It so happens that as I still have the occasional dribble of income from the UK, I keep an account in a certain British bank, along with its associated credit card. Normally I don't pay much attention to it, nor it to me. But every so often it seems like a good idea to spend the dribble of income rather than let it contribute to the Bankers Pension Fund, and so last week when La Redoute had a vente privée (a kind of pre-sale sale, limited to previous customers and usually much more attractive than the sales proper, which start next week) I decided to spend it on some new linen for one of our guest beds. After a typically Libran angst-filled online evening (How many threads per centimetre? Ecru or taupe with the ivory sheets? Flappy bits on the pillowcases or not? Fitted sheets or flat ones?), I submitted my order, flashed my UK credit card at my laptop, and mopped my brow.
The next morning I had an email from La Redoute, telling me that my payment had been refused. Thinking that there had been a simple mistake, that afternoon I cancelled the order then put it through again. Ten minutes later, same thing: payment refused. Sigh. Nothing for it but a long and tedious telephone call to The Bank. Now I hate talking to banks. They seem to occupy a different universe to the one I inhabit. But after the statutory 17 minutes pressing 1 or 2 or hash and listening to The Four Seasons, I found myself taking to a person who appeared to know my name. So far so promising.
Having told her my grandmother's dog's name and when I last cut my toenails (they call it the security test, I think), I regaled her with the story so far. "Oh yes" she said. "We blocked your card last night".
"Er - why?"
"Because we weren't sure it was you".
"Er - why?"
"I can't tell you that".
"Er - why?"
"It's for your own security".
I'll skip the next ten minutes lest you lose the will to live, but eventually we got to the the point where I had learned that it 'could have been' because there was a discrepancy between the name and address provided by La Redoute and that held by The Bank. Having eliminated possible spelling mistakes, and differences in where English and French addresses place the postcode, I was stumped. Until ......
"Could it be" I asked, "that The Bank's computer systems don't recognise the Madame in front of my name and think it's another forename instead of a salutation?"
"Um - that could indeed possibly theoretically happen" said my patient, if scripted, advisor. Aha! She means yes, I thought. Good. Now we know what the problem is, we can set something up to stop it happening again.
Wrong. She went on to tell me that every time I made a so-called cardholder-not-present transaction using the same details, my card would be automatically blocked "for my own security" (eh?) and payment would be refused. There was no way round it. The computer knows best.
"Right", I said, counting to ten. "So what can I do in order to be able to spend my own money, where I live?".
"Well, the best thing is if you give your name to these French shops as Ms instead of [sic] madam", she said. I swallowed a snort. Clearly she's never been to France.
"Okay, so could I perhaps change my salutation with The Bank to Madame?" I wondered, still trying - heaven knows why - to be constructive. She went off to consult.
Computer said no. I could be Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, Dr, Professor, Captain, Colonel, Lady, Lord, Major, Master, Rev, Sir, Sister, Viscount, Dame or Rabbi. But just don't call me Madame. For my own security, of course.
Welcome to Europe.