It was with great anticipation that I returned to France last month to attend INSEAD’s graduation party – I had spent two months on exchange there earlier in the year and had a great time, so once invited I didn’t hesitate to jump on a plane to attend the Bond themed-party with the tagline: The Business School for the World is Not Enough! I took a flight directly from Croatia, where I had just spent 5 days with hundreds of new and old friends at INSEAD on their graduation trip. Arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris that morning immediately brought back painfully nostalgic memories of my last visit there, when the illegal taxi driver a friend arranged for us to the airport caused my most traumatic missed flight experience yet when his sorry-excuse-for-a-vehicle broke down at the airport after he had callously told me the wrong terminal for my flight instead of admitting his ignorance – https://bambostic.wordpress.com/2011/06/27/how-to-miss-a-flight-from-paris-with-love-part-i/
I digress (you can tell it still hurts, lol)….anyway, my reception at the airport instantly reminded me of what I would call the less than most pleasant aspects of my French experience. I was in line to go through immigration and near the front when a new, shorter line formed on the right, and it appeared to be for EU citizens. Thank goodness for this red passport that makes all this galavanting possible, I thought as I veered to my right, to the front of this new queue. But when I handed the immigration officer my passport, he took one look at it, muttered something in French and handed it back to me, motioning for me to return to the line whence I came. I tried to ask him why, but he ignored me, preferring to attend to some other people behind me, who had asked him a question in French. I really couldn’t make out what he had said to me so passport in hand, I stood between the two lines, puzzled at his dismissive tone as people who looked more European than myself streamed passed me on the new queue. Perhaps it’s for French citizens only, I thought, but I just couldn’t let it go so when two female immigration officers walked past me, I asked them whether the new line was for EU citizens. When they answered in the affirmative, I went back, handed him my passport and he was about to turn me away a second time when I pointed out that it was a British passport. He took another look at it, and chuckled something to the effect of “Oh why didn’t you say so in the first place?” before waving me through!
This kind of “Welcome to France” is not what I had in mind all those years ago, when I had dreamed of living in my city of birth, Paris, a place that many consider to be the most romantic in the world. Yes, my honeymoon with France was now well and truly over. Memories from earlier in the year came fluttering back. Memories of how I would walk into the phone store in Fontainebleau clearly needing assistance but being completely ignored by the shop assistants while they took personal phone calls at work. Memories of learning the hard way that you could never get even average customer service without saying Bonjour first, and without having a good enough command of French to state or make your case. But nothing said “Welcome to France” quite like my experience banking with BNP Paribas during my short stint at INSEAD. I didn’t really need to open a French bank account for a two month stint there, but when I received an email in December with a special, hassle-free offer for INSEAD students allowing us the convenience of opening an account just by sending an email with our relevant details before we arrived, I thought why not?
Email sent, a week later, reply received, and just like that I had a French bank account. After wiring nearly 3,000 Euros converted from my US account for spending money and rent in Fontainebleau, I was all set for my French adventure! All set, that is, until I received an email a week before I was due to arrive: “Monsieur Akani, I am sorry but I gave you the wrong account number. See your correct account details below. See you when you arrive next week!” I wondered what this meant about where my money might be, and my worst fears were confirmed when I arrived the following week and met with my contact, Astrid, who happened to be the only English speaker at BNP in Fontainebleau. At first she wrongly told me that my cash had been sent back to the US but when I insisted it had not, she got on the phone, and after a 5 minute conversation in French, she put the phone down and said, “Well, your money is somewhere here in France, we’re not sure where exactly. But don’t worry, we will find it and put it into your correct account by next week…” I sat back and smiled, not quite believing what I was hearing, but not worried either, because I had no doubt that this mix-up would be fixed quickly. I had enough cash on me to last the week so….
