As a student, I did a year-long internship at the French engineering company Alstom, just north of Paris. It was the mid-1980s and an interesting period in the computing industry. For example, I saw one of the first demonstrations of an 802.5 compliant token ring local area network at the Tech Expo in Le Bourget. In those days, networked PC’s were unheard of; hard to imagine in today’s hyper-connected world.
All these years later I remember the time I spent living and working in Paris because of the amazing people I met there, and for one person in particular. Madame Eveno was my boss’s boss’s boss and she would grind my gears when I came into work each morning. To my young, delicate mind she seemed harsh and overbearing as she interrogated me during the rounds of hand-shakes and polite “bonjours” that signalled the start of the working day in corporate France.
Handshakes and small-talk I could do. However, she subjected me to an endless barrage of intrusive questions. What did you do last night or the weekend just gone? Who was I with? Had I seen this or that film? What did I like about the area where I lived? Where are your parents from? Always delivered in a rapid-fire, uncompromising Parisien drawl followed by a silent, impatient stare through half-rim glasses.
How Else Are We to Learn?
I became frustrated, afraid even, and ended up avoiding her at all costs. I learned to hide, avoiding the trauma of us both being in the same room. I figured if I kept my head down and did a good job, she would have no reason to talk to me. In any case, I would soon be moving on.
At some point during the internship, perhaps in retrospect, I began to appreciate the power of relationships and especially the meaning of soft ties. I often saw her talking anxiously to my line manager and teammates. At the same time, certain things would inexplicably come my way. There were invitations to the theatre; concerts; shows and sporting events; all gift wrapped in an envelope addressed “Employee of the Month”. Totally deserved of course, if not fully appreciated at the time.
AU revoir not good-bye
A couple of week’s before I was due to leave and return to my studies in the UK, she came into my office and inquired as to what plans I had for my leaving do. “Sais pas”, I replied, slightly perturbed.
She made it clear in no uncertain terms that I was to have a leaving do in the board room the following Thursday and she was taking care of it. When I arrived there was a splendid affair all laid out and a room packed full of colleagues to wish me well on the next chapter of my journey.
LIVES MUST TOUCH
Finally, as the crowd dissipated, she came up to me and, in a fine, cut-glass accent befitting of the very Queen of England said, “so, young man, how has it all been for you?”
As you can well imagine, I was totally flabbergasted! “What the hell?” I yelled, “you speak English?”
She nodded calmly and said, “Of course!”
“So why have you never uttered a single word to me in English in all the time I’ve been here?”
“How else were you going to learn to speak french?” she said, smiling.