How do you say “SNAFU” in French?

By | August 12th, 2016

Even the best planned European trip can take unpredictable twists and turns. Just ask John and Grace Marino.

Back in April, the Marinos booked train tickets departing Paris’s Gare de Lyon for Barcelona on June 2, because the couple was boarding a cruise ship there the next day. But the union strikes in Paris limited movement throughout France, and, as Marino learned firsthand, involved employees of the country’s national rail company, the SNCF.

When things go awry, knowing what to expect — and what not to expect — will make the difference between adventure and agony.

Because while travel disruptions caused by civil unrest might be foreign to Americans, for Parisians, it’s just another day in France.

Marino’s train was canceled, and in order to make it to Barcelona, the couple bought last-minute flights for $400. Train station staff told Marino to download reimbursement request forms to submit to the SNCF by mail, which he promptly did.

And then, nothing.

Marino emailed the SNCF customer service address and received an automated reply that he would be contacted 48 hours later.

He wasn’t.

When four more days passed, Marino emailed again. More nothing.

Finally, Marino wrote to us, asking for help.

I took Marino’s case, having had my own dust-ups with the SNCF in the past. We’ll get to that in a moment.

But first, I told Marino it is not unusual for an SNCF refund to take several weeks. The state-run company has been crippled by worker strikes, and it is undoubtedly overwhelmed by thousands of requests for refunds like this one.

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Frankly, the company has a total monopoly, so there’s no pressure to move quickly, show care or concern for customers, or do all the things we’ve come to enjoy in a country where competition drives performance, and quality customer service builds loyalty.

Yet, I knew Marino would get his refund, eventually.

Many years ago, as a graduate student in Paris, I reserved a train ticket from Paris’s Gare de Lyon to Geneva to visit a friend. Weeks before my trip, I purchased my ticket online with a credit card, and on the evening of my departure, I arrived at the train station ticket kiosk to print the ticket. There was only one small problem — the ticket machines didn’t take American credit cards.

Nowadays, it’s normal for American credit cards to be embedded with a chip that stores and protects cardholder data. But back then, American cards didn’t have them. French cards did — and their machines require them.

The ticket I paid for wouldn’t print. My heart raced. I looked at my watch. I looked at the long line to talk to a real person at the ticket window, which was at least an hour long.

At the last moment, I had to decide whether to miss the train or get on the train, with no ticket, knowing the consequences. I dashed for the platform and boarded the train, where I had to buy the most expensive, on-board fare. I gave the conductor my American credit card — which worked perfectly in his handheld credit card reader — and he told me to take it up later with the customer service office.

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After many letters and an in-person visit, I finally received a full refund of the walk-up fare I paid on board the train. The refund process took three months.

The SNCF is not run by thieves; it is, however, a massive bureaucracy that runs on its own schedule, and operates by guidelines that aren’t the most customer-friendly.

French workers are protesting a government move to loosen labor protection. Union protests have been less effective in recent years, which makes the concern for benefits and protections that much greater.

I know a little about some of France’s unusual labor laws, having worked for two years at France’s Embassy in the United States. There, at our Wall Street address, I was assigned the only office in the building without a window to the outside.

That wasn’t because they didn’t like me. Rather, it was illegal for a French citizen to work in an environment without a window. Putting the only American in the same windowless office, however, was completely acceptable.

Oh, well. I comforted myself in my artificially lit office with my 35-hour work week and six weeks paid vacation, which I was encouraged to take. These codified benefits affecting quality of life are examples of what French workers are fighting for.

The union strikes have caused headaches for many air and rail travelers in Paris this year. I contacted the SNCF on Marino’s behalf but received no response, either. Looking at Marino’s paper trail, I saw that he purchased his tickets through a third-party, private company, called Captain Train. I encouraged Marino to contact Captain Train, which quickly refunded his $225 fare.

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Worker demonstrations are as much a part of French culture as red wine and baguettes. They disrupt plans, but that’s the suffering the French endure to get fringe benefits. Just don’t expect great customer service.

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