The French have a phrase “métro, boulot, dodo,” which means “subway, work, sleep.” It’s only been two weeks since I started my internship at the embassy, but I’m already coming to understand this Parisian view of life. Living in Paris has been a dream come true, for the most part, especially during the first couple of days when I had nothing to do but stroll around and admire the natural beauty of the city, but it has come with its own challenges, too.
Having visited Paris several times before, I have photos of most of the touristy places, and not carrying a camera everywhere with me is an oddly liberating sensation. I had wondered what it would be like, being surrounded by tourists all the time, but surprisingly, they don’t annoy me very much.
In fact, I derive a certain amount of pleasure in watching other people, especially my fellow Americans, discover– often for the first time– the place I have come to love. There have even been times when I’ve been able to help them out, and I never get tired of their surprised reactions when they learn that there are, indeed, friendly anglophones in a city of supposed snobs.
During my first couple of days here, I passed the Eiffel Tower several times, strolled through the Jardins des Tuileries in front of the Louvre, and dodged tourists and Parisians alike on the always overcrowded Champs Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe. I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of Texan friends living in the city for the summer, including a fellow Aggie Catholic, with whom I tasted the infamous Berthillon’s ice cream (made sans preservatives or artificial coloring) on the Île St. Louis, walked along the Seine, and attended mass at Notre Dame Cathedral on Mother’s Day in France.
My work at the embassy got off to a slow start; all of the steps necessary to finalise my security clearances took at least a week to complete, and at the beginning, I was a bit bored. I’m not sure why Americans talk about 9:00-5:00 office jobs because I work from 9:00-6:00, which irks me particularly since I’m in a country notorious for its 35-hour workweeks. There are two other interns in my office, as well, so there wasn’t a lot of work to go round for us neophytes. However, with the departure of three of the office’s mainstays, coupled with the vacations and displacements of some of the other employees, the work has picked up, and now I find myself fairly occupied the whole time.
I’m sure many of you are dying to know what kind of secret stuff I’m doing behind closed doors. I would never jeopardise my position by writing about classified information, but I can assure you that even though I enjoy a top-secret security clearance, most of my tasks have been rather mundane, and even the hush-hush stuff has been less than titillating, to be sure. For the most part, I have gone to some thinktanks near the embassy to take notes for some of my supervisors, which I am in the process of transcribing. I was allowed to sit in on a meeting of department heads and be introduced to the ambassador, even if it wasn’t exactly face-to-face, and I even had a “fun” assignment on Friday where I played tour guide to the family members of some visiting congressmen. That was actually quite enjoyable since I had a real opportunity to put my knowledge of Paris to work, and I was able to accompany them to a site I hadn’t even visited myself, Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides, a former military hospital cum museum.
I’m pretty fortunate that I like my coworkers, too. Everyone has been very welcoming and helpful at bringing us interns into the fold. One of my supervisors, in particular, is a fellow writer with a book self-published on Amazon, and I have enjoyed getting to know a kindred spirit. He has even inspired me to bring my computer to work to write during our hour-long lunch breaks, which is how he finished his first book and is completing his second.
As much as the job has been varied, the novelty of working at the embassy is starting to wear off, and life as a Parisian is taking a small toll. While Paris doesn’t exactly approach New York City in terms of size or population, living in a world capital is fairly stressful. A lot of Americans have this “Vie en Rose” image of the City of Lights, but they can only see France through the eyes of a vacationer.
Living in the midst of a different culture, even one I know well, is mentally taxing as I juggle between living amongst other Americans for nine hours and returning to my French host family in the evenings. Then there is just the rigor of adjusting to a full-time work schedule in a huge city, where I have to factor in time to get to work via public transportation along with every other suit-clad Parisian and their dogs. Sometimes, I have to wait for two métros to pass before there is enough room to get on the train, and when I make my correspondance at Franklin Roosevelt, we practically run through the claustrophobia-inducing tunnels; even so, the sound of the myriad vagabond musicians’ renditions of Ave Maria echoing through the corridors every morning makes the gauntlet a bit more bearable. Then it’s nine hours spent in front of a computer in a windowless office (for now, anyway, and every once in a while I get to take the aforementioned field trips into the city) before doing it all over, with only a couple of hours of free time in the evening before waking up at the crack of doom for rounds two through five.
While there have already been a few times where I have asked myself why I decided to go through all this hassle of moving to another country not just once, but a second time, and while I have been a little bit homesick, I have been saying to my French friends, “Je m’habitue” (I’m getting used to it). And when I really think about it, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world.
I definitely appreciate the weekends more, now. In school, I usually spent my free time completing papers or attending to other commitments, but the one silver lining of an office job is that I can leave it all behind on Friday. This weekend was especially nice because I took the train to Caen to visit my host family from two years ago. On the way out, the sun was shining and the sky was clear, a welcome change after the constant grey rain we’ve been having in Paris, and I was shocked to find myself embracing the idea of retiring to the quiet countryside fifty years down the line. I couldn’t help but better understand why the French don’t like living in Paris, and the Parisians themselves take every opportunity they can to flee their concrete jungle for their native terroirs (family origins).
I spent a lovely weekend celebrating my host family’s housewarming in conjunction with their 25th wedding anniversary. The whole extended family (whom I met on the very same day I met my host family in Caen) was there, and I was really touched at having a familial atmosphere to come back to, especially in my old haunt. As much as I want to see the rest of the country, Normandy will always hold a special place in my heart as my first “home” in France, and I don’t care what reputation it has as a cold, rainy, pastoral region with little excitement; walking around the tiny town of Ouistreham, along the beach with a sprightly wind blowing off the Channel, and through the quaint neighborhoods of typically Norman architecture was an idyllic way to pass a Sunday. Paris is beautiful, there is no question about it; but the French realise that foreigners think only of Paris when they think of France, and I hasten to add that there is a lot of beauty to be found elsewhere, as well.
Now, I’m on the overcrowded train back to Paris, where I’ll catch the evening mass (probably one of the few times my family in Texas will have actually gone to church before I have, even with the time difference) before gearing up for a week of God-knows-what. At least the job hasn’t been predictable yet, and I have a feeling that as my colleagues get to know us interns better, we may get to do even more interesting tasks.
I’ll be visiting some Aggie Catholics in Rome for an ordination mass next weekend, and as much as travel disasters make great stories, for my sake, I’m hoping for an uneventful dash down south via RyanAir.
Bref, as the French say, “ça arrive.” Little by little, I’m readjusting to life à la française, and I’m sure I’ll have more exciting news in the not so distant future.
À bientôt !