petite anglaise

July 13, 2005

definition of frustration (#2)

Filed under: french touch — petiteanglaiseparis @ 1:07 pm

I open the letterbox, and, to my surprise, pull out two identical envelopes, both containing train tickets. Upon closer inspection, I realise, with a sinking feeling, that they are duplicate tickets for the same journey.

I curse the SNCF and their wonderful, shiny, new website.

Later that day, I phone 3635 to see how the situation can be remedied. First, I am told that it has nothing to do with the SNCF whatsoever, as the website is run by another company, “Voyages SNCF”. Well I never! A French fonctionnaire merrily* shunting the responsibility for my problem onto another person/department/company. How novel.

I persist, undeterred, and manage to establish that although any complaints about the shortcomings of the website should be addressed to Voyages SNCF, to obtain reimbursement of my ticket, I simply need to take it to any station, before the date of travel.

This was yesterday. Date of travel being today. After which I would no longer be able to obtain a full refund of my € 100.

I resolve to spend my lunch hour in St Lazare station, the nearest mainline station to my office. As I approach the guichets grandes lignes, I am not a little relieved to note that there are only three or four people in each queue. This should be painless, I think to myself, idly wondering which sandwich I will by from Paul for lunch once I am done. A Dieppois? A fruit tart, to celebrate?

The employee listens patiently to my explanation, without interrupting, and when I have finished points silently to a very small sign: “Départs Normandie uniquement”.

I am not going to Normandy.

Nor can I strangle this man with my bare hands, because he is protected by bulletproof glass.

I make my way, stomach growling, to the opposite end of the station, where there is another sign marked “Billeterie Grandes Lignes“.

Oh. My. God.

Picture a large, windowless, dimly lit room with ticket desks lining three sides. The room was last refurbished circa 1960. The colour scheme is brown, on brown. There are fourteen desks, lining three sides of the room, of which only six are open. The queue zigzags back and forth across the centre of the room, in a decidedly orderly fashion for France, the irritated, overheated people having been shepherded into submission using barriers and red tape. I start to count how many irritated, overheated people must be served before it is my turn. I stop at 50, deciding, on balance, that I’d rather not know.

The time is 13.20; I left the office at 12.50.

Some people in the queue came prepared, and nibble on baguette sandwiches, or read books. I have no such means of sustenance or entertainment at my disposal, so I content myself with fuming inwardly at the number of SNCF employees who are milling about behind the ticket desks seemingly unoccupied; chatting, or just standing around with their arms folded, calmly surveying the mayhem, in full view of the people queuing. Hardly very tactful behaviour.

Occasionally, an employee comes on duty and deigns to sit down at one of the empty desks and pull up the blind to start work. But not before they have sauntered around the room at the speed of a snail and kissed both cheeks of every single fellow fonctionnairein the room.

For every blind that is pulled up, another is lowered, elsewhere in the room.

I finally reach the front of the queue at 14.02. A pleasant and efficient young gentleman with a ponytail refunds my ticket in seconds. I smile, pathetically grateful, as all along I had been imagining what I would do if once I got to the front of the queue, I was told that I was in the wrong place for refunds.

I arrive back at the office at 14.20, looking forward to consoling myself with a sandwich and a strawberry tart.

I see that my boss is back from lunch, looking pointedly at his watch, so I return to my desk, stomach still protesting, crestfallen, and consign my lunch to the recesses of a desk drawer.

At that precise moment in time, I would gladly have paid in excess of € 100 to be able to eat my fruit tart in peace.

*a figure of speech. There was nothing merry about the voice of my interlocuteur. Disinterested, slightly dim and very bored would all be more apt descriptions.


  1. Wouldn’t it be wonderfull if the SNCF would reorganize their whole organization ? But wait that would mean that they’d fire all their redundant staff ! And this staff votes ! Ok don’t change anything, and let’s continue to make no profit and make fools out of ourselves with this disgrace of a (non) service…

    Comment by stephan — July 13, 2005 @ 1:14 pm

  2. I don’t know what to think. In France the trains run on time, but the customer service is non existent. In the UK the train service is appalling, but the customer service is better.

    On balance, I probably prefer the French system. On one condition: that I don’t have to actually deal with any fonctionnaires in the flesh and can do EVERYTHING on the internet. Ditto the employees of my bank.

