dimanche, février 15, 2004

Blending In

I don't have much of an accent in French. Sometimes, I don't have one at all. This causes more problems than one would think. Most French people I come into contact with, whether briefly or for extended periods of time, assume I am French. They begin to get suspicious after a while, because inevitably, I will do or say something that a French woman would not. Ever. Like ask a question that leaves no doubt of my ignorance. While smiling.

Last year, my company sent me to a small town in Normandy to interpret between our French technicians and the rural Georgians we had hired and sent to France for training. The interpreter we had chosen (okay, I had chosen) turned out to be a raging bitch and a racist to boot, so when her contract expired, they sent me to fill in for the last two weeks.

I arrived at the hotel, and was handed the "key" to my rental car at the front desk. It looked more like a card, and the sullen girl at the desk muttered that it was "one of those new Renaults." I didn't think much of it, and went to deposit my things in my room. After freshening up, I decided to take the rental car into "town" (two roundabouts, three cafes and a few shops) for a spin, to check out the surroundings and get used to the way the car drove.

The hotel front desk was set away from the main dining room, where several tables were already filled with people eating an early dinner. I breezed by, eager to get out of there and check things out. I hate staying cooped up in my hotel room when I go someplace I've never been before. I like to get a sense of a place, go out, talk to people, absorb it.

So I marched over to my newfangled Renault, and pulled out the key-like thing from the card, looking for the opening in which to insert it. I sat in the driver's seat, the door ajar, bending around the steering wheel with my leg hanging out, and poked every crevice and hole I could find, trying to get the thing to fit. I couldn't figure out where the ignition was. There didn't seem to be one at all. I had driven a Saab before, whose ignition is sneakily hidden under the parking brake, but this thing was impossible. I looked around. No one was in the parking lot. I couldn't proclaim defeat and return to the soulless hotel room to watch badly dubbed American reruns. I had to at least go for a short drive.

So I went back inside to the front desk, and asked the friendlier woman if she knew how the Renault keycards worked. She frantically waved her hands in front of her and said, "Oh no! Come with me!" She came around from the desk, beckoning for me to follow. She planted herself in front of the half-full dining room and bellowed,

"Does anyone here know how to work the Renault keycards?" waving it up in the air. Everyone looked up. People put down their forks to get a better view. One man looked around him nervously before saying,

"I think I can help," and hesitatingly came towards us.

"Mademoiselle is the one who needs help," she said, indicating me with her chin, and walked away. I smiled at the man and led him to the rental car in the parking lot.

"Thanks for your help, I really appreciate it," I babbled, trying to smooth the transition from interrupted dinner to helping a perfect stranger find the ignition in a rental car, "I just hate to stay in the hotel room when I first arrive; I have to check out the surroundings, you know?"

Without saying a word, he took the keycard from me, opened the rental car door, and slid it into the perfectly keycard-shaped slot next to the steering wheel, right underneath the green round button that said "Start." In English. All in less than 5 seconds.

"Ohhhhh!" I exclaimed, "you would have thought I could find that, but, see, I was looking for the ignition, cause you can pull a key-shaped thing out," I mimicked the action. "Plus why would I think you would start a car with a card?" The man let out a polite laugh-like sound.

I waved to him as I tore out of the lot.

I headed into town, whizzed through the two roundabouts, and drove around the little hamlet. Darkened cafes and a few restaurants, the ubiquitous "Tabac", a couple of clothing stores, and that was it. All shut down for the night. It was 7:00. I had forgotten how desolate small French towns are after 5PM. I sighed. My hotel was the only place open to get a bite to eat and have a drink. I didn't like my hotel, a modern yet run-down buffet place, with a horrible peach and maroon napkin/tablecloth combination and sallow lighting.

Back at the hotel, I was about to head up to my room and skip the unappetizing looking buffet altogether, when at the last moment, I decided to again thank the man who had helped me. He and his friend were the only customers left in the dining room. I walked up to their table.

"I just wanted to thank you again for your help - if it weren't for you, I would still be in the parking lot trying to figure it out!" He looked at me. In the space of three seconds, his eyes took in the blue tinted sunglasses perched on my head, my dark lipstick, my purple lambswool boa, black leather jacket, all the way down to my high heeled ankle boots.

"Are you from around here?" he asked.

I laughed.

"Um, not exactly," I said, amused that he would mistake me for a small town Normandy girl. "And you?"

"We flew in today from Paris via helicopter," he said, gesturing to his friend, "but our motor malfunctioned and we are waiting for a part to come in tomorrow. So we had to spend the night here."

"Ahhh," I said sympathetically, "I see," looking around at the ticky-tacky dining room and back at them, knowing they found it as unappealing as I did.

"Would you care to join us?" he said, pulling up a chair.

They ordered me a cognac, and we began to share our impressions of the little town where we were all marooned. Something I said, some word I used in the wrong context, caused him to cock his head and ask,

"Exactly where are you from?"

I smiled. "Atlanta, Georgia. Home of 'Gone with the Wind' and Coca-Cola."

"Ahhhh," he said, laughing, "that explains it!"

"Explains what?" I asked.

"I thought at first you were French," he said, "but then I began to have doubts."

"Why?" I asked, expecting he would say something about grammar or the hint of an accent.

"Because a French girl would never do that."

