Wednesday, September 19, 2012

I Guess I’ve Got a Chip on My Shoulder

In 2006 I was trying to buy two round trip train tickets from Paris to Brussels.

Since only a crazy man would think standing in a dimly lit ticket purchase line in one of les Gares de Paris makes any sense, I did the obvious.  The French train ticket purchasing process had by then been enhanced by huge numbers of automated ticket kiosks.  I went up to one of the bright yellow machines and commenced my purchase.  I can’t remember whether I tried to do it in French or chose the British flag (English) option.

What I do remember is that I couldn’t get beyond a certain point no matter how persistently I tried.  When it came to paying, the transaction always went into the ditch.

There was a young Frenchman in my immediate vicinity who saw the trouble I was having.  He spoke English and offered to help me to buy our tickets.  He said these machines were very good and he thought maybe I was just having a lost in translation moment.

After several attempts he said some things in French and then in English said “this machine is just screwed up”, apologized for not being able to help me, and went on his way.

In a fit of rage I considered bagging Belgium, but my travelling companion, who had been immensely entertained by the whole thing, said that we were now going to do what we should have done in the first place.  We got in the dimly lit ticket line and bought our tickets to Belgium.

I had similar experiences in 2007 and 2008 trying to buy Metro tickets. 

What was personally alarming about my inability to navigate an obvious and seemingly simple purchase process was that - unlike the rail system, which seemed to have the same number of ticket agents as previously, which was never enough, due to the massive tourist popularity of France, but which was at least “there” if you were willing to stand in the dimly lit line – the Metro had changed most humans in their glass windowed cubicles from sellers of tickets to purveyors of information.  The only way to buy a Metro ticket other than from a machine was to find a station – and there are not many – that had humans who could sell tickets.

There are times of day and circumstances of Paris’ geography that can make that a dicey situation.

“What am I doing wrong?” I kept thinking.

No answer was forthcoming.

Then came Vélib.

Vélib is a system consisting of a huge number of clusters, scattered throughout Paris, of brand new, well maintained bicycles.  They are restrained in electronic bike rack kiosks that accept credit cards.  To release one, one just goes and picks a bike with a green light on in its kiosk, inserts one’s credit card and –voila – one is on one’s way.  The bike can be returned at any of the clusters with the process in reverse: bike in rack, card in slot, the bike is logged back in and the rider’s card is billed.

Pretty neat.

The thought that I would ever ride a bike on the streets of Paris – which seems to me, to be, for other than a native Parisian, a form of swift and certain suicide – had not crossed my mind.  But the technology and logistics of the thing charmed me.

So I read everything I could find to read about it and paid as close attention as I could to the people I saw using the system.

It was in 2010 that I saw two men having a conversation at the Vélib cluster next to my apartment.  The upshot of that conversation was that one of them had a card that would work and one of them had a card that wouldn’t work.

All of a sudden all of those aborted kiosk encounters had a banner under which to march: “You have a credit card that won’t work”.

“What does that mean” I thought I heard someone say.

And then I noticed that it had been me who had said it.

Armed with the suspicion that I had a card that wouldn’t work, I was able to Google and read enough to find out that the European banking system had some time previously adopted a “chip and pin” technology.  Their plastic has a chip in it.  The chip has a lot of information about the holder of the plastic and is enabled to do a variety of sorts of transactions.  Those transactions are each consummated by the use of the cardholder's pin. 

No signature is required.

Pretty neat.  Also, pretty obvious.  Why would any banking system do it otherwise?

Mitt Romney, given his views on American exceptionalism, can probably give some sort of answer to that question.  I can’t.

But Romney - le con, aside - the plot thickens.

All of us Americans have been oblivious to what is creeping up on us if we find any pleasure in spending time in Europe.  Our credit cards, when we use them in European stores and bistros, and even the ticket machines in le Louvre, work.  Those sorts of places have credit card processing machines that accept a mag striped card that requires a signature.

In fact, the Louvre machines accept the stripe and don’t even ask for a signature.

How advanced.

But an ominously advancing number of purchases can be transacted only at chip and pin kiosks or at the amazing shrinking number of human operated caisses. 

Gas stations are a good example.  God help you if you are out of gas in Bretagne at nine at night and there is no one there but the kiosk/pump.

This post has a sequel.  Stay tuned.

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