    Comment by petite — July 13, 2005 @ 2:15 pm

  3. Ha! Yes, spent a lot of time in queues for train tickets recently. And from august 1st I get to do it in Britain, a country whose rail system is so crap that the treasury department deliberately bankrupted it so it could take over and redo it. Yes, it’s bureaucratic, but the SNCF is a haven of efficiency and smoothness in comparison.

    Comment by EasyJetsetter — July 13, 2005 @ 2:24 pm

  4. don’t blame the SNCF, blame your boss… :p

    Anyway you made a good definition of frustration.

    Comment by nathan — July 13, 2005 @ 2:36 pm

  5. conspiracy theory #1
    Companies deliberately have bad customer service departments so that everyone ends up using the internet, which is normally painless.

    Comment by pww — July 13, 2005 @ 2:39 pm

  6. Vive la France!, eh? ;-)

    Hope the tart was good…

    Comment by Iain — July 13, 2005 @ 2:51 pm

  7. Ooh – the silently pointing fonctionnaire. Have experienced that myself. Just reading about it makes my blood boil. Can totally empathise with wanting to strangle him with your bare hands… after having slowly twisted his finger off first.

    Comment by kjr — July 13, 2005 @ 2:55 pm

  8. I sneaked off to the loo with my tart. How sad is that?

    Comment by petite — July 13, 2005 @ 3:16 pm

  9. I once told one of these SNCF ‘guichet’ employees that one day his job was going to be taken over by a machine, not because it would be any cheaper, but because the machine would be so much nicer to customers.

    Of course that did not help me in any way other than letting the steam off…

    Comment by ontario frog — July 13, 2005 @ 3:36 pm

  10. Never underestimate the power of tears. Sure you feel like a sook, but it melts the heart of even the sternest SNCF employee!

    Comment by Gab — July 13, 2005 @ 3:41 pm

  11. I’ve been known to turn on the waterworks, I admit ;) That or a simply lower lip tremble works a charm.

    “I sneaked off to the loo with my tart.” That sounds dodgy on so very many levels ;)

    Comment by Katia — July 13, 2005 @ 3:45 pm

  12. This sounds far too much like my experiences with Deutsche Bahn on Monday – standing in the wrong queue to get tickets (for Friday) exchanged…
    “sorry I’m only selling tickets for travel today”
    “Where does it say that?”
    “Oh, I haven’t put the sign up, but I still can’t serve you, you’ll have to wait in that queue of 129 people over there.”
    To compound it all I had to go to a German post office afterwards, who are equally co-operative. Still, it WILL be worth it. And the trains do run on time (although Germans will complain when a train is three minutes late that “this never happens in Switzerland”).
    As Katia also mentions, “I sneaked off to the loo with my tart.” – I can only point out that we’ve probably all been overcome with unbearable urges in the workplace at one point or another…

    Comment by in actual fact — July 13, 2005 @ 3:56 pm

  13. In the US we have even more employees that don’t care, and the trains never run on time, if there are any. The only place service is good is Boston – NY – Washington (because the politicians use it). Rest of the country you are held up behind the freight trains.
    At least until Amtrak goes out of business and passenger trains disappear totally.

    Comment by joeinvegas — July 13, 2005 @ 4:14 pm

  14. There is nothing worse than long lines, waiting and bureaucrats who donnes les bises before, during and after every task…

    I really enjoy your blog, you write really well.

    (I too have misplaced my eyeglasses on several occasions where my foot has found them… The irony of it all, pains my… feet)

    Comment by annabee — July 13, 2005 @ 4:45 pm

  15. Have also sought momentary catharsis in telling a smug, unhelpful SNCF employee that her job would be better off done by a machine, before dramatically stalking off (without the reservations I had come to buy)….

    … only to come face to face with her every single time I need to get a refund or change my ticket. Curses…..

    (Watch out for her, Petite, she works at the Départs Normandie desk in St-Lazare! As I live in Normandy and commute to Paris every day, not much I can do to avoid her, though, sadly.)

