Letter from France – The downside of travel #2

The bank and other disappointments

Dear Mum,

It’s wise to expect one major bureaucratic disaster per overseas trip. Especially if you are foolish / optimistic / besotted enough to buy an apartment just days before you leave Australia. And thank you for being so utterly non-judgmental about that decision, along with all the other dubious decisions I’ve made in my life. I miss you.

When I left Australia, I left behind a team of volunteers who basically moved all my possessions from my old place to my new place and prepared my old place for sale. There will have to be a lot of payback when I get home. Not that I will ever be able to repay them as they deserve.

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This trip, I didn’t expect smooth sailing but nor did I expect a perfect tsunami of incompetence and withheld information that could so easily have had disastrous consequences. Travel has its drawbacks and these first few weeks have been a perfect storm of them.

The internet

I knew the internet at my home in Burgundy might be unreliable so I bought a European SIM card with 20 GB of monthly data allowance. It seemed like a princely amount of data to me and I used it unsparingly during my time in Paris. I purchased it with my Australian credit card while back in Oz, of which more later.

Once in Burgundy, I was entirely reliant on my phone data for internet connection. Within two days, I was down to 4 GB, then 3, then 2. I was using more than 1 GB per day. These days I am much better at conserving data, but back then – it seems like a lifetime ago – I was profligate.

So here I was in the French countryside, with no financial or online means of paying for a data top up and no other means of communication with friends and family back home. I was utterly alone: for two days I didn’t hear the sound of a human voice. Except thank dieu for France Musique – a daggy blend of classical music and 1950s crooners. I’d packed my old tranny for just such an emergency. You raised a resourceful daughter. Possibly two.

I made several attempts to top up my phone data online but each time a security code sms was sent to – you guessed it – my Australian phone number. My online activity was identified as potential scamming and my credit card was rendered inoperable.

At this point I will divert to my second major disappointment …

The bank

In the days before my departure for France, I spent some time at the local branch of the bank. Our bank, Mum. Since last you were out and about in the leafy suburbs, things have changed. Our bank has had major renovations in many of its branches. The goal of these renos is to remove all opportunity for customers to sit down and have a discussion with any member of staff.

You arrive and wait in line for access to the one remaining teller station.

This is manned by only one teller during the lunch hour and smoko breaks. During those same breaks, the patrol officer who vets the queuing public is also absent. If you encounter such a patrol officer, nine times out of ten you will be sent home to make your enquiry via the telephone. That poses its own set of problems. Again I’m not sure how long it is since you’ve waited on the telephone line to the bank. These days, it’s long enough to knit a beanie and possibly matching socks.

Five balls of wool and an unfinished brown beanie with circular knitting needle
Photo by Anastasia Zhenina on Unsplash

On the day in question, I cunningly arrived at the bank at 9.30am sharp and was the first customer of the day. As I approached the glass window, I was assailed by both the teller and a random scary woman sitting at a low desk (without a chair opposite her). Both demanded to know the nature of my business.

Having just bought an apartment and being in the process of selling another while overseas, I said mildly, ‘I have a few questions. Can I please sit down with someone to discuss them?’

‘What kind of questions?’ barked the scary woman.

‘Oh, moving large sums of money from my account to the vendors, that kind of thing.’

‘You can’t do it from overseas.’

And so it went on. As other customers trickled in, they too were treated to the story of my finances. Finally, close to tears of mortification, I sought refuge in the manager’s office where I had seen him cowering throughout this exchange.

Note to the bank renovators.

I know your evil plan in introducing see-through offices without doors. It is to impress upon your customers the impossibility of conducting a confidential discussion at the actual bank. That kind of discussion belongs in the privacy of the call centre. But the absence of doors and places to hide means that riffraff like me can march right in if we spot our prey (assuming we’ve managed to evade security).

Once inside the hallowed – erm – open space of the manager’s office, I sat myself down in the one spare chair and said, through wobbling lips, ‘That was inhumane.’

‘I agree,’ said he. He did nothing to address it.

A blue and white electronic sign that reads 'Personal Banking' with a caption underneath that reads 'A contradiction in terms'.
A contradiction in terms

The bank insisted I set up a large deposit transfer to the vendor’s account at the branch, conducted by a teller. The bank charged me $35 for this service. The large deposit was returned to my bank account four days later when I was in Paris. The $35 fee was not.

No reason for this epic fail has been given in the six weeks since it happened. I have had to borrow the large amount from elsewhere. The Customer Complaints division is still ‘reaching out’ to the Bentleigh branch – oops did I just mention the branch? Next thing, I’ll be naming the bank.

SMS security codes.

On one of my visits to the bank, I requested that sms codes be sent to me via email, as had been the case in all my previous overseas trips. The conversation went something like this:

‘We don’t do that anymore.’

‘So how do I overcome the problem of not having access to my Australian phone number while overseas*?’

‘Dunno.’

Which leads me back to…

A red and white electronic sign that reads 'Internet' and beneath that is an @ symbol.

The internet (continued).

When my credit card was frozen, the bank told me it was the credit card company’s fault. *The staff at my local branch hadn’t told me that I could have removed the sms security code myself while still in Australia. Unfortunately you have to enter a security code to do that, so not an option now I’m in France.

In the end I had to use a neighbour’s mobile phone to ring the bank’s Australian landline number listed on the back of my credit card. My only option was to nominate someone to receive and relay my sms security codes to me via text. How’s that for security?

If I sound bitter and twisted, it’s because I am. You know what, Mum? I reckon you’re right to stay at home. Remind me next time I get restless.

In the meantime, I’ll sit on my balcony ‘office’ on the south side of this gorgeous old pile of stone overlooking the undulating hills of this beautiful part of the world. A place where locals pull over every time they see me trudging along the dusty roads with my backpack and ask if I need a lift.

J’aime marcher,’ I say. Then we wish each other a ‘bonne journée‘ and go our separate ways. I love those moments. On second thoughts, Mum, I don’t think I’ll stay at home for too long. I know you won’t mind.