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.

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