Wednesday, May 9, 2012

France seen through American's eyes

Back in 1967, I received a phone call from Control Data's corporate offices asking, "How would you like to go to France for a year?" My initial response was, "Last place on earth I want to go." Famous last words.

They had remembered that originally I had joined the company to be a Customer Engineer on a small computer system at a remote site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Their needs had changed and I'd trained on their 6600 super computer and was working at a site in Albuquerque. CDC had gotten an export license for six CDC 6600 systems and needed customer engineers to maintain them while they hired and trained French nationals to do the job.

I knew that the Albuquerque site was overstaffed. And, they were offering me a nice per diem and a free apartment. So, despite having a typical American's impression of France (i.e., not good) and knowing no French, I accepted their offer. Within two weeks, I had flown to Minneapolis for orientation and a physical, stopped by Chicago for a passport, driven my Chevy from Albuquerque to Florida where I traded it for a VW Fastback to be picked up in Paris, and arrived in Paris wearing my normal dress western suit, cowboy hat and boots. (With a bull whip in my luggage.)

An American in Paris conjures up visuals of old movies and songs. For this American, it could best be explained in two words: culture shock.

The company's Vietnamese hostess met me at Orly airport and took me by taxi to a small hotel. She gave me instructions on how to take the Metro (the Paris subway) to get to the office the next day. I had not exchanged any money, the hotel staff didn't speak English and I had a bad case of jet lag, so I slept the rest of the day and night. The next morning, I did manage to get the hotel to exchange a dollar bill for five francs so I could use the Metro and my adventures began.

The Metro was clean and back then there were no gang tags anywhere. I arrived at the office only to find out that I'd been assigned to a site in Toulouse. The name didn't mean anything to me. Pick up your flight tickets from the receptionist? Huh? Oh, Toulouse is 400 miles to the south of Paris. The site is at Sud Aviation, where they are building the prototype of the Concorde. Hmmm, okay.

First off, a guy's got to eat. Although I picked up an English/French dictionary, looking up menu items was too time consuming, so after learning that "bouf" was beef, I used my own patented P&P method for ordering food. P&P? That stands for Point and Pray. I just always selected something that had bouf or steak in it and pointed to it on the menu. One time that I did use the dictionary, I got a very shocked look from the waiter. I wanted mustard for my steak. I tried every pronunciation I could think of and the waiter did not understand. So I whipped out the dictionary, looked up mustard, pointed to it and turned the book so the waiter could read it. Unfortunately, my finger slipped one entry when I turned the book around and it pointed to "mustache" instead.

Sud Aviation was an interesting place. The beer cooler - a fridge offering bottle beer for a franc (20 cents) on the honor system -- was located about 15 feet from our office. Yes, one could drink on the job. Although, the french looked at you rather strangely if you grabbed one before 8 o'clock in the morning. Lunch in the cafe was a four course sit down served meal with either beer or wine served, all for about 50 cents. The bathroom was coed. I didn't know that and on day one I was standing at the urinal and a pair of high heels went clickity clack behind me. Surprised doesn't cover my reaction.

There were a couple of stalls with doors and sit down toilets at the far end of the restroom for the ladies to use. The guys had stalls with a hole in the floor. Lesson: Don't stand on the footpads for that hole when you pull the chain to flush.

Oh, and be careful with your pants -- one of my coworkers lost his wallet out of his pants and it fell into the hole and I found him using Kimwipes to clean it and its contents. "How far down did it fall," I asked. "You don't want to know," was his answer.

In France, everyone shakes hands or gives air kisses on the first time to meet of a morning and also when you were leaving for the day. I refused to shake my coworker's hand for three days after that instance.

The shaking hands ritual was difficult for me. When you have to shake hands with 25 people every morning, I found that I lost track with whom I had already shook hands with. And, when you offer to do it for a second time, the French think you are nuts. As in: crazy American with no memory.

In Toulouse, I met a former professional ice skater at the bowling alley. He spoke English. We became friends. He introduced me to his former girl friend and ice skating partner. She moved in and we've been together now for 44 years or so.

Thanks to Claudine, I found out what France really was like. I got to visit her relatives in Paris that lived in very old buildings and meet Claire Sauntier, another relative, who was the first woman senator in France and lived in a very nice apartment. (On one of our visits back to France, she even took us for a private tour of the Senate.)

I learned to love seafood. I learned some French culture, like always saying, "Bon jour, madame" when entering a shop. And, a simple "Merci" goes a long way at almost any time. I learned to drive like a wild Frenchman, navigating roundabouts with reckless abandon -- even the circle around at Arc de Triump in Paris.

I learned that the French as super nice people and will open their arms, hearts and homes to you if you are polite. I learned that Paris french is like New York english - it is spoken fast and harshly. While in Toulouse, it is spoken slower, like a southern drawl. I learned that France is a beautiful country.

Everyone should visit France at least once in their lifetime.

Special Note: A lot has changed in France since I spent a year there. They have speed limits that are enforced with automatic cameras. They are particularly hard on drunk drivers now. In fact, sometime this summer a new law goes into effect that it is mandatory for every car to have a breath analyzer on board for drivers to use to test if they can legally operate the car. Most Americans are afraid to drive in France (in all of Europe, in fact), so it may not be a problem for you. Public transportation is available nearly everywhere, so it probably won't affect you.


  1. Sounds like you got a lot more than you bargained for when you went to France. Magnifique!

  2. This was such a romp and a reverie for me. I visited France in 1989--as a chaperon, of sorts, for a high school class of students studying French. I fell in love with Paris, and all of the rest that we toured. The Cluny museum was a favorite. Thanks for this great story and for stirring up wonderful memories.

  3. Oops! Wrong date. My trip was in 1979. I am a fossil.