The following week she wasn’t in, so in the absence of any other English speaker all I could do was stumble through enough French to get given my new bank card, which I had no choice but to start using on overdraft, since there was still no money in the account. Despite being explicit in asking that the money not be sent back to the US where I could not access it, this is exactly what they did a week later, $150 less than what I had started with, thanks to FX and wire transfer fees. So I was stuck in France for two months with no money, not even to pay rent. Thank God for mothers, who else would have come to my rescue, directly transferring the rent to my landlord all the way from England! Now, despite receiving assurances that I would not be charged any interest for overdrawing, by the time I left France, spent a month in Brazil and then returned to the US, where I was finally in a position to settle the account, it was nearly 2,000 Euros in the red, including 400 Euros in interest and overdraft penalties! And so began a long running battle with BNP to clear the unfair interest charges, and then close the account, neither of which I have been able to do to date.
Repeated emails I sent from the US asking them to cancel the fees and escalating to both my schools proved ineffective, and whenever Astrid went on holiday, everything would simply grind to a halt – the language barrier prevented me from communicating with anyone else at the bank about a problem of this complexity. And that’s if anyone else was even aware of the mix-up, as evidenced by the automatically generated letters threatening legal action (in French) that were being sent to my home address in England. I immediately dismissed Astrid’s suggestion of just paying the whole thing, after which I could be refunded the interest fees – given their track record so far, I knew by now that I would never again see any money I decided to hand them. So I decided to pay just the 1,600 Euros I truly owed and leave the rest. But the letters threatening court continued despite my continued requests for them to wipe clean the interest charges and close the account. Now that I had returned to the ‘scene of the crime’ for the INSEAD Graduation Party, I saw this as a final opportunity to get this account closed once and for all. If I thought that speaking to Astrid face-to-face might get all this resolved finally, I was grossly mistaken. Our conversation went something like this:
“I’m afraid we just can’t close the account from here. Because your account has been in the red for too long, it was transferred to our main office in Paris.”
“Yes, but can’t you tell them about the mix-up the bank made that caused all this in the first place?”
“I’m sorry but I do not have the power or authority to ask them to cancel the fees, or close the account.”
“So you mean that if I want the account closed, my only option now is to seek legal action?”
“Look, the bank is still sending me letters threatening that they will sue me, when they should be sending me letters apologizing for putting me through this very unpleasant experience. Why should it be so difficult for the bank to correct its own mistake and stop harassing a customer that did nothing wrong?”
“Listen, do you plan to come back to France? If not, then you should just walk away forget about the account.”
“Well, maybe I will one day, I just don’t know when. Are you suggesting that I will have problems coming back to France because of this?”
“No you won’t actually. You will be fine coming back, you just won’t be able to bank at BNP because you will be blacklisted…”
“But what if I don’t want to be blacklisted? Isn’t there something you can do? You may think it doesn’t matter, but as a matter of principle I do not wish to be blacklisted at any bank, in any country, and definitely not when the problem was the bank’s fault!”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about it. There are many other banks you can use if you come back to France. In fact, I have a friend that works at Société Générale – I can give you her details if you ever need to set up an account again in France!”
“Hmm, okay. Fine. But they will keep sending me letters threatening legal action – what should I do about those?”
“Okay, well I change your address in the system if you want. Once they try sending the next letter and it doesn’t reach its destination, they will automatically close down the account in a few months, though you will still be blacklisted. In fact I can do that right now…”
Right before my eyes, she turned her monitor towards me, pulled up my account details and started deleting each line of my address. She left only the top line, just so that her system would allow her to save the changes, and when she got to the drop-down menu for country, she clicked on England, randomly scrolled down until she got to India, then pressed select.
“See now you live in India!”
Wow, I thought. So there you have it. This was the result I had come all the way back to France to achieve. Now I live in India. And considering all the stress I went through over opening a bank account that I did not even need for the two months I was in France, I might as well be living in India, or any other third world country – even there I would expect things to work better than this! Yes, my honeymoon with France is now well and truly over.
The following week, after I had returned to England, I received yet another letter on behalf of BNP, this time from a debt collection agency that they must have now retained, to collect the final 400 Euros from me. I guess I do not live in India after all!