Sunday, November 7, 2010

Some Minor Victories: Or How I Figured Out How To Live Without A Chip And Pin Financial Card–Also Thoughts On The Rain

I mentioned in my post about my encounter with and then my visit to an actual physical FNAC store, my concerns about the fact that what I have, and all Americans have, masquerading as current-century technology is something which was implemented in the 1970s. Europe abandoned the old, better called ancient, mag stripe type of plastic financial card about four years ago. In its lieu they use cards that look the same, but have a monstrously powerful tiny electronic chip in them. There are numerous advantages to this technology, but, since this is not a marketing piece for the European financial industry, or some consortium of chip makers that support that industry, suffice it to say that there are a number of major advantages and to that technology and due to those advantages it has replaced what we are still clinging to in the United States.

None of that would matter to me a hoot if it were not for the fact that a whole new generation of unattended vending devices use that chip and pin technology exclusively. Most retail establishments, including hotels and restaurants can take both the new and the ancient. But a significant component in many American’s activities in Europe could be severely hindered by not being able to use those new, unattended, machines. That is because, if you want to buy a Metro ticket in Paris, or a train ticket anywhere, you need to find an attended, human-occupied booth that sells tickets. There is an amazingly shrinking number of these. France being a full employment state, there are no less people in booths in the stations, there are just a whole lot less people who sell tickets. The rest have been re-deployed to distribute information. So there are ample numbers of booths if you want to get information, such as “why doesn’t my credit card work in the ticket kiosk?” “That’s because you are an American, Monsieur” but not many booths where you can buy tickets from a human who knows how to accept last century’s technology.

Since I definitely need to buy metro tickets, and, if I start using using the metro more and walking less, to refresh my NaviGo pass (the replacement for Carte Orange) and since I plan to make a few train trips, that “very few human ticket sellers” is a very grim scenario. I am in a country which is automation heavy in an area that I need to be able to use, but I can’t use it because the financial industry of my country doesn’t want to invest in anything new – other than, perhaps, new and better ways to slice the tranches of tranches of tranches of tranches of fictitious financial instruments so that they can sell them to idiots, and so that the lead/lag time involved with the idiots figuring out that they have been fucked will allow the sellers of those tranche matrices to, yet again, collect huge bonuses prior to checking in with the taxpayers for bonus protection insurance next time the tranches all start imploding. (Everybody I trust assures me that the recent financial reform law is a farce.)

But I digress.

Confronted with this – for me – problem, I have been thrashing about mentally, since the moment I discovered the problem two or three weeks ago. The only viable option that I could think of was to go into a BNP Paribas, beg somebody to speak to me in English, and explain my plight, with the hope that there would be some easy and painless way for me to get a chip and pin card.

But I kept coming up with really good reasons why I didn’t want to do that. Surprisingly, my ego was not one of them.

So the problem has persisted as an ever present irritant in my life, an ever murmuring voice of discontent, a constant challenge or a proto-quest.

A couple of days ago an idea occurred to me.

In the United States, when I have been on my way to England or France, and when going to those places had involved my wanting to go from London to Paris or Paris to London, I have used Rail Europe to buy the tickets. Those tickets have always been delivered to me in Seattle on time and they have always worked when I boarded the trains for which the tickets were supposed to give me access. I have been a very satisfied Rail Europe customer. I have, though, never really known what Rail Europe was, where it was or how or even why it really worked. It just hadn’t mattered. It had always worked. And beyond that I hadn’t really cared.

The idea that occurred to me was, why not buy the tickets on the Rail Europe web site and have them sent to me at my address in Paris – not metro tickets, of course, I would still have to find humans to buy those tickets from, but train tickets for real travel. I knew that there must be some reason why that idea wouldn’t work, and why what I wanted to do couldn’t be done, but, I really wanted to know what that reason might be.

So I found the – surprisingly easy to find – “contact us” link on the Rail Europe site, contacted them, and asked if I could do what I wanted.

In a surprisingly short time, a surprisingly clear, and surprisingly indicative-of-the-fact-that-the-person responding had-actually-read-my-message-and-had-actually-understood-it (that just doesn’t happen any more in this era when customer service agents are trained to know what people are going to ask before they ask, and to categorize all those questions into neat pre-packaged, automated answers that can be exhumed from the boilerplate cauldron and expeditiously sent to those people naïve enough to ask questions of customer service) answer came back.

More words were used than this, but the answer was no. And the reasons given made sense, even though I would have preferred them not to exist and not to make sense. I had pretty much assumed that that would be the case, so the reasons given were not any surprise.

But then the reply turned a corner and said, what seemed to me, mais oui – but yes.

The guy pointed out that most tickets available on the Rail Europe site had an e-ticket delivery option that was part of the checkout process.

I am now the possessor of a round trip (day trip) exploratory venture into the world of buying my tickets on my computer in my apartment from Rail Europe, choosing the “print e-ticket at the station” delivery method to Chartres in the week after next. The confirming email said that I should print out that confirming email – so that I had the e-ticket numbers to feed to the kiosk at Gare Montparnasse, and so that I had proof of purchase to cover any unforeseen problems.

So I walked down to the Internet Café that I had discovered when I was living on the island, it is on Rue de Jouy, printed two copies of that email, paid the really nice guy in attendance one euro fifty centimes, and stopped when I got back to the left bank on the mainland at Le St Séverin for a contemplative glass of wine; and then I came home to write this.

I’ll let you know how well the Chartres trip works out. If it is as good as I hope, I think Bordeaux for a couple of days is next and then, perhaps, Barcelona.

I’ll let you know how that all comes out.

The thoughts on the rain have been deferred to later.

1 comment:

  1. Catching a train is so much more than catching a train, it seems. At least if you are a typical American in Paris. Interesting. I had not heard of the chip cards.