"Do what?"

"Come in to the middle of a crowded dining room and announce she needs help."

I was intrigued. "Well what if she really needed help? What if, like me, she really wanted to go somewhere and couldn't get the car started?"

"She would call a friend, or not go."

"So she would just sit there? Why?"

"Well, she would be afraid of what people would think of her." he explained patiently.

"Really?" I said, astonished, "what would they think?"

"Well," he said, hesitatingly, not sure if he should go on.

"Out with it," I said, "you won't offend me."

"Well," he started again, "when you first came in and said you couldn't work the key to your car, I thought to myself, 'Quelle idiote!'"

I laughed. "So now that you know I am American, you don't think me quite as silly?" I asked.

"The rules don't apply to you," he explained.

Thank goodness. Because I'm not one to sit in a parking lot out of pride. Because when I asked for help, my only concern was getting out of there. It never occurred to me to be self-concious.

My mistake is I don't know when to shut up. Take for instance my recent exchange with an employee of the freight company that is receiving my household goods in Paris. He had sent me an email asking for me to fill out some paperwork and send a notarized copy of my passport.

I decided to call him to confirm it was all he needed.

"I received your email, and I just wanted to confirm that you need a notarized copy of my passport and for me to send you this completed paperwork," I said into telephone.

"Yes, madame," he replied, all steely professionalism.

"Is there anything else you need?" I asked. My dealings with Fabienne had taught me that you must ask the right questions, the information will not be volunteered.

"Well since I have you on the phone, tell me about where the goods will be delivered. Is it a modern or old building?"

"It's modern." I answered. "Though I really prefer old."

"Is there an elevator?"

"Oh, yes," I said.

"How many people will fit in the elevator?"

"American people or French people?" I asked.

He laughed. Gotcha! I thought.

"French," he replied.

"Seven French, four Americans." I said.

I was going through his other possible questions in my head. I work in a factory, where we have to monitor every product that comes in the building and make sure we have a safety data sheet about its chemical properties. My head was filled with restrictions and toxicity levels and how the moving company had refused to ship my liquor collection and my myriad bottles of fingernail polish remover. The property management company of my Parisian apartment had sent me a small tome of the building rules and regulations. This was my mindset when he said,

"What cannot go in the elevator?" I wracked my brain. I hadn't read the rule book, and I couldn't think of what might not be allowed in there.

"I don't know," I said, "maybe you should ask the doorman?"

There was a full three-second pause on his end. "But the doorman does not know what you have shipped from the US, madame," he said, his tone rising slightly at the end.

I suddenly understood what he was asking. This is the moment I always seal my fate. I do not need to share my every thought. I should learn to just accept the moment of clarity.

"Ohhhhhh!" I exclaimed, "I understand! You mean what's too big to fit! See, I thought you meant something about building rules and regulations, you know, like what is dangerous and can't be transported in the elevator, like, I don't know, bleach, because it's flammable? And maybe it gets dangerous if you go up and down too much with it?" He had tried so hard. Up to now, he had maintained his well-groomed professional exterior. He could no longer help it. He burst out laughing.

By the end of the call, he asked, "So, are you French or are you American?"

I was amazed he didn't know. "I'm American," I said.

"Oh, really? You talk so normally."

"Normally? No one has ever called me normal," I said.

"Well you talk like a Frenchperson," he elaborated.

"Well it does me more harm than good," I said. "Admit it," I said, a wry smile in my voice, "when you thought I was French and I said that about bleach in the elevator, you thought, 'Quelle idiote!' but now that you know I'm American, you forgive me!"

"Well, yes," he said between laughs.

"Oh believe me," I continued, "I really make an impression, because on top of it all, I'm blonde!"

"Oh, no!" he exclaimed.

"Oh yeah," I said, "I blend right in!"

samedi, février 14, 2004

Zambian Wedding Basket

On page 30 of an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable catalog, i saw a picture and description of a "Museum Quality Vintage Zambian Wedding Basket" for $189. Holding it in her weathered hands was a woman in her 70's - Zambian, I assumed - her eyes bright but her lips spread in a straight line that faintly echoed a smile. The basket, very round, wide and shallow was "handwoven almost 50 years ago by tribal women as gifts for brides and daughters - part of a 400 year old tradition." Taking up to two months to complete, only many years of use gave the basket its "rich patina." Both "utilitarian and celebratory" its black and white pattern symbolized the "ebbs and flows" of married life.

What happened to the 400 year old tradition to make these daughters and brides give their wedding baskets away? Did the woman in the picture weave the one she is holding? Is there no more grain to winnow, no more husband, no more use for a black and white pattern to run a finger across while keeping an eye on the children playing nearby?

Have they replaced them with Tupperware? It is surely less of a celebratory feel. Unless they've also imported the Tupperware Party. What about Tupperware mirrors the ups and downs of married life? The inevitable stains or the way they snap definitively shut?

mercredi, février 11, 2004

Handwriting on the Wall

I had a strange thought today while I was putting away my things in my office, preparing to go home. I had been playing a CD a friend had copied for me on my computer. As I took it out, my eyes fell on the words she had written, "Bellydance Superstars" (no snide remarks, please). I realized I had never before seen her handwriting.

