A Smartphone in France: Bon Courage

Visiting your local mobile phone service provider is the perfect way to rile up your nerves – even on a perfect day.

It’s our first full day back in the sunny, glorious South of France, and I find myself inside the France Telecom store in central Antibes, right next to the commissariat de police.  A few paces into this well-windowed store on the corner of a busy intersection lies a welcome mat.  Overhead hangs a sign saying something about getting en ligne for service.

I’m here this Friday afternoon to find out whether France Telecom is able to offer me a SIM card to fit my new iPhone 4.  The iPhone 4 is Canada’s trendy, new gadget.  I purchased it at Toronto’s Apple store a couple weeks ago with strong assurances from the salesman that its new, smaller SIM card would be available in France.  The iPhone 4 was the phone everyone wanted, he reassured me.  France would not be left behind.  I should definitely buy my iPhone 4 in an unlocked format – that’s to say, free from a fixed service contract.  All I needed to do once I was overseas was slip a small French SIM card into my iPhone 4, and away I’d go.  Sure, I’d pay a fair whack for the phone upfront, but the money I’d save on international roaming charges would be well worth it.

The Apple salesman and I googled a few of France’s mobile providers like Orange and SFR, and yes, their websites were conversant in iPhone 4.  Moreover, I reckoned, the sales guy was Canadian – a kind and gentle Great White Northerner who was a few steps removed from Apple’s hyper breeding ground of the US.  He wouldn’t try to sell me something I couldn’t use.

My first visit to a mobile phone shop in France, just a few minutes back, was completely useless.  Orange, one of the conversant providers, didn’t carry the small carte de SIM.  This is how I find myself inside the larger France Telecom shop trying to figure out whether the en ligne sign applies to me.

Est-ce qu’il y a une ligne pour attendre?  I ask a balding man in shorts and a t-shirt who stands beneath the sign.  Is there a queue?

“Yes,” he says.

“Oh, do you speak English?”

Non, pas du tout.

Which is precisely what he shouldn’t say to someone who’s trying to speak his hyper-complicated native tongue.  It’s rude.  Basically he’s telling me my accent sucks.  But if he cannot speak my language, don’t pretend to.

So I continue in my richly accented, Anglophonic French (making a mental reminder of the phrase une ligne d’attente for next time).  By his kind eyes and gentle smile (a French rarity), I honestly don’t think the man meant any harm.  He agrees that I can jump the queue and ask my quick question to the France Telecom rep.  If they don’t carry the new, smaller carte de SIM, I won’t wait en ligne.

Shortly a tall, thin salesman of North African origin confirms that yes, indeed, France Telecom does carry the smaller carte de SIM for the iPhone 4.  Several hundred dollars worth of relief sweep my soul.  I confirm that yes, I will attendre.

The rude-but-kind Frenchman soon passes me heading the opposite direction.  “Bon courage!” he says with another smile and walks out the door.

Courage.  That is literally what I need.  But I know the phrase actually means “good luck.”  I need that, too.  The existence of a smaller carte de SIM is surely only a tiny step toward getting French mobile phone service.  I am, after all, standing in the shop of a mobile service provider, in France no less, and I’m doing my best not to get all riled up.

The North African salesman beckons me toward a high stool in front of a computer screen.  I’m actually getting personal service in a mobile phone shop within, say, ten minutes of entering the store.  What luck!  He returns with a new, small-form carte de SIM for my phone.  We whip through the merits of a permanent subscription versus paying as I go.  We determine my new telephone number, charge my phone with payment credits, and figure out exactly which buttons to switch off so that I don’t chew up the entire EUR 155 in a single day.  (Due to some particularly greedy French downloading rules, I do not exaggerate.)

Meanwhile I’m pretty ecstatic that it’s all working out.  I manage to have adequate identification with me to get my new telephone number.  I actually remember the PIN for my French Visa card.  I get EUR 50 credit “for free” on my phone.  And I understand the vagaries of cell phone usage in France – all en français!

Vous avez beacoup de chance parce que votre français est meilleur que mon anglais,” the North African says.  I’m lucky that my French is better than his English.  (Where did that receptionist go?)

I also have beaucoup de chance, he says, because la ligne d’attente is often out the door.  On Saturdays – if I’d waited one day to come in – le monde (as in the whole world) tries to cram itself into this France Telecom shop.

So I’m fixed up and ready to go.  I let the salesman know again how relieved I am that everything’s working – that France Telecom was able to provide the smaller carte de SIM, it being the new style and all.  I was afraid the small SIMs wouldn’t be available in France – but hey, he has proven me wrong.

“We only received the shipment of les cartes de SIM this morning,” he says.  “You’re the first client to buy one in Antibes.”

Which only makes me relish my bonne chance more enthusiastically.  I wish the salesman un bon après-midi – a good afternoon – andturn to go.

Bon après-midi,” he replies.  “Et bon courage!”

I think I’ve just used up my entire allotment of bon courage for this coming summer in France.  Courage, I fear, is precisely what I’ll need to survive.

Leave a Reply