    Comment by Lauren — July 13, 2005 @ 5:30 pm

  16. Courage, petite!

    It always amazes me that there are such unnecessary enervations wound up with travel. To cover great distances we have amazing means at our disposal, easy to take for granted, but as the saying goes, ‘the devil is in the details’. The practical person sees so many ways to ease the pain of travel, but can find no functionary interested in employing them. (it might help to send every functionnaire on a trip with Micheal Palin around the world, and then put them back behind the billeterie.) Myself, one of the things that helps pass my time spent working, is to find the poetry in motion, the economy of motion, in a particular task or activity. One simple improvement in air travel would be to pass out the inspection trays for shoes and computers to perhaps more than one passenger at a time? It takes time to remove one’s shoes, etc, yet always I see a hurried dance take place as the next passenger to go through x-ray finally gets their hands on a tray and begins to shed their possessions into it. Rarely, it’s the passengers themselves who execute basic cafeteria etiquette, and proffer a tray to the fellow passenger behind them.
    Having said all this, I say ‘bravo’ to the London metro workers, who have been lauded for being right on top of it in the evacuation/rescue process last week. So many said that they saw a uniformed employee right when they needed them, showing the way to the open air.

    Comment by millie — July 13, 2005 @ 5:39 pm

  17. Is your boss really so unsympathetic that he would not have let you eat your tart had you explained why you were late??

    I wish I had your eloquence with the written word!!

    Comment by Keith — July 13, 2005 @ 5:42 pm

  18. Keith – not at the moment. See ‘collision course’!

    Comment by petite — July 13, 2005 @ 5:46 pm

  19. Always wonderful writing, but the story is so tragic!

    I think I would have been supremely irritated if I saw someone gleefully chatting while I was standing in line. I don’t think Americans would tolerate such behavior, someone, if not myself, would have thrown a HUGE fit and asked WHY IN THE WORLD WERE PEOPLE STANDING AROUND CHATTING WHEN WE WERE WAITING IN LINE!

    But of course after waiting in line there would have been no wonderful strawberry tart place in the vicinity unless said line was close a le madeline.

    Comment by eddo — July 13, 2005 @ 7:20 pm

  20. I adore your blog…
    …having stumbled across it tonight, I have a feeling I will be visiting often. Having been a temporary student in Paris and having permanent longings to return, your writing, for me, is completely nostalgic and I have to admit to certain amount of envy for your life in Paris! If you do not mind, I will add you to my reads..

    Comment by fiona — July 13, 2005 @ 10:27 pm

  21. I left France 5 years ago but back then:

    -you could return your ticket up until the deprture of the train (actually, up until 20 min after departure, in case you missed it)
    -you could return a ticket to oneof those vending machines, and they are to be found in most SNCF stations, not just the mainline ones.

    Maybe things have changed

    Comment by Blaise — July 14, 2005 @ 4:35 am

  22. you are complaining because it took you under an hour to get something done in France. Plus you tried to get something changed during the holy changing of the guard lunchtime. Bad decision.

    but, looking over your post again, I realise your problem is more with your job than with the SNCF. Post blurred pic of boss with dart through head next time. I spit at my screen for you.

    Comment by nardac — July 14, 2005 @ 5:13 am

  23. I snuck off to the restrooms to eat a lollipop during final exams in January 2004. I’d like to think I was a little less miserable than you while enjoying said lollipop while seated on the toilet.

    Speaking of which, sitting fully clothed on the toilet felt so surreal and awkward, but my table manners prevented any sort of pants-removing I might’ve done to feel more natural.

    Comment by ludivine — July 14, 2005 @ 6:13 am

  24. When you’ve travelled the world (and I am not talking about third world countries only but developped ones as well), you don’t complain about SNCF anymore… you just miss it.

    Comment by Maurine au bout du monde — July 14, 2005 @ 7:01 am

  25. I feel your pain. I had to cancel some tickets two days ago. Luckily, I came prepared with a book. It went like this: “I can only refund it in part”, three more people arrive to “assist” my clueless fonctionnaire, then “I can’t refund anything”, all accompanied with Gallic shrugs. So I had to find *another* queue to wait in.

    I did get my 100% refund, like it clearly states on the ticket.