We've been good friends for over a year, spent countless hours talking, seen each other every Monday for belly dance class (she's my instructor - see, there is a good reason for the CD) and generally know each other pretty well. But it's almost a chilling thought that I wouldn't be able to recognize her handwriting if I saw it somewhere. If she were in trouble and could only scrawl me a note asking for help, I wouldn't know it was her. (I realize this is silly, but you see my point here.) There is an essential part of her identity I am missing. Her hands wrote that, and I don't connect it to my impression of her. I suddenly felt as if I didn't know her at all.

My friend and I have never sent each other a postcard, exchanged letters, or scribbled a note and surreptitiously passed it to each other in class under the watchful eyes of the teacher. Even when we first met, we gave each other business cards, or I typed her info into my PalmPilot. Well, there was that one evening after dance class when we sat at her dining room table and hand wrote out our New Years resolutions. But she read me her list, so I actually never saw the character of her "t's" or the force of her "r's."

We might actually be living in an age where "hand" write becomes a necessary qualifier.

Knowing someone's handwriting is so much a part of knowing them. When you look at the script and how it is formed, you think, "His hands wrote that," and your mind wanders to how the side of his palm would always be ink stained because he wrote left handed and at an angle, slightly smudging the "Te adoro" at the bottom of love letters, which better conveyed the intensity. And then you realize his handwriting is the only proof you have left that his hands wrote that.

The way a person writes contains clues to their person. I've noticed some of my really artsy friends have metallic architechtural handwriting I much envy, in all caps with the "a's" becoming designer triangles. Then there are all the expat friends, of which the belly dancing one is a part, who have that cool, foreign way of making the "m" more of an upside down "u" and the "p" not closed all the way.

The French, and I imagine many others, even have an entire profession centered around analyzing psychological characteristics of people from their handwriting : graphologists. It's why some still write cover letters by hand. Then again, you also attach your photo to your resume so they can analyze your facial features. Or see if you're ugly. I'm sure if I had ever had to hand write my cover letter, I wouldn't be waiting for a French work visa right now. I might be classified as a sociopath. I constantly change between script and cursive; I have an uncanny inability to write "y's" - they get run over by what precedes or follows - and my "r's" end up looking flat and smushed out. Sometimes I don't even recognize my own handwriting. Now there's a cause for concern. Good thing I'm typing this. And then there's the photo. Yikes. I am horribly unphotogenic. I hoard the photos of me that turn out well.

I especially dislike the way the left part of my upper lip always manages to get stuck on my upper teeth, pulling it up and giving me this crooked smile. One day I passed the refrigerator door where I had put up an old passport photo of my father's when he was in his twenties and looked like a cross between Omar Sharif, Rupert Everett and Jeremy Irons. And there it was, that telltale crookedness. And I suddenly didn't mind that I had it, and smiled to myself, askew.

mardi, février 10, 2004

For the sake of Convention

I should know better. The times when I try to be nice in the ways expected of me, when I respond to convention simply because it is, it always leads me astray. It's like when my very unconventional mother used to say to herself, "Well, other mothers would...." - to disastrous results. Convention for the sake of convention goes against my principles.

It's been a long time since I have been in touch with the majority of my extended family, for various reasons I will not go into here. In a rare effort on my part to be polite to my estranged uncle, I gave him a little used email address where he could write me, only because he asked how to get in touch with me and if I was in Paris yet. The real reason I responded was not so we could actually strike up a correspondence - I really have no desire to - but because he asked my sister how to contact me. To not respond would have put her in an awkward position, and that I do have a desire to avoid when possible. So, I was nice, short and sweet, and answered the basic curious question of where I am (not in Paris, but waiting in Atlanta for the work visa) and how to reach me (this new email I will rarely check). Admit it, you all have email addresses for similar appeasment purposes.

Suspecting the nature of my uncle had not much changed since the last time we had contact, I checked the inbox not 5 minutes after I had sent my message, and lo and behold, there was already a reply, accompanied by the annoyingly chirpy voice, "You've got mail!" Aargh.

It began by a vaguely couched reproach at how long it had been since he had seen me, and then went straight into how my aunt and he might be in Italy for a month, and they just might pop over to Paris to see me. It ended with the infuriating "I can't wait to tell people, 'I just heard from my niece in Paris'....it will do wonders for my provincial image!" This from the man who called Spartanburg, South Carolina "internationally cosmopolitan."

I don't take kindly to being used as a way to impress the neighbors. There is no need for us to really have contact for that, just go ahead and make shit up, who will know the difference? No doubt he will flaunt to the other family members that he has my email address, and will hoard it to be the purveyor of news updates about me and my Paris adventures. I do so hate to be co-opted. Gossiped about, I don't so much mind, but co-opted so your little life doesn't seem so boring really chaps my hide. I have half a mind to make shit up about myself, and send him little scandalous missives of my Gallic gallavanting. There is a lovely, well written blog of a London call girl called "Belle de Jour" - perhaps I'll just filch some of her musings and really give him something to talk about.

It remains to be seen, of course, what, if anything will come of this, and how much it will matter. But for the moment, it's got me in quite a tizzy.

lundi, février 09, 2004

Like Silk

My parents went through a health food craze when I was in elementary school. We had carob chips instead of chocolate, a sesame candy bar inexplicably called a "Wha Guru Chew", and, most difficult to explain of all, alfalfa sprout and cheese sandwiches on wheat bread.

