TRAVEL with pat and lew

Archive for the ‘shopping’ Category

* French customer service … NOT!

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 19, 2009

Posted in ParlerParis …

Part of the American roots which go so deep that it’s doubtful they will ever cross to French soil is the concept of “customer is king” — that because we are the paying customers, the merchant will always do their best to accommodate us. WRONG.

I’ve practiced the French technique of getting good service for years now, with tutelage by Polly Platt and the other cultural experts, not to mention a lot of trial and error on my own. And just when I think it’s been perfected, something happens to stir up those deeply entrenched American roots…like a visit to an Orange/France Telecom boutique to exchange old mal-functioning equipment for the latest model.

I won’t bore you with the details, but imagine a grown woman sitting on the floor in the middle of the boutique on boulevard Saint-Germain at Odéon, papers spread all over the floor, with her coat, hat and other belongings draped on a nearby chair, blocking their copy machine so no one could use it, on her cell phone to a France Telecom customer service representative (oxymoron) after dialing 3900 and a zillion other code numbers which eventually take you to the right person. The person on the phone, now after having spoken to 5 or 6 others, is asking to speak with a sales person in the boutique to settle the matter, who are not only completely ignoring her pleas to come to the phone, but downright refusing to assist! That’s when the American roots exposed themselves…when the yelling started causing a big stir…and then guess what happened? The customer service representative on the phone hung up. TRUE STORY.

Three trips to the boutique and three trips to the apartment later, the issue was settled, but those old American roots found their way to the surface and asked, “will I ever get used to this?”

For the entire post and links to many other interesting and useful articles, click …

LMW NOTE: We’ve had our own customer service issues, with IKEA, getting our phones and internet set up, and with the Paris bicycle rental system. We’ve also had some quite positive experiences at Galeries Lafayette and Le Train Bleu, among many other restaurants. You can read about these experiences by clicking * IKEA’s idea of customer service* getting connected: telephone & internet* Velib … not designed for tourists* anniversary at Le Train Bleu* good customer service at Galeries Lafayette. Or just click “customer service” in the categories list to read them all.

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* a day in Perpignan

Posted by Lew Weinstein on August 4, 2007


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Collioure is a marvelous place, but shopping is not its strong suit. We decide to train to Perpignan for the day with a list of tasks. We take an early train, and the shops are not yet open, so we walk to the Palais des rois de Majorque, the palace of the kings of Majorca.

In the 13th century, Majorca ruled our part of France, and Perpignan was their center for this region. A palace was therefore built for their visits, taking 30 or so years, which is remarkably quick when you look at the size of the stones that were dragged up the hill. I take lots of photos and think maybe it could have been a site for a meeting between the representatives of Lorenzo de Medici and King Ferdinand of Aragon in the 1480s. “Could have been” is enough for my evolving historical novel.

Finding a hair salon is highest on our priority list, since Pat was not happy with the lack of attention paid to her color on her last visit in Collioure. We find a local Jean Louis David, which may be adequate, and then we stop looking, although we had a list from the yellow pages with us. Guess we’ll have to go back.

mobile phones 

French mobile telephones (nobody in Europe, except us, says cell phone) are next on our list. We go to the Orange store, this being the France Telecom outlet, and also SFR, which is the French representative for Vodaphone. At SFR, we learn that they offer phones and you can “top up” minutes on the internet, through the phone, or at any outlet.

But the minutes you but have a limited shelf life, use them or lose them, which is not what we want. Our objective is to have phones which we will use infrequently, and we want to buy a small quantity of minutes to last for several months.

Back at Orange, we select phones and make our purchase. Nokia phones, with instruction books in English as well as French.

The next day, setting up the phones, I learn that Orange “top up” minutes are also “use or lose.” It takes only a second to realize that the clerk in the Orange store is not at fault. She would assume that everyone knew how minutes were sold, so there was no need to spell it out. And we didn’t ask. My next reaction is to return the phones. But maybe that’s not going to solve anything either. The cost per two weeks, or per month, is not that great, and we can buy minutes for when we travel, since we have almost no use for mobile phones while we’re in Collioure.

