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It all starts when my friend and I decide to visit the world’s largest home show, the Salon de la Maison, located in Villepinte, just outside Paris. It’s a drab and chilly day in late January when I leave my apartment in the Latin Quarter, narrowly missing a pigeon’s best efforts to poop on my head. Shutting the barn door after the horse’s escape, I adjust the scarf to cover my hair and tighten it around my neck to keep out the damp. I would love a croissant and a café crème for the subway ride, but there isn’t time. No matter. I’ll get them at the Gare du Nord train station where my friend and I have agreed to meet. At the Censier-Daubenton metro, I put my ticket in the slot and move through the turnstile. It’s a fairly quick ride as I only have to change trains once, so I arrive at the Gare du Nord at 9 am sharp, right on time.
As I prepare to go through another turnstile at the entrance to the RER to get to the platform where my friend will be waiting, I realize my mistake. It’s been some time since I’ve lived in Paris and I’d forgotten that a regular subway ticket isn’t going to let me through this turnstile. To get outside the city limits, I’ll need a special ticket. I spot a ticket booth and walk toward it, but as I approach, I realize it’s actually just an information window. Nearby, however, there are machines selling subway tickets.
I approach a complicated-looking machine, choose first my zone, then my destination, then class of ticket, and finally, the number of tickets I want to purchase. When it comes to the payment screen, I’m given the option of cash, Carte Bleue (the French equivalent of a debit card), or Mastercard. Buying a ticket with Euros isn’t an option because I didn’t have any, so I pop in my credit card. The machine regurgitates it instantly, clicking with disapproval. A yellow exclamation point flashes onto the screen in warning: Card Not Readable! I try another machine, which manages to hiss and click simultaneously as it spits out my hairball of a card. There is no visible ATM machine, so I go to the information window. “S’il vous plait, ou est-ce que je pourrais trouver un distributeur de billets?” All around me, people are purchasing tickets, happily using their Cartes Bleues. I recognize them because of the noticeable, gold memory chip, known as the “puce.”
“Distributeur au deuxieme etage, Madame,” says the attendant. ATM on the second floor. And he jerks his head in the direction of the stairs. I don’t see them at first, but actually they’re not so far away that I can’t make them out by squinting really hard. Walking fast, I’m sure I can get there in 5 or 6 minutes. Glancing at a nearby clock, I see that I’m already ten minutes late. God bless cell phones. I call my friend and explain my dilemma, telling her I’ll be as quick as I can. Once up the long flight of stairs, I stop to catch my breath – no easy task at this altitude. I look around for the ATM machine, which is nowhere in sight, although there’s a highly visible Currency Exchange booth in the middle of the floor.
I walk briskly to the Currency Exchange and ask where the ATM machine would be located. “Just the other side of this booth, Madame.” Indeed, there it is! I recognize it immediately because of the handwritten sign: “Distributeur Hors Service.” ATM out of service. This leaves me no alternative but to return to the Currency Exchange to trade my American dollars for Euros. Riffling through my wallet, I find $14. No fortune, but it should be more than enough for round-trip train fare, and the croissant and café crème I’m now yearning for. Pushing my $14 under the glass partition on the counter of the Currency Exchange, I do a quick calculation. This should get me about 10 Euros.
“Here you go,” says the man at the window.
“Six Euros??” I say, looking at the three sad coins in my hand.
“Well, there are fees, you know.” While a croissant is now out of the question, the exchange leaves me enough money to buy one round-trip fare to Villepinte, plus a cup of coffee, providing the sugar is free. On the way to Villepinte, my friend and I do the math: 45 minutes plus $14 equals one subway ticket. My friend, owner of a Carte Bleue, has had no such difficulties. Clearly, I need a French debit card.