As if being a little white girl with a big nose and a strange name (I was dubbed "Pinocchio" for years) in an inner city black school was not enough to draw unwanted attention, I would pull out one of these sandwiches in the lunch room from my metal Holly Hobby lunchbox, and slowly began to eat it, fervently hoping no one would notice. Inevitably, the comments came from all around.

"Shit!" I would hear, "she eatin' grass!" Then the sound of unbelieving laughter. There was no use explaining alfalfa sprouts. Pomegranates illicited mere wide eyed stares. I would look up at the painted mural on the lunchroom walls, meant to be the image of multi-culturalism and inclusion, and gaze at "Jose" happily eating his tamale, and "Mailee" merrily diving into her fried rice, and think, there's no Penelope with alfalfa sprouts.

In the line for the cafeteria one day, my long straight blond hair tempted the little girl behind me until she could stand it no longer. She grabbed it, separated it into sections and braided it, her fingers flying. In an instant, it was transformed into a perfect long plait down my back. The girl let go of it, and stepped back to admire her work. With no band to secure it, it quickly came undone. Surprised that my hair was not coarse enough to hold on its own, she muttered disgustedly under her breath, as if she could think of no more offensive a word,

"Your hair, it's like silk."

dimanche, février 08, 2004


There is a certain irresistible sun patch that comes through the bay window of my mother's house and spreads at an angle along the Persian rug in the living room. I found Max stretching his striped self out in it on my way out this morning, and I felt a sudden urge to drop my coat and purse and join him on the floor,burying my face in his warm fur. As a teenager, I would spend countless afternoons on that rug in that spot, reading and daydreaming, imagining my adult life. I pictured the woman I would become, the places I would travel to, the chic apartment I would have, the men I would love.

It was the same sun spot where as a younger girl, frustrated at the concept of learning fractions and not understanding how my textbook explained it, my father told me to close my eyes and imagine a pizza with 10 slices. "Imagine, you give two of those slices to your friends. Now what do you see?"

I had always been an extremely literal child. With my eyes closed to the incoming sun, I answered, simply, "Orange."

vendredi, février 06, 2004

The Weight of Words

I've just finished reading a book I couldn't put down called "Fortune's Rocks" by Anita Shreve. Thank goodness, because the damned thing has kept me up way too late for the past week, voraciously reading to find out what happens to the engaging heroine, Olympia. It's the story of a young girl, wise beyond her 15 years, who has a passionate affair with a married older man at the turn of the century. The book distracted me so much that I found myself thinking about it at all hours of the day, and I would have to force myself to leave it in my car after my lunch hour so I wouldn't take it out at work and surreptitiously read a passage or two between phone calls. Olympia is forced to give up the man she loves through a series of circumstances I will not reveal in case you read it, and at the moment she knows she has lost him, she understands that he was not ever "hers." Like Isak Dinesen's Karen Blixen whose eulogy of her beloved, "He was not ours; he was not mine," this evokes a selfless love that resonates deeply for me.

When I loved, and lost the man it was attached to, years passed before I was able to make the distinction between the my and the love in "my love for him." I would think, "I loved him so," but in that thought I was clinging onto the "I" because I did not know what to do with the "love" when the "I" could no longer be with "him." I couldn't separate my love from myself. I couldn't distinguish my loving him from himself; I didn't want to believe my love for him was separate from the integral nature of who he was and would become. I wanted my love to be a part of him; I wanted it to have an effect. I wanted it to bring him back. When he stayed away and my love remained, I came to understand how separate they were from each other and from myself. This is when I began to truly know the nature of love and how it exists simply because it does.

Which brings me back to the word "selfless." It is not a lack of self, or self-denial, or self-abnegation, which to me signify weakness, but the strength of the ability to separate oneself and acknowledge the otherness of things, people, feelings and life as a whole. To understand that these things exist outside of you, in spite of you, around you, as well as in you, so that loving someone selflessly becomes an acceptance that your love for that person does not make him or her belong to you.

My father once said that words were "limiting" and that our essential problem as human beings was that we had confined ourselves to them. By contrast, Iris Murdoch is supposed to have said, "Without words, how does one think?" I accord them a weight that has often led me down difficult paths, struggling to carry them and all that they might imply towards the clearing of understanding, where I might rest a while.

I have often marvelled at how a good author has managed to capture a feeling, impression or partially formed thought I have had into words, making me exclaim, "Yes!" Words may be a structure, a single thread of a spider web onto which the dew of feelings and thoughts have been captured, weighing it down, but it is in those moments when the droplets truly shine.

mercredi, février 04, 2004

Indecency in America

I've been thinking a lot about Janet Jackson's breast.

I am shocked, outraged and scandalized at the sheer number of people in my country who are shocked, outraged and scandalized about seeing a woman's breast on national television. I agree, the piercing is a little scary, and I can't quite decide if it is a fake breast or not; being squished up by the costume as it is creates that telltale too perfect circular roundness at the top that usually is a silicone give away, but the real essence of the matter is this: in this country, breasts are indecent, lewd and harmful to our great nation's children.

