Thursday, May 27, 2010


This is frustrating. To put it mildly.

Like most writers I know, I've had some financial problems recently. They resulted in my bank bouncing automatic debits, which are the only way you can pay some bills in France. These problems have, in large part, been solved, and I'm in the process of trying to sort out the wreckage.

Mostly, I've been concentrating on my phone. I've paid my phone bill, but my phone still doesn't work. According to my telecom provider, Free, this is because the line was closed by France Telecom Orange, the old state monopoly. According to a letter I got after the line was closed, it was closed for nonpayment. Which is weird, because I only had to pay Orange once, to open the line, and then Free was supposed to take it over. That all went down in January '09, but it now appears that Orange has been sucking €20 a month out of my bank account for nothing since then, while never relinquishing the line. And, when those payments bounced, they shut me off. The only way to rectify this is to call them. Which, without a phone, I can't do.

Finally, I had an idea. I would just get a pay-as-you-go phone, which I couldn't really afford, and use that to contact Orange, which has an English-language help line that's reportedly very good. I asked a friend which provider he uses for his pay-as-you-go and he said...Orange. Okay, fine. Use Satan to fight Satan. So I walked into an Orange boutique, and, as usual, everyone was busy. As I waited for a saleswoman, I looked at the various phones on the wall. Apparently, all of them could be used for pay-as-you go SIMs. Including the iPhone.

I have an iPhone already. It had had an Orange contract which expired, and I didn't use it as a phone all that much, so I've just been using it as an iPod Touch.

But the saleswoman told me that for €15 I could get a SIM with €5 credit on it, toss it into the phone, synch the phone with iTunes, and bingo, I'd have a number. And you know what? She was right!

But. Tuesday morning, a guy knocked on my door. It was the electric company. I'd gotten some letters about this, so I knew what was happening: he was going to give me "service minimum" for those unpaid bills. I would be allowed only 1000 watts, which meant I couldn't use the water heater (1200) or the stovetop or oven (1500) ot it would blow the special fuse he'd put in the box.

This wasn't a big problem, though: I'd just gotten paid by a magazine in Germany, and the money would arrive later that day. The post office is also where you pay your electric bills if you're paying cash. I'd pick up the Western Union money, present my bill, pay it, and they'd turn me back on. And I could do those dishes sitting there in the sink.

They're still there. The woman at the post office apparently didn't know how to deal with this, and showed me a form that I couldn't fill out. She claimed my customer number wasn't on the bill, which it very clearly is. Okay, I thought, it should be possible to go straight to the electric company's offices and pay my bill. The way you can do it in America, and the way you can do it in Germany.

So yesterday I lit out for the central office, which is way out in the boondocks. The trams were on strike -- or, more accurately, slowdown -- and there were about 10,000 people waiting. Okay, I supposed I could wait til tomorrow, which is to say today, Thursday.

So, bright and early this morning, I went to the tram stop. There's still a slowdown, but I got on a not-so-crowded tram and went out to where the office was supposed to be. It wasn't there, but I followed the tracks for a mile or so, and saw a sign pointing to the electric company's building. It was huge. It has its own infirmary. It was also totalitarian-looking as it could be.

People were leaving for lunch, and I walked into the lobby. The reception window was closed. I looked around for a sign. A woman saw me and asked if she could help. I told her I wanted to pay my bill, and she told me that wasn't possible there: there was another office that handled that. Where was it? In the center city, she said. Oh, the place a few blocks from my house. Okay.

I walked back into the city. It was entirely possible that the electric company would close for lunch, and I knew where I was, at last, so I knew I was about a 45-minute walk from downtown. It was a gorgeous day, if not a particularly inspiring walk down the Avenue Georges Clemenceau, which is mostly kebab shops and tire shops. The authentic Mexican restaurant seemed closed forever, sad to say. Never got to check it out.

Eventually, I got to where I was going, although there seemed no way into the building. I finally found a way in and was confronted by a nice woman at a reception desk. I told her my goal -- paying the bill and getting reconnected -- and she said it wasn't possible, that I had to call a number.

Now, this is where I fall down. I cannot communicate in a foreign language on the telephone. It's all I can do to make a doctor's appointment in French; navigating a phone tree is impossible for me in the language. The electric company allegedly has an English-language help service, but the robots which pick up the call talk rapid French, and I couldn't figure out what to do.

Consultation with the guy who pays his bills in cash each month made me realize that the woman at the post office probably made a mistake, so I gathered up my courage, my cash, and my documents and headed back to the post office.

Which was closed in solidarity to the strikers.

The dishes are piling up. I'm not sure what I must smell like, since my nose-doctor appointment's not til Monday, but I see a cold shower in the near future. I'm going to have to eat out tonight, which I really can't afford, and I mourn the fact that wherever I go I probably won't be able to taste much.

Trying to pay the electric bill has eaten up all the time I was going to devote to getting the telephone turned back on. It's taken me all week just to get this far.

And I'm nowhere at all. Impossible.


  1. Apparently this is what the expert expats call a "Bad France Day". It happens to all of us. Although it is little comfort, be assured you are not alone!

    See you Saturday.

  2. Beams, Ed. I've got nothing else to offer, except that you make all my frustrations seem kinda chickenshit.


  3. Good luck untangling that knot, Ed.


  4. Ugh. Sorry to hear this, Ed. I always just say, as loud as possible, "Fuck France Telecom!" I don't care what color it is this month.

  5. Wow. I wish you luck in getting everything sorted out!

  6. I love how the telecom provider is named Free. Ah, the irony.

  7. No, no, Free are good guys, and call themselves that because their calls to most of the world are, indeed, free. For €30 a month, I get phone, high-speed internet, and, if I wanted it, a zillion channels of cable. But they're dependent on Orange, and their tech thought he'd rid me of them last year. Apparently no such thing.

    But first, get the power back on. I just took a cold shower. Not pleasant.

  8. I seem to remember being able to pay an electricity bill in cash at an office in the city centre (can't remember exactly where, but somewhere near the train station, sort of rue du Pont de Lattes-ish if I'm not mistaken)... a small place, on a corner... I know, I'm not being wildly helpful am I?
    That said, this "Bad French Day" can be more specifically a "Bad Montpellier Day", as 'things administrative' here can be more demanding than elsewhere (I've lived here for almost 11 years, but lived in Lyon for 7 years before that).
    I wish you the very best of luck - if you need someone to make a phonecall to a French admin robot (human or otherwise), I'd be willing to help - I have more phones than I know what to do with (one personal landline, one professional landline and a mobile), and my French is pretty good after all this time!

  9. Good luck in getting stuff back together!
    There is a little ray of sunshine I have to bring you: NPR's WHYY (Philadelphia) broadcast your programme on Louie Ortega yesterday evening (May 27): it's at
    and I, for one, really enjoyed it. Thanks very much for the musical memories!


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