The sun above Paris was a mid-July clementine. I bought copies of Le Monde and the Herald Tribune at a kiosk and climbed the stairs to my new office on the Champs-Elysées. For three hours, I mugged at a laptop, trying to figure out how the e-mail system worked. My fingers were chattering. I spent long, spacey minutes trying to find the @ key. They’d given me a keyboard mapped for French speakers, with the letters switched around.
For the rest of the day, strangers approached and handed me folders, speaking to me in French while I panicked inside. A sentence would begin slow, with watery syncopation, then accelerate, gurgling until it slammed into an ennnnnnh, or an urrrrrrrr, and I’d be expected to respond.
What did they want from me?
Why was every question a confrontation?
First day on the job, my French was not super. I’d sort of misled them about that.
The advertising agency occupied three floors of a building located a few blocks east of the Arc de Triomphe, next to a McDonald’s. Our floor might have been a wing from Versailles. Chandeliers everywhere. Gold-flaked moldings. Long rooms walled by spotty mirrors. There were fireplaces like cave mouths, and high ceilings painted with frescoes. A cherub’s little white gut mooned my desk.
For a long time I’d thought Paris had the world’s best everything. Girls, food, the crumble-down buildings. Even the dust was arousing. Coming out of the Métro that morning, I’d been so full up my throat constricted.
Basically, I’d been anaphylactic about France since I was ten.
So I was trying to seem cool and unruffled.
My new boss, Pierre, was an old friend. We knew each other from New York, where Pierre and his wife had lived before returning to Paris, their hometown. In March, I’d received an e-mail that Pierre had sent around looking for someone to join his agency who could attend meetings in French but write English copy.
We spoke the next day. Pierre said, “You’re good in French…”
I said, “How good in French?”
Around lunchtime, Pierre introduced me to André, his co–creative director. They shared an office. André was stocky, long-haired, orthodontic. He grinned like Animal from the Muppets. I liked him right away. Probably ate scissors for lunch.
“André doesn’t speak English,” Pierre said.
“Fuck that,” André said in English, staring at me. He added, smiling, “But no, do not.”
A computer monitor attached to André’s laptop showed two nude women sixty-nining. André had on a pink Lacoste shirt and a blazer with two lapels, one folded up. It was the first jacket I’d ever seen that included a constantly popped collar, suggesting, Dude, let your clothes handle the boil, you’re busy musing. At that moment, André’s boots were perched on an Italian racing bicycle. People informed me later that he never rode it—it was parked there only to keep beauty in near proximity.
I told André I liked his office. André grinned, then his BlackBerry began to chirrup. André ignored it and said in English, “So, where you come?”
“Come from,” Pierre corrected him.
“New York,” I said.
The BlackBerry kept ringing. André grabbed it like it was a burning club and screamed down the line while rampaging out of the room.
In a short while, I’d figured out the e-mail system and how to remap my keyboard; as long as I didn’t look too closely at what I was doing, it would perform like a QWERTY layout and communicate my intentions. Perhaps this will become a metaphor, I thought. Then my calendar program started making a boingy sound. It said I was late for a réunion on the sixth floor.
Getting my étages wrong, I wound up in a law firm. The receptionist was prickly: I was due for a meeting where? With whom?
On the proper floor, I asked an IT guy for directions. He said a bunch of things and gestured with his arm. Tried a hallway: dead end. Backtracked, tried another hallway. Oh, you’re dead, I told myself. Around me people were speaking French into headsets, wearing scarves despite the heat. Finally I found a conference room, took an empty chair, and apologized to a horseshoe of elders who were watching a PowerPoint presentation—“Désolé,” I said, catching my breath, “désolé.”
A woman wearing a white suit and white eyeglasses said in English, “Excuse me, who are you looking for?”
Kind of bold, I thought, matching your pantsuit to your glasses.
Finally, down the hall, in the right conference room, I met Claude, a senior account director, who assured me I was where I belonged.
“Dude, you’re from, like, New York? So cool, man,” Claude said in English. Claude was skinny and smelled of cigarettes, with arms sunburned to the color of traffic cones. “I love New York,” he said. “Why did you leave? You know, no one goes New York to Paris.”
Claude said he’d recently returned from the beach. “Just the total best, dude, Antibes. You haven’t been? You must go with me sometime.”
Behind me, a breeze suckled the blinds from a large open window. The view spanned Paris, one of those views that came with sunshine and clarinets, from the Eiffel Tower to the Grand Palais, to the fondant of the Sacré Cœur.
I wanted to levitate right out of the room.
Claude asked if I was married and what girls were like in New York. “They’re easy, right, easy pussy? Like you’re just going down the street”—Claude mimed a drum major swinging his arms; he found it hilarious and exciting—“and there’s one! And there!”
Slowly, about a dozen young French people turned up—art directors, copywriters, project managers, programmers—nodding with afternoon fatigue. They helped themselves to Coke and Coca Light from plastic bottles shaped like petite scuba tanks, and Claude began the meeting. “Okay, so hey, meet this guy…” Claude paused before saying my name. Truthfully it was a pain in French, all those “R”s. Claude asked in French if I had any introductory remarks. I said, “Excusez-moi?” People laughed, and I laughed, too, a survival reflex or whatever. I said, “Non.” Claude explained to the group that I was there that afternoon only to listen. “Mais demain matin, nous aurons un brainstorming … with this dude.” Claude gestured at me and winked.
An hour later, I had no idea what my assignment was, what I’d be called upon to do, or when I’d be required to do it.
In the beginning of my job, I had a look: toddler struggling with digestion. I saw it reflected back at me in people’s sunglasses, absorbed by my coworkers’ eyes. They weren’t used to an American coming up so close, being such a worried listener—me pressing in with my nervous smile, my jaw clamped, my forehead rippling with humps like a Klingon’s.
Why couldn’t I have found a job in Sydney or Cape Town, where the surf brahs communicated by vibe?
What had I done?
Copyright © 2012 by Rosecrans Baldwin