What the hell is our problem? Are we really that prudish, that puritan, that revolted by the human form? What I really have a hard time understanding is just what people are so upset about. That their children saw a few seconds (didn't the cameras immediately cut away?) of tittie? That their children will be irreperably damaged by this sight? What does this say about our attitude towards the body, towards human sexuality? Not to mention breast feeding? So your baby who was breast fed is forever tainted by the sight of a breast a few years later? So a breast-feeding woman is being indecent? It is a scary commentary indeed, as violence on television rarely incites the same outrage on the part of the public. So much has been made of this "scandal" that sponsors of the event are threatening to sue (how very American) over possible harm to their image. A flashed breast is going to reflect badly on AOL? How about their shitty service and product - why don't they worry a little about that?

We really need to loosen up here, people, not make a mountain out of a molehill, if you'll pardon the image. It's already pretty freaking horrifying that some 30% of American women have never had an orgasm, not to mention the other myriad sexual dysfunctions that plague our withered little sexual lives. I'm not advocating a Catherine Millet style national mass orgy or a world where there are no taboos, but let's at least differentiate between what is a problem and what is not. A few seconds of exposed breast on national TV is not a problem. Being scandalized by it is.

Different cultural attitudes to the body are indeed fascinating. I have been highly amused at the pure sexuality of French ads for such things as toothpaste , and in awe of the pulsating flashy beauty of the myriad bodies on a beach in Rio (where a friend told me men are known to take you on a first date for a "teste de praia" to see how you look in a bathing suit - egads!!) But I am merely embarrassed and horrified at my country's reaction in this breast flashing incident. I can only imagine what the French would say if they heard about it.

A French friend of mine was once dating a particularly naive American girl who hadn't done much, read much, traveled much, (you get the idea) and when he was telling her about the house where he grew up back in France and how it had a pool, somehow the subject of topless sunbathing came up. My friend delighted in telling her that every woman in France bares her wares to world (ostensibly to avoid that ungodly tan line which would really make one look cheap in a strapless dress), and the poor girl seemed very shocked. "Yeah," my friend went on, smiling devilishly, "I grew up seeing my mom's breasts and all of her friends breasts all through my childhood and adolescence." She was horrified. My friend was highly amused.

A childhood friend of mine, who in adulthood has gone to great lengths to give off a Mother Earth au naturelle image, and was trying to rope another friend of mine into subscribing to her theory of a sex scandal, used a third friend to illustrate her point. When they were children, the girl had shown her how to masturbate. This proved her point of view that children who exhibit a curiosity about their bodies must have been victims of a sexual crime. Masturbation, natural exploration of the body and sexual awakening was seen as inherently indecent and wrong. When my friend recounted this to the girl in question, her reply was that if she was still in need of pointers, she was always available.

When I lived in Aix en Provence, I had a friend from Ouagadougou, who, while watching TV about two American women who had filed a sexual harrassment suit against someone or another - the details escape me - turned to me in earnest and absolute bewilderment and in his heavy African accent said,

"Dans mon pays, quand ti tiches le sein d'une femme, elle ti fait pas un prrrrocès?!"
("In my country, if you touch the breast of a woman, she does not take you to court?!!)

I'm not saying this is necessarily a good thing here, just pointing out that for him, the idea of taking legal action against someone for touching you was totally incomprehensible.

Just as incomprehensible it is to me that so many people have been so upset about Janet Jackson's breast. I really don't care what she does with it. I don't care if my children see it, or mine and all of my friends' sunburned and freckled ones. Okay, I don't have kids, but if I did, they'd see plenty of tits and ass. And I bet you they would be fine, productive, happy human human beings, who just might know when, and when not, to get their panties in a wad.

P.S. See this excellent editorial cartoon on the subject......http://www.ucomics.com/patoliphant/

P.P.S. This is an article which is more like what I was trying to write (it didn't really turn out that way, though): http://goeurope.about.com/cs/sex/a/euro_sexuality.htm

lundi, février 02, 2004

Human "Resources"

I am actually not in Paris yet, at least not physically. I'm still waiting for the work visa. Anyone who has some pull in the DDTE, let's talk. :)

I had some very good news today, though.

Since the very beginning when I received the offer from the Paris headquarters of my company, my Human Resources contact was Fabienne. This was ironic, as resources was something Fabienne was sorely lacking in. We had arranged a video conference between myself from the plant in Georgia where I work and Fabienne in Paris headquarters to discuss the terms of the offer.

It was scheduled at 10 AM, and as I sat by myself in the conference room, waiting for the monitor to make the telltale beep that it emits when someone connects a session from afar and the camera swings to the front, suddenly alert, its lens focused in straight ahead, I realized the minutes were ticking away towards the realization of my dream. Ever since I was a teenager, I longed to be a part of Paris life. I longed to belong there, mingle with the sights and sounds and smells, absorb its essence and mix it with my own. I realized sitting there, nervously rearranging my hair and my shirt collar (it was a video conference, after all, I had to look good) that all the times I had spent walking through Paris streets, with that gnawing feeling in my stomach, that longing in my soul, all the afternoons I spent imagining my Parisian life, were about to actually lead to Paris itself. Here was my chance, here was what I had wanted for so long, here was the moment when all the hours spent perfecting my accent and memorizing rules of grammar would pay off.

