Saturday, July 13, 2013

Caving for a smartphone, customer non-service, and walking around the Opera

Although most people don’t know it, Paris and Europe hold a central place in the history of modern cell phones. The GSM cell-phone standard, developed more than thirty years ago, was conceived in Europe to replace the old first-generation radio telephones. And in the early days of GSM, Paris had more cell-phone users than any other city in the world, except Hong Kong. Today, more than 80% of the world uses GSM—more if you count descendants of GSM as well.

I was one of those early adopters. I remember buying my first cell phone quite well. It wasn’t much bigger than cell phones are today (most of the size was taken up by the battery), and it worked just about everywhere. It was quite cool, even though I almost never used it because I’m not much interested in talking on telephones.

Fast-forward to the present day, and smartphones have replaced a significant part of the cell phone market. Paris today is just one of many large cities in which just about everyone is holding a phone in his hand or in a pocket. Cast a glance around any of the many crowded boulevards and avenues of the City of Light these days, and you’ll see dozens of people using cell phones and smartphones.

Although I was one of the first users of a GSM cell phone, until a few days ago I hadn’t moved much beyond that, other than to periodically buy new phones. I’m an extreme introvert and I don’t have anyone to call, and virtually nobody calls me. But the advent of smartphones intrigued me a bit, since they could do other things besides handle telephone calls. The idea of having instant access to the Internet from anywhere was the part that interested me, because I’m constantly using the Internet at home.

Even so, I resisted, mainly because of expense and my poverty. Prices came down, but not down far enough. Until a few days ago, when I got some extra money and decided that it was a good time to make the jump to a smartphone. Too many times, I had found myself wishing that I could quickly look something up on the Web while out and about in the city, and a smartphone would fix that. So I bit the bullet and bought into the newer technology.

I tend to favor established mainstream vendors when buying technology. I’ve learned the hard way that being a pioneer in technology means endless grief as you work out the bugs in something new without being paid for it. So I go with the brands that are the best established. In this case, that pointed to Orange (a bizarre brand name for France Télécom) and Apple.

So a few days ago, I walked into the large Orange store on the Champs in the mid-afternoon, when business would (presumably) be slowest, and asked the greeter inside the entrance if she could sell me a smartphone and subscription in less than half an hour. She held up her cute little tablet and looked, and told me that twelve people were waiting in line ahead of me. I thought to myself, Bienvenue en France, and told her “Sorry, you lose, thanks!” (in French)
and walked back out of the store. I’ve long passed the point where I’m willing to put up with standard French customer non-service. There was no way that I was going to waste an afternoon just to get a phone.

Next stop, a few days later, was the Apple Store. There are two in Paris, one by the old Opera, and one in the shopping center next to the Louvre. I decided to try the Apple Store because (1) they have a reputation for being customer-friendly, which is extraordinarily rare in France, and (2) I had already decided that an iPhone would be my best choice.

Sure enough, when I walked into the Apple Store on Friday, not long after it opened, someone was instantly available to assist me. And after filling out the inevitable pile of paperwork—two pieces of ID, receipts for gas and electricity, a passport, a credit card, bank references (the infamous RIB), etc., I walked out with an iPhone. Fortunately, I knew about French bureaucracy, so I had come with the requisite ton of papers. Things went smoothly and as fast as can be expected when there are so many forms to fill out. And the Apple Store people were kind enough to set up my smartphone for me on the spot.

Had I gone to the Orange store at the same time, I’d probably still be there now, waiting in line for the slugs they call employees to do their jobs. As it turns out, Orange lost my business, because the only affordable plan they had was sold only via the Web, and I wanted the Apple Store to set it up. So I went with an inexpensive plan from Virgin. I would have preferred Orange, because France Télécom is second to none from a technical standpoint, but I just couldn’t spend my life waiting for them to move.

And so today, the day after acquiring my phone, I went back to the store to get an extra charger and a little box that lets me access the Internet at home via Wi-Fi from the smartphone. That gave me an excuse to go outside, which I rarely do these days. The weather was excellent, except for the late afternoon, which was rather hot. The breeze and low humidity made the rest of the daily fully tolerable, with seasonable temperatures and sunny skies.

To profit from the nice weather, I walked up to the store from home, which took about an hour. The city was overrun with tourists. In a day or two, the Parisians themselves will leave en masse on vacation, and the time between around July 15 and August 15 will be relatively quiet. But even if the locals are on vacation, the tourists are here in ever-increasing numbers (most of them speaking Mandarin these days), so the city stays crowded, but with less pollution.

Man playing piano by Opera
I did see a few traces of French snootiness even at the Apple Store. Some employees are less well trained than others. One employee near the entrance, to whom I asked a question about the gadget I had bought, became perceptibly irritated when I repeated the question for confirmation. Clearly, he had written me off as a dork, no doubt because of my age, my dumpy attire, and my hobo-like affect, but he could not have been further off the mark. But I let it slide, as I have more important things to worry about than inadequate customer service at a store (if you stress over something like that in Paris, you’ll quickly go barking mad).

As it is rare for me to leave my apartment these days (too little time, too little money), I splurged a bit while I was walking through the wonderfully-busy Opera shopping district (made all the busier because summer sales are in progress). I got a Frappucino at Starbucks (vanilla, although it always makes me cough for some reason). And then I got a millefeuille vanille at Fauchon, which cost $8.50. It was a mess to eat, but that is the nature of this type of pastry. It was tasty, but not tasty enough to justify $8.50. And Fauchon’s policy of having you order at the counter, then pay at the register, then return to the counter to pick up what you bought, is a bit archaic for my tastes, although, to be fair, it’s pretty common to do things that way in France.
Near the Opera I saw a guy playing classical piano rather furiously on the corner. He played very well, albeit a bit too quickly for my tastes. What really intrigued me, though, was trying to figure out how he got his Yamaha glossy-black upright piano to and from the street corner. I noticed a wheeled cart of sorts behind the piano, but still, an upright piano weighs hundreds of pounds, and I saw no car or van, and I couldn’t imagine him hauling it through the Métro, so I had to wonder how he moved it. I always think about strange things like that in such situations—it is my natural engineering bent that does it.

By around 4 PM it was starting to get too hot for my tastes, so I returned home. I decided to skip the grocery shopping I had been thinking about, as lines were long (as always), and I had enough in the fridge to hold me for a while.

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