The following day, I choose an International bank in my neighborhood through whom I have an American credit card, figuring that can only help. There’s a large, threatening looking guard standing outside the bank, sort of blocking the door. He eyes me suspiciously, says nothing, but doesn’t move. My French is good and I pull it out to state the obvious. “I’d like to go inside.” He nods, steps aside and presses a button near the door, buzzing me in. I step into a small, glass vestibule as the door clicks shut behind me. In front of me is another closed door, equipped with two buttons just like we have in the States, the ones you have to use to enter bank vestibules after hours, to get to the ATM. That’s where the similarity ends, however. I push the top button. Nothing. I hate enclosed spaces, so I push it three more times, in rapid succession, click, click, click. The door still doesn’t open, but a voice echoes through the airless cubicle, “Bonjour, Madame. Can I help you?”
The voice is coming from somewhere over my head and looking up, I see a television screen, filled with the image of a young woman, apparently the owner of the voice. I have the uncomfortable sensation that she’s nearby, but I continue to focus on the screen. “Bonjour. Uh, yes, I’d like to open a bank account.” I feel like a 5-year-old, standing in front of the teacher’s desk.
“What kind of an account?” Mademoiselle inquires.
“Well, I don’t really know.”
“Do you wish to open a business account or a personal account?”
“Personal. I need a debit card.”
“Do you also need checks?”
My neck is starting to lock up. “I suppose so. Yes.” I see movement through the door to my left. I’m certain that this annoying little person is just on the other side of the glass, but there’s such glare I can’t see. I have the vague sense that her colleagues are making faces at me. Since the door isn’t opening, I keep talking. “I’m a writer, I’m from America. I spend a good portion of the year in France and it would be convenient to have a bank account.” It’s clear that I need to state my case convincingly. Otherwise, this door is not going to open. Now I know how Dorothy felt in front of the Wizard.
“Oh, I see,” but Mademoiselle sounds more disgusted than convinced. There’s definite disappointment in her voice when she realizes she’s run out of excuses to keep me outside. “Come on in,” she says poutily, as she releases the door.
Entering the bank, I see that the girl I’ve been talking to has been less than 10 feet from me the entire time. Three steps is all that’s required to close the distance between us. There’s another young woman at the window next to her, smirking vaguely.
“So you want to open a compte courant,” Mademoiselle says. “Do you also want a savings account?”
I hadn’t thought about this. “Yes, good idea. Why not?”
She’s taking notes. “What is your address in Paris?” I give it to her and she continues, “You need to see Monsieur Solange.”
“Great! Where do I go?”
Looking at me strangely, she scowls as she repeats, “Where do you go?”
“Yes,” I say, “to meet Monsieur Solange.”
“Oh, he’s not available,” she says with a satisfied smile. “He will call you at home. Where are you going when you leave here?”
“Excuse me?”
“After you leave here, where are you going? Are you going straight home?”
“Uh, I suppose so.”
“So, you will receive a call at home in 30 minutes.” In New York, I’d be signing checks by now.
“Well, thank you very much, Mademoiselle. I’ll expect a phone-call, then.” “Oui, Madame. Au revoir.”
I turn around and press the button at the door. Nothing happens. I feel the girls’ eyes on me and my face begins to heat up. I just know they’re holding back laughter. I panic slightly, and jab at the button several more times. Finally the door opens and I realize, once again, it’s the girl behind the desk who has control. She’s loving this. I just know she and her girlfriend are going to explode with laughter the minute I leave. Entering the vestibule, I press the button on the door to the outside. Jab, jab, jab. Nothing happens anywhere except on my face, which is red with heat as beads of sweat bloom on my forehead and upper lip. The inner door shuts behind me and a green button lights up on the door to the outside. I press the button a couple more times and the door clicks open. The guard holds the door open for me and I step out into the cool afternoon. I walk away as quickly as I can.
At home, it’s close to an hour and a half later when the phone rings. “Bonjour Madame. I understand you want to open a bank account with us.” It’s a woman’s voice. I guess I must have misunderstood. I guess it’s Madame Solange.
“Yes, I’m a writer; I spend a lot of time in Paris and I really need a bank account here. So, how do we proceed?”
“You will need to come in and talk to Monsieur Solange.”