10:05, and still no life from the monitor or camera. I call my voice mail. Two bizarre messages of audio feedback, and I think, "Fabienne can't possibly have called my phone extension by mistake..." Then I check my watch against the clock on the wall. 10:07. Still nothing. The room suddenly feels warmer. I look up the number for Paris technical support. I call and explain I had a conference scheduled, could they please check to see if they were experiencing technical difficulties on their end? I had tested our system twice at 9:30. It worked fine. They put me on hold. I check my voice mail again. Another audio feedback message. Then the phone rings. It's Fabienne. She can't connect to our system and says we must be having technical difficulties on our end. I hang up on techincal support. No, I assure her, it can't be from here, I tested the system twice already. I'll call you, I say. I program in her number. It connects immediately. Her face appears, a little blurry, a little choppy, and sitting next to her is a younger girl, her chin already resting on her hand, resigned to being even more bored in a few minutes than she already looked. I have no idea who she is. Fabienne begins.

"So, let me go over your resume with you."

My resume? I didn't bring a copy of my resume with me. They had already made me the offer; the video conference was to go over the details. I am momentarily thrown off track. I recover, thinking it must be a French formality. But surely, they had my resume for months, they even had already said I was overqualified for the job; they had initially turned me down because of it. But this was a different offer. Do the assistant job for a year, after which we want to move you into an area where you will use more of your foreign language and communication skills, etc. I clear my throat.

We spend a good 40 minutes going over my work history, with me struggling to remember what the fuck I did 5 years ago at that miserable Lorraine Regional Economic Development office and trying not to mention how much of an idiot my boss was. The mystery young girl shifts her chin to the other hand, emitting a delayed sigh like a badly dubbed kung fu film. Then, suddenly, the screen goes blank. I call Fabienne back. She explains in an officious tone that the session had been planned for only 45 minutes and our time was now up.

"Euh," I say, "I did have a few questions about the details
of the offer...." She looked surprised.

"I wanted to go over some of the terms of the offer," I tried again, looking briefly down and gesturing at my notebook, where I had carefully bullet pointed my questions. She still looked hesitant.

"For example," I ventured, "would the contract be a CDI or a CDD? I would be a little wary, I hope you understand, of going all the way there for a one year CDD for the assistant position, and then having to come back because the other job didn't materialize."

She looked down and her notes and said, "Oh of course, I can understand that."

The girl beside her sat up straight for the first time in an hour.

"It will be a CDI," Fabienne said, shaking her head 'yes' after what seemed to be too long of a pause.

"How about housing? Will the company help me find an apartment in Paris?"

"You don't already have a place to stay in Paris?" she responded, as if this was unusual for an American, with no work contract, work visa, or any idea of what their hypothetical future income in euros might be to not have already bought themselves a pad with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

I widened my eyes and stuck my chin forward in the French gesture meaning, "What moronic thing did you just utter?"

Still, I wasn't sure I had heard her right, so I said, slowly, "No, I don't have anywhere to live in Paris," then added at the last minute, confused that she might think the video conference signal was coming from across the street, "I am in Atlanta. I live in Atlanta."

She seemed peeved that I didn't have this annoying detail already worked out. Perhaps in her world, everyone had a place to live in Paris, just like that, whenever you needed it, you just snapped your fingers and the keys were in your hand.

"I mean, would the company at least recommend some agencies I could contact? I don't know what neighborhoods to avoid or that sort of thing. I just need a little help," I tried. "Maybe some websites the company would recommend?" I felt like I was begging.

"Well, unfortunately, the company did not invest in real estate and so doesn't have any apartments at its disposal that they could house you in," she explained, as if talking to a child, "and there is currently a housing crisis in Paris," she added matter-of-factly.

Surely they won't leave me to wander the streets? Surely they can at least recommend some way of finding an apartment? I began to wrack my brain; who did I know in Paris that I could live with?

I had forgotten it was a video conference. I saw the small window at the bottom right of the screen that showed my face. My mouth was open, my left eyebrow raised, my eyes wide.

"This surprises you?" she asked.

"Well," I wasn't sure how to put it, "yes, it does." I was so confused why the headquarters of my large multinational industrial company was not going to help me find a place to live in a city apparently experiencing a housing crisis, when my little plant in a small town in Georgia routinely pre-arranged housing for everyone from interns to directors. "Um, see, here in Georgia, we have corporate apartments we arrange ahead of time, and when people are transferring here for long periods of time, we give them names of real estate agencies they can contact to buy or lease a house." I thought this might be helpful to explain my surprise. I made a mental note to try to control my facial expressions. She was writing something. What? I dared not think about it.

"And, well, I would need to know how much the salary was that you are offering, so I could at least have an idea of what kind of rent I could afford."

"Do you know the equivalent of your salary in euros?" she asked quickly. Up until that moment, it hadn't occurred to me that she had come to the video conference completely unprepared to answer any questions about the details of the offer her branch was making me. I was still hesitant to think she didn't know. Why would anyone broadcast the image of their face across the ocean knowing they would not be able to answer basic questions?

It had caused me trouble before, this blind trust that people aren't inherently incompetent or bad or stupid. Why would I come to this video conference assuming the person who would be speaking the words I had waited so long to hear would be a moron? In that instant I knew she hadn't bothered to find out anything about me or the offer or what it took to transfer someone internationally. I knew this with certainty because I had been to headquarters months before, and when talking to an HR colleague who worked in international mobility, he proudly explained that they had a software program that automatically converted living costs from the home country into the transfer country equivalents.