    Comment by Sierra — July 14, 2005 @ 9:45 am

  26. In 2003 we were living in your ex-not-quite- beaux-parents’illustrious town. My husband’s elderly aunt and uncle decided to pay us a visit from England. They flew into Paris from London and to save them time and hassle (they don’t speak French and are elderly after all)we decided to buy their Paris-Besançon tickets on-line ( At the time, the site was not as user-friendly as it is now and was definitely faulty as it only gave us two options: full fare or the rate with a reduced fare card. There was no mention of the ‘Découverte sénior’ rate which is an automatic discount for people over 60. Anyway, we chose the option which requires the reduced fare card because we knew that seniors did not pay full price. The tickets were delivered to our relatives’ doorstep. On the day of travelling, they obviously did not have the required reduced fare card and they not only had to pay the difference on the train but quite a lot more – probably a penalty payment. Dear aunty and uncle were obviously quite bewildered at the ‘fonctionnaire’ conductor’s terse manner and lack of explanations. We realised that we made a mistake, we should have bought them full fare tickets (which would have worked out cheaper in the end given the large amount they had to pay in). However, since there was an error on the website, we still wanted to inform the SNCF that a) there was a problem with the website and b) because of this, ask them to reimburse my uncle and aunt who ended up paying more than the full fare price. The SNCF back then did not have a telephone number for customer complaints! How utterly preposterous! Complaints could only be addressed to the SNCF in writing by fax or post (no email address in 2003) to their customer services department. I sent a fax and when I still had not received an answer 3 weeks later, I sent a letter by post. I received a negative answer which I refused to accept. This lead to a series of very angry letters on my part followed by equally dull and matter-of-fact letters in which the SNCF indifferently reinforced their refusal to reimburse us or to acknowledge an error on their website or thank us for pointing out the said error. And we were absolutely sure that this particular error existed as we did several simulations on their site. The hours I spent trying to write eloquent French letters were all in vain. And all you angophones know difficult that can be. It was all fruitless. Well, at least the SNCF sorted out their website shortly after this ordeal!!

    Comment by L'africaine — July 14, 2005 @ 10:22 am

  27. There’s still room in England for foxy blogette such as you petite. There are no jobsworths here.

    Comment by backroads — July 14, 2005 @ 10:25 am

  28. However much at fault the original issuer of the ticket was, in Italy, they refuse to accept any blame for incorrect tickets and refund only 80% of the total, keeping the rest for administration costs. The customer is always wrong, in Trenitalia-world. This with 2 separate,long(1-hour-plus)queues.
    Follow-up was a very late Intercity train, with no a/c, in 40 degree heat. Next time, an Interregionale will do, cheaper by some way. Well, at least my seat reservation was OK.

    Comment by Ruth — July 14, 2005 @ 11:13 am

  29. Oh, the pain of, aka the worst website I have ever had the misfortune of visiting. It’s just atrocious. I feel your pain. The hoops it was necessary to go through in order to find the fabled ‘billet avec carte 12-25’ were many and varied. I swear they moved the options around to make it as hard to find as possible.

    To ease your frustration, prompted by mention of Paul (mmmm, Paul), I will share a joke I particularly like:

    Quelle est la différence entre Virginie, Paris, et l’ours blanc?

    Il n’y en a pas: Virginie aimait trop Paul, Paris est metropole, et l’ours blanc est maître au Pôle.

    It’s from a Carambar wrapper. Clever, huh?

    Great blog, by the way.

    Comment by Jo — July 14, 2005 @ 12:23 pm

  30. The last time I went to IKEA they were in the middle of renovation and I went to the item pick-up line after I had paid. I also had my tired cranky girls with me (2 and 9 at the time). We waited on line for 45 minutes before we moved forward enough for us to turn the corner and realize that we were on the merchandise return line in error! The pick-up line only had 5 people in it and I hadn’t seen it. I felt like crying but put on a brave face for my girls – and made it out to be a joke. But waiting on line like that (in vain!) is ridiculous!

    I’ve had my ex-boss bitch about my once or twice a year 2 hour lunch – what about the 13 years I ate at my desk while working? Have you seen the article about psychopathic tendencies of bosses?

    Comment by Kathy — July 14, 2005 @ 1:57 pm

  31. Nice to know that bureacracy in France is the same as here in the States. Your journey down red tape lane reminds me of sitting in the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) here in New York State, also known as the “Land of Paperwork”. There should be a sign in places like these that says either “Leave your sanity at the door.”, or the more Dante-esque, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Then again, Dante only described nine circles of hell.

    Sounds like you found the tenth……..

