?
    G : (Mentally) I wonder what the sentence for murder is???? *fake smile* No it isnt..It’s a big country with a lot of very intelligent people who speak better english than most Americans…excuse me I need to use the loo….


    Comment by Anonymous — November 27, 2004 @ 5:41 am

  18. The comment about the encounter with the American was left by me !:oops: I forgot to fill in the deets!:oops:

    Comment by Geetanjali — November 27, 2004 @ 5:45 am

  19. geetanjali, i commend you for not telling the moron she was an idiot nor smacking her.

    once when I was in the states I was talking to a fifteen year old boy who was the son of a college professor. He asked where I lived… “London” I said… “Oh, right… that’s in Paris, huh?”

    Comment by vitriolica — November 27, 2004 @ 12:14 pm

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