But here it was, up to me to come up with a figure in euros, no software to help me calculate it. I needed to say something, throw out a number that didn't sound too modest or too bold. I hadn't checked the exchange rate in days. I didn't know how to guesstimate the standard of living. All I knew was that salaries in France were much lower than in the US. And that compared to the French, I currently made a lot of money. I had also just gotten a raise. Should I include it? Would it be asking for too much to expect the equivalent? I told her my salary in dollars. She wrote it down. I guessed at the equivalent in euros, saying I wasn't sure at all. I didn't know if I had just secured my chances of living a comfortable life or condemned myself to an eternity of eating baguettes and pasta.

"Could you tell me a little bit more about the job that you are envisioning for me after a year, the one that would use my communication and foreign language skills?"

"Unfortunately, we cannot say any more than that. It is confidential." she replied quickly. I had no idea what that meant. Couldn't they at least tell me what department it was in? Couldn't they say how my skills would be put to use? And how the hell was I supposed to make a decision with that kind of response?

She asked when I could start. I said January, and she seemed annoyed.

"Why, may I ask, can you not start sooner?" I felt like I was ruining everything.

"Because my bosses asked me to stay until the end of December. They have been extremely supportive of me making this move and we have a good relationship, so I will respect their request." I thought that said it nicely.

I told her I would check with them what week was best for me to go over for training and get back in touch with her.

I emerged from the conference room feeling very odd. I went to my French boss to give him a re-cap.

"So," he said smiling, "how did it go?"

"Well," I said, "it was very strange." I looked around the room. I didn't know how to phrase it. "Let me put it this way," I ventured, "I don't know how much it pays, whether the company will help me find a place to live, what I would be doing after a year or how long the contract is for." Decidedly, the video conference had been very informative. He burst out laughing. He told me a few French HR horror stories and suggested I put all my questions in writing and email it to her.

"You'll never get all the answers, but you can try." he said, waving his hand in a gesture of futility and "such is life."

We chose the first week of November for my training in Paris. I went to call Fabienne.

"I will be able to come the first week in November," I said.

"Good, that will do."

"Shall I make the airline and hotel reservations or will you do it on your end?"

"Oh Coralie can do it for you if necessary. She was the person I had with me in the video conference." Finally, I was going to find out who she was. A travel agent? "She spent some time in the US, so I asked her to attend." Why? In case I had questions about daily American life? In case some gaping cultural divide sprung up, Coralie and her (au pair? intern?) experience could save the day?

I went to Paris in November and trained for a week with the person I would replace. I will spare a description of the debacle that occurred when my own division offered me a second job as an assistant to the Industrial Director of the Bottling division in Paris the night I took the plane to train for the Insulation division's offer. I will omit the HR Manager's exclamation of "nous restons les dindons de la farce!" when I tried diplomatically to explain that I would prefer to accept the Bottling division offer. It seemed to me at the time, with the amount of information I had then, that it was the better one. It was at least clearer. And I already knew the people I would be working with.

I learned while there that the Insulation division was offended because they had "done so much to advance the process" and felt that my division had been underhanded to so suddenly slip me an offer before taking the plane. I wasn't sure what "advance the process" meant, since the only thing they had done so far that I could tell was hire a temp to fill the job during November and December, which they would have had to do regardless of whether I accpeted or not. I even ended up making my own plane and hotel reservations, Coralie's possible expertise aside.

In the end, such a stink was raised that my division rescinded their offer the next day. I was shown at the end of my week a pile of emails that had been shot across between the two divisions, much to my total embarrassment at having caused such a fracas. It was only through this drama, however, that I learned that the future mystery position after a year was to be one of a manager of sorts, in the International Mobility division. So Insulation had been shocked that I would turn down becoming a manager to remain an assistant with Bottling. I tried in vain to explain that no one had made this clear to me, that "it is confidential" didn't exactly convey the idea. Instead I was chided for not being more "open" to my division about the offer Insulation had made me.

In the space of 9 incredibly hectic days, I signed the work contract, (which I saw for the first time 5 days after my arrival), found an apartment, signed the lease, got renter's insurance, and trained for the new job. I was profoundly proud of myself for navigating the incredible obstacles I encountered trying to get correct information from Fabienne to make all of those things happen. I quickly learned that nothing she said could be trusted unless I had heard it at least twice. When asked a question, I realized, she would immediately come up with an answer, any answer, regardless of whether there was any truth to it at all. She would then, out of my sight and hearing, actually bother to inform herself, and then later present me with the real answer, as if the contrary had never been uttered by such knowledgeable lips as hers. Having an answer was more important that its actual quality or reliability. This is a cultural difference it will take quite some time for me to adjust to. When I asked her if she needed the identity photos to be black and white or color for my visa application, she said, "Color," in that same too quick affirmative head shaking way she had used in the video conference. I repeated, "Color?" and she said "Yes, color." She sent me to the ground floor of the headquarters building to the place where color photos were taken for the employee ID badges. In the time it took the elevator to deliver me to the correct floor and my butt to hit the seat of the chair in front of the camera, she had informed herself to the contrary. The photographer's phone rang and I heard her say, "No, we can't do black and white photographs here." I thought, smiling wryly to myself, "That's my Fabienne!"

