So I made it to Paris. For a very real job, a corporate job, to live and work in the city of my dreams.
After much struggle and hardship, loss of hope, self doubt, questioning, and a pretty good sum of money.
But I made it.
The people at my office are great, one of my best friends lives across the hall from me, and things are coming together bit by bit.
My renovated maid’s quarters room is getting homier and homier, no matter how small, and the administrative bs that is not atypical of France is coming together- I have a bank account (Hallelujah- it wasn’t as easy as one would have thought or as it was in the past), a first paycheck, I have a phone, a monthly metro pass, a gym membership, and soon I’ll have internet in my apartment. Tomorrow!
It wasn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
One obstacle I didn’t expect was the homesickness and longing for my own country and my first ity love, Washington, DC. WOrking in France in a business setting is not like teaching ENglish or going to school here. I have to say, based off what I’ve seen, I am not shocked that France seems to be steadily slipping from its former grandeur and its economy is lucky to grow by 1% per year. Went to a poetry reading at the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore, once frequented by Hemingway, TS Eliot, and other famous expats, and the lead presenter read a poem about the decline of Europe. As I am struck by the beauty and majesty of every corner, the gorgeous Boulevards Haussman, the generously scattered monuments, scupltures, gardens, and other sumptuous works, and the advertisements in the metro recall to me the cultural treasures that are so lavishly available here with every one of my trajectories though the attractive and convenient metro, I sometimes have the strange sentiment of living in a working museum. That I am here not to much for what is going on now but what has happened.
On the other hand, France continues to be the center of la Francophonie. Immigrants throng from all corners of the world that France once conquered and many places where it did not. It is one of the most important cities in EUrope, and despite the economic malaise, this more than 1000 year old city and long time center of the world knows that it will last, it is not going anywhere any time soon. But the signs that it is going forward- like a friend of mine’s startup- are not always so evident. France seems to be taking on the persona of a first world, first class, but somehow second rate country, content to see to the welfare of its citizens and the continuation of its heritage but no longer a place that pushes the borders of its civilization. A fashionable brand that was once among the world’s greatest of empires. And is caught fighting the battles of right vs left, socialist vs slightly less socialist, and above all, the old guard of the white, Catholic, franco-francais heritage of France versus its multicultural future with Muslim Maghrebins of the former colonies providing the population as well as the energy of the future.
If France could combine its various flavors like the US does in the giant melting pot, or to use a more integrationist metaphor, salad bowl, it would be among the richest and most dynamic of countries. French may be to some of my Maghrebin friends the langue du colonisateur but at the same time, there is a truly global community of people who not only speak French, but also to an extent, whether they want to admit it or not, also think to some extent like the French, or at least use the same metaphors-which are not common to the Anglo Saxon part of the Western world. THe ideals of laicite (more or less, secularism) and solidarity are among those idioms that I don’t really think we have an equivalent to. I asked my friend the French entrepreneur, a great admirer of Steve Jobs by the way, how France managed to conquer more or less half the world and administrate a global empire, when I see all the seeming bureaucratie and taxes and hierarchy and everything else weighing French corporate life down today. He said, that was in the king times when only one person took a decision and everyone else just followed. A colleague of mine agree that when the boss is away, everything goes to shit.
There’s a lot I still don’t understand despite my years of study and immersion in French culture, which is very latin. There are certain social codes that I don’t understand operating because no equivalent exists in American culture, like the grammar rules that govern the more complicated, and some would say rich, French language. It’s hard to understand when to use the subjunctive when it just doesn’t exist, or at least no one thinks of it as such, in your mother tongue. Before I leap to any conclusions or go to far in propagating my current impressions, which are of course likely to change, it should be well noted that there’s so much I just don’t understand.
And just as I lament the lack of integration in France, of course I see a mixed race couple sitting next to me at MacDonald’s where I am hogging the internet with their adorable children.
But sadly, while every culture is ethnocentric, I think that in France it is a bit more apparent. That kind of pride, or arrogance and attachment to certain ways of doing things, is just part of French culture and perhaps just Latin cultures in general. The hierarchy, the centralisation, le cadre of acceptable behavior and difficulty understanding the others just don’t understand. That the box you have been taught to think inside is just a convient fiction, and your social codes, however important to you, are just constructed and aren’t real for some people.
I think the best example of the problems facing France is the school system. At a young age, around 13, children have to choose essentially between going to college or learning a trade. It is very difficult to change tracks and causes you to have to repeat years of school. Same thing if, once you have chosen a “major” rather a sort of diploma in either college prep high school or vocational high school, you have to repeat. People are put into their boxes very early.
ANd diplomas exist for extremely specific jobs, and without having the right sort of diploma you are obliged to go back to school and start from scratch more or less. Groundskeeping and retail merchandising come to mind. So the workforce isn’t very flexible, even before you factor in the laws that make it difficult to fire people, which also make employers reluctant to hire people, and the risk averse mentality that keeps people in their safe jobs rather than looking for something better. In France, insurance is mandatory for many things, and available for nearly everything.
For those who go on to university, there is a very rigid testing system that determines who goes to which school. And getting into a top school effectively guarantees and certain salary and good jobs for the rest of your life. Some jobs explicitly advertise for only graduates of top schools. Though school is a lot less expensive, it’s not easy to get loans, so for the top schools that are, by French standards, “expensive” they are a lot less accessible. Also, the preparation courses for the tests can cost around $20000 per year, so the meritocratic system of testing definitely doesn’t help out the poor. I have even heard that some material on the tests can’t be learned in school and without going to a preparatory course, you could be the best in your class yet fail to get admitted to a top school.
And the elite of France are chosen from the people that do best on a test, because they are clever and/or their parents had the means to pay. Which effectively came from succeeding on the same tests. So it comes out that if your parent went to one of the top schools, you are about 90% likely to go as well. It is an elite that reproduces itself without much challenge, though school is free and the masses have access to social protections that Americans can only dream of.
It seems that life is more forgiving though, with great unemployment insurance and many social protections if worse comes to worse. Yet these guarantees exist because people are in such need of them, in my opinion due to the inflexibility of the system, because it is normal for it to take 2 years to find a job.
There are many things I admire in France. THe beauty most of all. The publi gardens, the historical artifacts, the courteosy and culture that come from the remnants of aristrocracy. I dig so many affects of the system even as the ideals that created them couldn’t possibly be at greater odds with my own. A strange dillemma.
It took all of my American “any dream can come true,” belief to get me here, yet that belief is definitely not in evidence here. I appreciate the scenery, much as I haven’t adopted the beleifs of the natives- if anything, my Americanness and classical liberalism have only gotten stronger. yet I find so much happiness here, if only because there is something new to learn every day and the challenge of language and bridging cultural difference. An outsider by choice, a visitor, a long stay tourist who feels a frisson of familiarity and loves doing my grocery shopping here even as I don’t acknowledge France as my true home.
And so many of the great people I have met have been other outisders, or French but not Parisian, and we make a community of people who don’t quite fit the social order.
Enjoying the food, the architecture, the joie de vivre. The language, the travel, the culture.
yet not really adopting it. Finding a freedom in being a stranger unlike any I have ever known, much as the Europeans who came to the New World must have felt in imagining their new communities.
I think I will go back and face “reality” as I have constructed it, knowing that when I come back even stronger and stranger than before, France will welcome me, my second home.