I'm talking about the comité d'entreprise, or 'employee perks committee' if you will. I don't know if an equivalent term exists in English, as it feels all too '9 to 5' for me to think we have something similar.
In practical terms, having an 'employee perks committee' translates to getting reduced prices on theatre and movie tickets, having rotating on-site vendors, access to a book and CD library, and having all kinds of classes offered, from scuba diving to Cha-cha-cha. I remember a French friend in the US who, once he learned I had gotten the job in Paris, explained this concept to me as I listened mouth agape.
"So the first thing you should do," he urged, "is find out who is on the committee and get on their good side. You can totally cash in on free concert tickets and all kinds of cool stuff!"
So when I noticed signs posted up that the 'employee perks committee' was offering free trial acting classes for the summer, I jumped at the chance.
If enough people like the trial classes, they'll offer paying, intensive ones come September, with a play performed at the end. In front of the whole company. My boss is most likely cringing at the thought of what role I might be cast in.
"Who's the hooker with the loud laugh? The CFO's assistant? Really?!?"
But we are not there yet.
For the second class, we had been asked to bring in an object with strong emotional value. One girl brought in a bracelet she'd bought in New York on a day she felt particularly happy. One lady brought in a wrought iron ring that was used to shut the gate to her family's property. It was her job to open it whenever people came to visit, and she could still remember the sound of her father's voice shouting, "Annie! Open the gate!" One man brought in a single metro ticket he had been saving in his wallet for ten years. He had used it to go visit a sick friend. We never found out if the friend made it.
I brought a black and white photograph of my mother when she was in college. Her head is turned to a three quarter profile - the most flattering angle, and the one my father thought made her look like a Vermeer. Her hands are hidden in the pockets of her coat, and she looks young, shy and totally unaware of her beauty. I sat on the table in front of the rest of the class, holding the photo, and just started ad libbing.
"Daphne," I said loud and clear, sweeping my eyes over the assembled class, "a Greek name, like mine."
I'll spare you the rest, but I kind of got into it, and didn't even feel all that weird. The best part was that one of the girls in the class came up to me later to say I had made her cry.
"Wow, thanks!!" I gushed, and then realized that would only come across well in an acting class.
So I thought I had a good start.
Until the third class.
We had to memorize four or five lines from a favorite author, and out of total lack of insipiration for an author in French, I picked a passage from the French translation of "A Moveable Feast" by Hemingway.
"Il n'y a jamais de fin à Paris. Nous y sommes toujours revenus, et peu importait qui nous étions, chaque fois, ou comment il avait changé, ou avec quelles difficultés ou quelles commodités, nous pouvions nous y rendre. Paris valait toujours la peine, et vous receviez toujours quelque chose en retour de ce que vous lui donniez. Mais tel était le Paris de notre jeunesse, au temps où nous étions très pauvres, et très heureux." *
I knew the instructor was going to do something to get us out of the comfort zone of just reciting our passages. So after an interesting group exercise, we each had to get up and recite our piece. Then he would choose a way he wanted it to be interpreted. He made one guy act like a queeny fag and his passage had something to do with war. Very funny. So it gets to me. I recite my schpiel, trying to do an old tired man patronizingly describing his youth in Paris to an imaginary younger person. It didn't quite work.
"Do you know the French films of the 30's and 40's?" the instructor asked, "Can you do that voice?"
I blanched. "Um, I think I know what you mean," I said hesitantly, "but I don't think I can do it in French."
"Okay," he said, waving the idea away with his hand, "be vulgar."
"Vulgar?" I asked, my head still stuck on Michèle Morgan.
"Yeah, make it vulgar."
I tried, I really did. I tried to conjure up Mae West or Shelly Winters or even Jayne Mansfield.
Instead I came off as an aggressive lesbian.
Meryl Streep, I am not.
* my approximate translation, not Hemingway's original text : "There is never an end to Paris. We always came back, and it didn't matter who we were, each time, or how it had changed, or how difficult or easy it was, we could always get there. Paris was always worth it, and you always got something in return for what you gave it. But that was the Paris of our youth, when we were very poor, and very happy."