After purchasing our phones, we head to Galeries Lafayette, but the only purchase we make is a small “Catalan” flag to complement the French and American flags we already have. Galeries in Paris is spectacular, in Montpellier it is outstanding, but here the architecture is sort of drab, and the merchandise is limited.

We have a nice lunch at an Italian restaurant, with a waitress whose mother came from Canada. We are impressed that the young girl moves quickly and is attentive, qualities which are not universal in France. We compliment her on her approach, and she says this is her first waitress job, and she’s still nervous. As if to prove her point, she spills a pitcher of water at the next table, drenching a man who, however, appears not to mind. You see, charm can overcome disaster.

We have other tasks to accomplish, but inexplicably, we just head back to the train station. We never look for another beauty salon or the picture frames we need.

trains & web schedules 

We are taking the 14:45 (2:45pm) train back to Collioure. I had purchased tickets for a later train but we’re ready to go earlier.

As the train is pulling in, Pat notices that the train board does not include Collioure. But I looked up this train on the web, on a search for ‘Perpignan to Collioure,’ and it had a departure time (14:45) and a Collioure arrival time (15:10), so up we go. 

As the train approaches Argeles-sur-mer, the stop before Collioure, and begins to slow down, I look for a conductor to confirm, just to be sure, that this train does actually stop in Collioure. But no conductor is nearby, and the train pulls out. It’s only 3 minutes from Argeles to Collioure, but in that interval, the conductor appears and informs us that the train does not stop again until it reaches Cerbere, the last stop in France, and not a place you want to linger.

We enter the tunnel before Collioure, there’s a brief flash of light, and we’re in the tunnel after Collioure.  We remember the Kingston Trio’s immortal song about the MTA in Boston, where you need(ed) an exit fee, and the poor man “would never return.” 

More to the point, I explain to the conductor that the web had stated a Collioure stop, and she, a lovely young lady with excellent English (“my boy friend is British”), writes a note on our ticket to her colleague in Cerbere that we should be allowed to return to Collioure without additional charge. In Cerbere, the colleague agrees and the return train is due to leave in 20 minutes.  

TIP:  The lesson is you cannot trust the web schedules completely. Always check in the station. 

This happened to me once before, when I was at the station trying to buy a ticket on a train which did not stop in Collioure. I thought that was my mistake, but now I think it probably wasn’t. I’m going to try to figure out if there is a way to read the web schedules that will reveal this kind of error.

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* food shopping in Collioure

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 1, 2007

Our main source of food is SHOPI, a small supermarket in the center of town, which has a very nice selection of fresh and packaged foods.

Of course there are delicious cheeses, and we’re experimenting our way through them all. There are canned goods, including Geant Vertz (Green Giant) corn, cookies, bread for toast, soda (Coke and ginger ale), and beer. We’ve learned to interpret what is printed on the cans and boxes, and are only sometimes surprised when we open them.

An aside … our French toaster makes toast perfectly, unlike every toaster we have ever purchased in America, and … when done, the toast pops right out of the toaster, sometimes onto the plate … it’s utterly remarkable what the French can do when it comes to food.

Shoppi also has real food … small packages of fish, shrimp, hamburger, and steaks. A few days ago, I saw a package of salmon steaks, which they don’t always have. Cooked on our tiny electric grill, they were excellent.

We will not go hungry, although we do wish we could find just one can of Campbell’s tomato soup.

For the best bread we’ve ever tasted, there is the small boulangerie next to Shoppi. It took many visits and many bonjour Madame’s, but now we receive a genuine smile in return. We practice our French for this simple task … Je voudrais une baguette et un pain d’raisins.

In France, you buy a baguette every day, since they harden quickly, but Pat has learned that warming the rock hard bread in the oven both softens it and produces a delicious crisp crust. The only problem is that bread is my downfall, and I’ve gained 5 pounds. Maybe the cheese has something to do with it. 