    Comment by Dave of the Lake — July 14, 2005 @ 3:47 pm

  32. While in Paris, i noticed two methods of successfully negotiating any and all forms of public transport: one, refuse to stand in a line. Scream, cry, fall into a dead faint but no self-respecting Gall will ever stand in line like a sheep waiting to be slaughtered.

    two: make your mind up at the last moment where you are going, and then demand that heaven and earth, with all their attendant employees, be moved around the polar point of your desire. Yes, even if it means that the manager and his assistant has to go dig the clerk responsible out of his wicket to come over to your obviously unwisely-chosen wicket to argue loudly with everyone and hold up the line for another 45 minutes before selling you a ticket for where you wanted to go, on a whim.

    Then change your mind again, and demand half-fare.

    I found out, from some professional whiners, that it only ever takes three octaves of shrieking to make these essential changes take place.

    You are obviously much too polite to be considered french, petite. i will have to come over and teach you some nice curses.

    Comment by anan — July 14, 2005 @ 4:20 pm

  33. I’m right behind Millie on this one. Life can be full of petty frustrations and jobsworths deserve to be swatted. But we should keep a sense of proportion and the heroism of so many public transport workers in London (as it happend – I guess the response would have been as good in Paris or elsewhere?) both on the day of the bombing and since almost defies comprehension. Their every instinct must have been to flee the site of these explosions and place themselves beyond risk…. yet account after acount I have read indicates that ordinary men & women underground & surface transport workers rushed towards the victims, in their desperate need, risking further explosions (for all they knew) & goodness knows how many other hazards (fire, smoke inhilation, electrocution, chemicals, etc)…. not to mention the gruesome mess they knew they would find. This was humanity at its very best and there must have been so many acts of heroism that we don’t even know about. Many others helped too, and continue to do so in the vilest conditions, as well as the transport workers and we salute them all. I could never have displayed their courage!

    Comment by fella — July 14, 2005 @ 6:18 pm

  34. Oui, c’est énervant de se heurter à une administration qui a tout son temps !

    Moi, je préfère réserver mon billet sur internet et aller le chercher à une borne automatique, dans une gare.
    Bon week-end du 14 juillet !

    Comment by Silence — July 14, 2005 @ 7:33 pm

  35. i loved your confession about taking your tart to the loo
    maybe your boss should take his tart to the loo then he wouldnt be so grumpy!!!
    i tried translating this to my man and he justgave me that french look,yes,you know that look!
    anyway i saw that most people have a sncf,rer,metro story.I have many!!but i think the worst one was when i got off the train,the E line at Val de Fontenay,and slipped on the platform and came crashing down on my thigh-so imagine this,i’m lying on the platform crying from the pain,my son,who was 3 at the time,crying too,people walking over me,no one asked if i needed any help!this went on for a good ten mins as the pain was so bad i couldnt get up,i crawled to the alarm and pressed it 10 times at least-nobody came-nobody helped eventually i got my self up and we went down the stairs,how? i have no idea as the pain was sooo bad
    when we eventually,15 mins later,got to the ticket office of the station i pushed infront to ask the person to call an ambulancen and she asked me where this had happened.I told her that it was up on the E line and she said that she dealt with the A line and that i had to go to the right ticket office!!!!!!!!
    luckily for her at that moment I fainted as i would have more than likely strangled her!!!!!
    When i got out of the hospital with a fractured leg and exstensive bruising i wrote a letter to the station manager to explain what had happened and i recieved an apology,but…..!
    i sure that this would never have happened in the UK

    Comment by mary — July 15, 2005 @ 6:13 pm

  36. Last time I had to get a ticket refund from SNCF I went to one of their “boutiques” not far from my place. It was relatively painless and I didn’t wait more than 15 minutes, seated.

    Comment by Sebastiano Pilla — July 17, 2005 @ 11:00 am

  37. Come and live near me so you can book rail tickets at Fontenay le Comte. No longer a railway station, it provides buses to connect with real stations. The staff speedily find a way to achieve our objective, then spend five minutes seeing if they can get it cheaper for us. Result: happiness in those lovely clean trains!

    btw, I agree about London, though, don’t think any country could better the performance of Metro/train/railway police/ordinary police/ambulances/doctors. Reassuring to have railway police around plus more recorded messages on Tube platforms when I travelled on 9 July.

    Comment by Hilary Temple — July 17, 2005 @ 2:08 pm

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