A foot out the door, in the merde: A professional experience in France

daisybelle.jpgChaque semaine, Daisy Nguyen, étudiante en troisième année de sciences politiques et de droit à l’Université de Californie, en échange cette année à Sciences Po, nous racontera la vie vue par un bon tiers de la population estudiantine de notre institut – en anglais.
Every week, Daisy Nguyen, a third year exchange student from the University of California studying Political Science and Law, will relate life as third of the Sciences Po students see it – in english.

After taking a painstakingly wrong turn on the metro, I found myself far away from my destination, on the wrong line, watching people kissing. This was an opportune moment for me to ponder why I had ever underestimated the intricacies of the Paris metro system or my inability to dodge dog shit every 10 meters. This was my first day at work, a lawyer’s office somewhere deep in the 16th. To blend in with the Frenchies, I was in my very best black stilettos, a knit skirt and a fitted vest coat. Name: Daisy, personality: out for the kill. At least, in my mind, that’s what I felt like.

I forgot to pick up my dropping jaw upon arrival at the sleek 19th century building, and cooed and awed to myself how magnificent working here was going to be. I put on my coolest ‘I mean business’ strut and marched into the building, where I waited what felt like hours at the reception desk. Two women were blabbing away, about dejeuner’s and petit-enfant’s. I stood there, annoyed and stamped on my best “Impatiently waiting, wouldn’t mind someone paying attention to my visit” look. But then I remembered, in France, customer service doesn’t exist. After they exchanged about a million more kisses, the lady at the counter (name: Claudine) transforms her million watt smile into a dark scowl directed at moi. I assumed this is where I would normally hear an apology followed by “Hi, can I help you?” but instead it was my turn to provide a justified explanation of why I’d come at an ungodly time (when the French take their two hour lunch breaks). After bottling up my frustration I was a string of broken sentences and spat out, “Bonjour, je viens de … wait no. Je m’appelle … en fait, Monsieur Thomas ?”. She lolled her eyes at my inability to communicate properly and got on the phone with Monsieur Thomas’ assistant. I think.

All the while, she didn’t hesitate to give me a blatant top-to-toe inspection, obviously unimpressed with my desperate attempt at Parisian fashion. I for one, didn’t think I deserved such a patronizing look, what with men walking around in loafers and women in horrid scarves that looked like your grandmother’s couch you’d like to burn.

Votre nom?” she asked with annoyance. “Daisy”, I responded with just as much irritation. She turned back to the receiver and said (quite courteously, might I add) “Oui, j’ai une mademoiselle, Dizzee, qui veut voir Monsieur Thomas.

I shrugged off my resentment and mounted the twelve floors. I walked into a huge office- men in suits, women draped in Chanel chic and felt disarmed and out of place. I put on my best new-girl smile, and made my way into my boss’ office. My boss was outrageously good looking, with a smile that made me forget how much the French hated me. I don’t think I wiped the look of awe off my face, nor did I realize how long I was staring at him poised against the window backdrop of all of Paris. He could also tell that I was a bit distraught from the previous social skewering, and offered my some darn good advice. He turned to me, flashed a charmingly bright smile, and said, “Dizzy, the French are comme ca. The trick is to pretend you don’t- how do you say in English- give a shit?”. Damn, I thought, someone actually likes me and they’re saving my life.

And that was the life changing moment I realized I’d been doing it all wrong, I’d been smiling too much, trying too hard to get people to like me. I’ve been too American, and that in itself is a serious crime against the French. If you’re too polite, they think you’re an idiot. Too toothy, and they think you’re half retarded. The trick was to thicken up, stop smiling, and act like you rule the coop. Then people take you seriously and stop ignoring you at counters, end trying to pick pocket you in the metro, and cease to “accidentally” pour water into your lap at dinner. Upfront and personal, none of the superfluous politeness involved that Americans cling to. I like it. After that, I went straight home and flushed my ‘10 commandments on dealing with the French’ down the toilet.