The farmer’s market on Sunday and Wednesday mornings is our main source of fresh vegetables – pepper, onions, lettuce, and olives.

Carrefours in neighboring Argeles-sur-mer is a major supermarket with a wide variety of packaged foods, cosmetics, paper goods, etc. We get there by train from Collioure (4 minutes) and taxi (5 minutes). Then we have the lady at the customer service desk call the taxi for the return trip to the gare dans Argeles.

We can only carry two shopping bags each, so this is a limited voyage, and we schedule large shopping runs to Carrefours whenever we have a rental car for some other reason.

Pizza and ice cream are staples in Collioure. There are several pizza restaurants, as well as one terrific take-out place. Ice cream in dozens of flavors is sold from freezer bins along many streets in town. I still prefer vanilla, and you get “French Vanilla” without even asking for it.

I should mention shopping bags. They don’t give you any in the stores, so you have to bring your own or buy one. We have forgotten enough times so we have quite a collection, but lately we seem to remember.

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shopping in Tlaquepaque (Guadalajara)

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 13, 2007

Tlaquepaque is a section of Guadalajara where old buildings have been restored to accommodate a wide variety of excellent shops featuring Mexican clothes, pottery, linens, and other goods.

The drive from Ajijic takes us past the airport. The signage, which until now has been quite limited, is actually quite good at getting us to Tlaquepaque. We follow the avenue C. Ninos Heroes on our map, turn at Juarez, and, since it is early in the morning, easily find a convenient parking space. I put pesos in the meter for 4 hours parking, I think for less than $1.00 US.

It’s not yet 10:00 am, and the shops are not open. We wander, take photos of the churches and charming old buildings. Pat studies the list of shops in an excellent brochure, which is available everywhere including the Guadalajara airport, and lists the stores she is interested in. I circle the keyed store numbers on the map, and as soon as they open, we begin. The main shopping streets are pedestrian only.

Our first purchase is three beautiful scarves, one for Pat and two as gifts. Our main quest, however, is brightly colored Mexican serving bowls and plates. We explore several shops, then find what we want. We buy 5 beautiful serving dishes for $60.00 US. They wrap them well and put them in a box with a carry string, which we put in the car trunk.

We have an excellent lunch, our best meal in Mexico, with guacamole that compares well with our favorite at Rosa Mexicano in New York.

More shopping yields a handful of brightly colored napkins and place mats, which is always one of Pat’s goals.

We find our way out of Guadalajara without difficulty and head back to Ajijic, about 50 kilometers away.

We return to Guadalajara a few days later to explore other areas of the city, but find nothing as charming or as productive from a shopping viewpoint as Tlaquepaque.

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shopping near Collioure

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 23, 2007

The neighboring village of Port Vendres, less than a mile south of Collioure, has a large well stocked supermarket, but is accessible only by car.In the other direction, accessible by car, bus or train, is the town of Argeles-sur-mer.

Our experience there includes Carrefour, a major department store on the outskirts of town, and the tiny English used book store in the town center.

Further to the north is Perpignan, on the outskirts of which is Auchan, an even larger department store, and Leroy Merlin, the Home Depot of France.

In the city of Perpignan is a wide variety of shopping. There’s a set of modern stores, including electronics, DVDs, and a home decorating boutique, in a marvelous old building 10 minutes walk from the train station.

Also in Perpignan is a Galeries Lafayette department store, not quite the equal of the flagship store in Paris, but that’s a very high bar. In Perpignan, Galeries serves Pat’s passion for gracious table and glassware.

Barcelona is two hours away by train or car. There’s an excellent department store, El Corte Ingles on Playa Cataluna, that we only discovered as we were leaving Europe last year. Of course, Barcelona is a shopping mecca, with many great stores, including one of the largest sporting goods stores in the world.

And then, of course, there’s Paris.

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narrow streets and tiny shops

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 23, 2007

There are no large stores in Collioure, but the village is full of boutique shops selling art, ceramics, espadrilles, jewelry, and women’s clothing.