I broke down in grateful tears on the plane on the way home watching a movie taking place in Paris, realizing that for the first time I did not feel the pangs of longing in the pit of my stomach to have my own little piece of the city. I had even had lunch with a friend in the very chic restaurant that was the scene where the Amercian heroine is first seduced by the older French rogue. I had a Paris address and a Paris job and its doors were ever so slowly opening to me. I felt a sudden urge to defy the regulations and unfasten my seatbelt to kneel and kiss the Air France carpet.

Upon my return, I immediately began to organize my departure, selling my bed, sofa, stereo, etc., giving notice at my apartment, and arranging for a moving company to ship my stuff to Paris. I had to submit three quotes from different companies, and then Fabienne would tell me which one to use. I dutifully arranged for the visits and sent her the quotes as soon as I received them, wondering how she would make a decision since they were all in English. I thought I would give her some time to look them over and make a decision before I began to follow up with her.

A month went by, with me frantically saying good-bye to my friends and making last minute arrangements. Fabienne had told me me the immigration lawyers said my visa would most likely sail through, as Atlanta was one of the easier consulates to deal with. She kept insisting I would be there the first or second week in January; she even put January 1, 2004 on my work contract. The visa application, I knew, took 6-8 weeks.

I sent Fabeinne an email, asking her when she thought she might make a decision on which moving company to use so I could schedule it, and when she thought the visa might come through based on the date the application was submitted. I wanted to reserve my plane tickets early to be sure Max (my cat and other true love) could come on board with me. (Most airlines only allow 2 animals in the cabin per flight).

She responded saying that I should be "patient" and that she could not be precise about the date I would receive my visa because the process took 6-8 weeks. This she helpfully underlined. Then she asked me which mover I preferred, telling me which one they had selected. I wondered why she asked, if they had already indentified one they liked, but decided to go ahead and give my opinion. My mother often says, "If you don't want to know, don't ask Penelope." So I told her the one they preferred was actually the one I liked the least for various reasons, not to mention that they were the most expensive. I vaguely wondered if she had just randomly picked it precisely because it was.

I also asked her to confirm that my visa application was put in the week after I left Paris, so at least I could estimate my arrival date. I helpfully underlined this. She responded by saying, "Hélas, I absolutely cannot give you a fixed date....there are many administrative constraints....the application procedure was begun the week you left Paris, but we have been completing your file and it will not be submitted in totality until next week." I could hardly believe what I was reading. Completing my file? What the hell did that mean? As far as I knew, the only thing she needed was ID photos, which I had gone to great lengths to get to her at 6:30 at night my last day there, walking from the headquarters buidling to the Photo Mat across the plaza, having them taken, and then walking them back to leave them at the reception desk. And if there was something missing she needed from me, why didn't she ask? What could have possibly taken 3 weeks?

Her emails were condescending & full of high brow words, (of which a few I delighted in noticing were misspelled). She even called me impatient, by saying she "completely understood my impatience". The gall! The cojones! Les couilles!!! I was livid. Most especially because she had not done anything for three weeks, after pressuring me to no end to be there the first or second week in January. After everything I had done to get things ready so quickly.

I wrote about fifteen versions of a reply before I calmed down enough to realize that while she was highly incompetent, condescending and totally uncommunicative, I needed her. She was between me and my visa. I had to be nice. I had to play along and act as if I were the dumb American blonde she took me for. I was understanding, I was charming, I was funny and sweet - and it very nearly killed me.

The holidays came and went, and I knew Fabienne was going on her honeymoon to Tahiti. I fervently hoped all her luggage got lost and that she had to deal with difficult officials like herself. I wished her much weight gain and a few jellyfish bites. I forced myself not to email her every day, asking if she had put in my application. I checked the National Employment Agency website every other day to see if my job posting was there (the first step in the process). It never was.

Then, two weeks after New Years, I got an email from Jérôme, the poor HR sod who had been on copy of the email tirade between Fabienne and I; the mild-mannered prematurely balding chap who had helped me get a check written for the down payment on my Paris apartment. Strangely, Fabienne was not on copy. I hardly noticed, since the email was to tell me that the French Labor Department (the second step in the process) had refused my request. He told me they would file an appeal, and that he thought it would work, but that it could take up to two months. I asked a few questions, not really expecting answers, but thinking I might try. I was horribly bummed, and a little afraid the whole thing would fall apart. What would happen to my stuff if the visa got refused a second time? It was due to arrive any day in Paris. He answered as best he could, in a friendly yet professional tone.

Then, the good news. Coralie, my precious little Coralie, whose real job description I will never know, sent me a reply to an email I had sent earlier to Fabienne, saying in her au pair/intern English,

"Hi Penelope,
Could you, please, just send your e-mails to Jérôme, because Fabienne is not here anymore, she just left the Company. So, there is no point that she receives it.

Best regards,


I jumped for joy. I double high-fived my boss. I screamed, "Thank you, JESUS!" I danced in my rolly chair. I sent numerous elated emails, sharing my good news.

"It almost makes me believe in God," one of my friends who had been privy to the whole email exchange wrote.

"Did you voodoo that?" asked another.

I have no idea. But thank you, thank you, thank you and Puh-RAISE the Lord!

So here I am, waiting for the appeal to work. I know it will. It has to.