No, really?
“When can I come in?” Even though I just left, I’m thinking now would be a good time.
“How’s Thursday of next week?”
“Next Thursday?” Today is Monday. “I can’t come in before then?”
“No, Madame, I’m terribly sorry, but Monsieur Solange is not available until Thursday of next week.”
I’m disappointed, but what choice do I have? I agree to an appointment the following Thursday, coincidentally the same day my ex-husband and I are scheduled to have lunch. When Thursday rolls around, I meet him at the local falafel place in his neighborhood before my appointment at the bank. My ex-husband is Algerian, but has lived most of his life in Paris and understands this city and its ways. Between bites of gyro he says, “You probably won’t get one,” by which he means a bank account.
“’I probably won’t get one?’ What does that mean?” I’m annoyed, but I feel my heart sink.
He takes a swallow of wine before continuing. “As an American, you don’t really have the right to a bank account. It’ll depend entirely on luck.”
“Oh come on!” I say.
“I’m serious,” he says, and looks it. “It also depends on who you get for a banker. There are no guarantees.” He thinks for a minute before continuing. “You might be able to get a Compte Etrangere. Maybe. If you’re lucky,” he says again. A Compte Etrangere is a sort of child’s version of a bank account, for foreigners only. It would not include a debit card.
“If I’m lucky?” I repeat, with irritation. “This is about business. Money. What does luck have to do with it?”
My ex-husband laughs and shakes his head at my innocence. “You’ve forgotten about French bureaucracy.” I haven’t forgotten. I’ve deliberately blocked it out, but the memories come back now in a rush. Eighteen months of chasing papers, and half a dozen day-long appointments at the Prefecture of Police, plus the obligatory medical exam, all culminating in the day that I went in to pick up my residence card, only to have the sleepy-eyed bureaucrat behind the desk say, in a bored tone of voice, “Your dossier is empty, Madame. Why is your dossier empty?” A slight shudder goes through me at the memory. Maybe I don’t need a bank account that badly.
“Well, surely they’d open a bank account for me if I arrived with a suitcase full of cash?”
“Oh-la-la! That would be even worse!”
“Even worse? I’m talking about a suitcase full of bills! Not that I have one,” I add as an afterthought.
“They’d have to find out where the money came from, how you came to have it; you’d have to provide justification. They wouldn’t just open a bank account for you.”
I’m not getting any of this. Admittedly I’m no financier, but in the world of banking, isn’t the winning bank the one with the most money? This strikes me as a good point, so I say, “Banks want money, no?”
“Oh-la-la, tu n’as rien compris!” He’s absolutely right – I don’t understand anything.      “The French don’t care about money! That’s why this country is in the shape it’s in! Your getting a bank account will depend entirely on the banker and his mood.”
“His mood?”
My ex-husband is getting a kick out of this. He dabs at his beard with his napkin, picks a piece of lettuce out of his teeth, wipes his hands on his napkin and takes another sip of wine, before settling back in his chair to finish the story. “Bankers in France are not like in the United States. They don’t give a shit how much money you have and they are completely capricious. If they have a hangover, or don’t like your face, or don’t feel like it, they just won’t help you. I’ll give you an example – I’ve been banking with the same bank for 30 years. For the last ten of those years, I’ve been dealing with the same banker, a woman in her sixties.” His expression hardens. “As you know, most of the money I make is in cash.” My husband owns a Cuban-themed bar in the neighborhood of La Bastille, on what is known as the Bourbon Street of Paris. “Every year, for 30 years now, because of my bar, at least a quarter of a million Euros goes through that bank. Well, last week, I wrote a check for 700 Euros against insufficient funds, and the banker I’ve been dealing with for the last ten years wouldn’t clear it.”
“How short were you?”
“Twenty-five Euros.”
“They wouldn’t clear a 700 Euro check because it was short twenty-five Euros??” I’m starting to get the picture.