One of our favorites is Majolique, which has three small shops selling their own handmade ceramics: colorful bowls, jugs, and dishes in primary blues, yellows and greens. We have purchased an olive oil cruet, several small serving bowls, and dishes, some of which we have brought back to Key West. This is also our first stop for presents. Check out their web site at …

Espadrilles are the favored footwear in Collioure, reflecting the area’s Catalan history, and they’re available all over town. Pat swears by them.

Artists have flourished in Collioure since the early 20th century visits of Matisse, Derain and Picasso. Sidewalk artists abound, some of considerable quality, and there are numerous art shops.

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homeless at IKEA

Posted by Lew Weinstein on February 22, 2007

While we still had the rental car, we had driven to a store called Auchan near Perpignan. Auchan is the French equivalent of a Walmart super store, with appliances, computers, furniture, bedding and linens, plus a food supermarket. We bought several small bookcases, sheets, and other stuff.

Next to Auchan is a store called Leroy Merlin, the closest thing to Home Depot in France, where we bought two table lamps to fit on the tiny side tables from Auchan. Now we can read in bed, which is very important to us.

The apartment is beginning to take shape. But major purchases, including a new sofa, are yet to be made.

IKEA has stores in Montpellier and Toulouse in France, and Barcelona in Spain, each about 2-3 hours away from Collioure, by train or car. The previous fall, we had shopped at the IKEA nearest to New York City, and had ordered furniture to be delivered from the Montpellier store in January.

“No problem,” we were told. However, when we called to confirm just before leaving Key West for Collioure, we were told that IKEA, despite their promise to do so, couldn’t guarantee delivery during our three week visit.

So we cancelled the order.

This turns out to be a good thing. After several days in the apartment, we have changed our minds and now want none of the furniture which would have been delivered pursuant to the original IKEA order. Sometimes you get lucky.

On the train from Collioure to Montpellier, we share a compartment with three ladies from Perpignan who are off for a day of shopping and theatre. They speak almost no English, we speak almost no French, but we have a delightful conversation using our little translator and the dictionary on my laptop. When we arrive in Montpellier, the ladies insist on helping us find our hotel.

IKEA’s business model is premised on the idea of customers arriving by car, making their purchases, and taking (almost) everything with them. We definitely do not fit the mode. For one thing, we don’t have a car.

We’re directed by our hotel clerk to take the tram from downtown Montpellier to the IKEA stop. Unexpectedly, we then have to walk about a mile from the tram stop to the store.

After several hours shopping, we have two carts brimming with kitchen stuff, linens, and whatnot, plus vouchers for the sofa and ottoman we have selected. We approach the checkout line where we’re assured IKEA will deliver all of the merchandise to Collioure in June.

We pay for our purchases and trundle over to the delivery booth.

“Deliver all of this to Collioure? C’est impossible!

“But they said …”

C’est impossible.

I negotiate, and eventually it is agreed that some of our goods, plus of course the sofa and ottoman, can be delivered to Collioure in June, but we’ll have to take the rest with us.

IKEA, like all French stores, does not provide shopping bags. They will sell you a flimsy plastic bag that doesn’t close, and they do offer unlimited amounts of heavy wrapping paper and tape. I construct a duffel bag from the plastic bag, and several large packages from the wrapping paper and tape.

But we’re a mile from the tram station! Taxi? Not a chance.

“Keep pushing,” I say.

“We can’t do this!” Pat says.

What we did still has our friends roaring with laughter. We roll our shopping carts down the highway, looking for all the world like two homeless people pushing their earthly belongings to an unknown destination.

We glance repeatedly over our shoulders for the IKEA police.

At the tram station, we lock the two carts together, retrieving one of the two euros that had been inserted to get them, and carry our bags to the train.

Fortunately, our hotel is not far from the tram stop, nor from the train station the next morning, and our apartment in Collioure is but 100 yards from the train station there.

There is more, much more, to the IKEA adventure, but that part doesn’t happen until the summer (see problems).

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