He nods and continues. “I went to the bank to straighten this out, but instead of apologizing, the banker got cocky. ‘Despite the fact that you have been a client for many years, Monsieur, it is my right to refuse to clear a check that is short.’ Yes, it’s your right, I told her and it’s my right to tell you this: You’re not a banker; you’re a clown, a circus performer, a streetwalker!’” My ex-husband has never been one to mince words.
By the end of lunch, my stomach is in knots over this whole banking business. In fact, it doesn’t sound like a business at all, except in the sense that gambling is a business, too. I begin to see that my fate is in the hands of capricious, streetwalking clowns, my ability to conduct business in Paris entirely at the mercy of a petty bureaucrat’s mood swings. Well, I’ll just have to roll the dice.
When I get to the bank, the same guard is standing outside the door. He recognizes me and buzzes me in. Maybe they’ll recognize me inside as well, I hope. Once inside the vestibule, I push the button for the second door and, once again, there is no response. I push a couple times more for good measure, used to the humiliation by now, and then I remember that the door behind me has to click shut before the one in front of me will open. Besides, Mademoiselle inside has to agree to let me in, and maybe she’s not in the mood. Well, by the end of today, if I’m not successful in opening a bank account, maybe I’ll at least have the door-thing figured out.
As soon as I step into the bank, I see why she kept me waiting in the vestibule. This is not the same Mademoiselle as the one of the other day. This one is a warrior. She is sitting at a desk, pounding furiously at a computer keyboard. I do not know what the keyboard has done to deserve this punishment, but it is clear to me from the expression on the young woman’s face, which one of them will emerge victorious from the arena. She glances at me for a moment as she continues hammering away at the keys. Not that she turns her head – she manages to look at me out of the corner of her eye, without missing a blow in her rhythmic assault on the keyboard. Her eyes scrape up and down my body like sandpaper, quickly arriving at the conclusion that I am an inferior specimen. With a sigh of resignation, she turns to me and says with annoyance, “Have a seat. Monsieur Solange will be with you shortly.”
I’ve only been waiting three minutes when Monsieur Solange bounces down the stairs. I say “bounce” because Monsieur Solange is a mere child, younger than my own son. His exact age is hard to pinpoint, but he’s certainly no more than 24 or 25 years old and probably weighs 120 pounds, soaking wet. My fate is in the hands of a skinny child. Oh well. Maybe I’ll have time to try another bank before the day’s over.
An hour and a half later, I’m still in the office of Monsieur Solange. I filled out fewer papers than this when I bought my house. The paperwork and the fluorescent lighting are making me feel light-headed, and I’m getting writer’s cramp, but there’s a nice feeling between this banker and myself. There ought to be! He already knows me better than most people. Psychotherapists ask fewer personal questions. The good news is that it looks like he’s going to give me a regular bank account, with checks and the coveted Carte Bleue, complete with puce! I’m finally starting to relax when Monsieur Solange says, “I have to give you a little test. Are you ready?” Test? You’re kidding. “To assess your financial acumen.”
“Oh, we don’t have to assess that. I don’t have financial acumen! Can’t we just fill in ‘zippo’ for all the answers?”
His laughter tells me he thinks I’m kidding. “First question: When you have money to invest, how do you invest? Conservatively, or do you take risks?”
The test takes only half an hour. A few photocopies, a few more signatures and I’ll be on my way. By the time I gather up my papers and temporary checkbook, the sun is starting to set. I’m so spaced out that it’s almost an out-of-body experience. I’ve been in Monsieur Solange’s office for 3 hours.
That night at dinner, I tell a French friend about my experiences at the bank, naturally omitting the part about the Land of Oz and Dorothy’s inability to operate the magic doors. My friend laughs. “Yes, that’s banking in France! At least you’re not like the other Americans, though.”
“The other Americans? What do you mean?”
“Well, French people can always spot Americans at the bank, because instead of pushing the buzzer and calmly waiting for the door to open, they peck at it furiously, like a woodpecker – jabjabjabjabjab! Oh, look, the crème caramel is here!”