Archive for the 'France' Category


Charades or How I Got My Job in Air France

The year is 1986. I had been just about surviving in Paris for the last few years. I held the receiver as close to the tape recorder as possible to catch the Parisian-style French pouring out of my innocent, hapless telephone: the Air France personnel secretary was flooding me with directions to her office at Charles de Gaulle Airport. I had an interview on Friday, 9:00 a.m.–that much I understood. Somehow, the bureaucracy of Air France had actually not only received my application but even understood what I wrote and deemed it not only proper French, (with the help of three French friends), but decided that I was worth interviewing. Air France– not USAir, Allegany Airlines, or Amtrack–wanted to interview the girl who got a “D” in French at Ridgely Junior High School. It was a good thing that airlines do not demand to see your scholastic records.

Rewinding and playing the directions over and over again, I felt like a French underground cryptographer, writing down stray words that I caught. I finally figured out where I was supposed to go: into the catacombs of one of the largest airports in the world, into the bowels of a great monster where all shapes and sizes of the human race gather to be shipped around the world. It made me remember the first time I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport; it was my first time in an airplane, and my first trip overseas. I was twenty-four years old with frosted hair, too much baby fat, and too much joie de vivre to blend in with a French crowd. I sallied forth from the plane and decided to say “Bonjour” to the first French person I saw (which happened to be a rather serious French customs officer). Before then, French had been only a play language between us francophiles. Now, my French was an authentic language for the first time, but the customs officer totally ignored me like I was air. Nevertheless, somebody who is 24 and a world traveler doesn’t care.

That was ten years ago. I’m no longer the “American in Paris,” anymore. Living in England, Holland, and now France has given me more respect for the European mind. Being married to Englishman has taught me to be little calmer. But living in Paris for over a year and a half has not taught me what I wanted to know about Paris. More than just a language barrier, a glass wall surrounds me wherever I go in this city. These people breathe different air than I do. I’m going through life with subtitles.

When we had only been in Paris for a short time, I had to make a telephone call. We didn’t have a phone yet. When you are new to a country, there are a lot of things that you don’t have yet. I went to the local Post Office to find a row of telephone booths. I had no sooner put my franc in the coin slot when a stolid middle-aged woman started banging the glass door with her fist. She was incensed, but she was not an exception in my daily life in Paris. You could walk down the street and see men and women in their designer suits screaming at each other, waving their hands in angry Gaelic gestures, complete with fierce facial expressions that Marcel Marceau could use. Over what? Who knows? I learned that this was Paris. Paris was my concierge intently surveying our comings and goings without a smile. Paris was the wrong line at the Post Office to the disgust of some lowly bureaucrat. Paris was the wrong metro stop and being too intimidated to ask for directions. I must be masochistic to actually desire to work at a Paris airport.

In applying for this post as “the one most likely not to succeed,” I followed a lifetime pattern of hard-headedness. Mrs. Warmsley christened me during my stay in Colchester, England a “very determined young lady.” The Yankee doodle dandy, the ugly American, loud, brash, and bold and blunt, I found my way. Only audacity and temerity could make me enroll in a teacher-training course where Mrs. Warmsley instructed teachers of English for foreigners. The unspoken joke in the class was that I was the foreigner. An American teaching English seemed an oxymoron to them. A Cockney-sounding fellow student inquired if Americans actually used the present perfect in our “dialect.” Without a bachelor’s degree, I did not even actually qualify to be in the course. But then, I was American; no one ever told us that we couldn’t do something we wanted.

It was the little red Royal Society of Arts handbook that gave me the crack in the royal armor: one could be accepted if one taught a class under the supervision of the Head of the Department, wrote a paper, and was found a worthy candidate. Then one could apply to take the R.S.A. exam at the end of the course. Mrs. Warmsley who breathed grammar, syntax, and diction was at a loss for words–for about ten seconds–when I reported my findings. In the end, I actually learned how to write British Received Pronunciation in phonetics and passed my R.S.A. written exam and my T.E.S.L. Trinity College Exam. As far as I know, the other students in my class are still doing the same things they were doing before they took the course. But then, they aren’t American, are they?

After conquering the English, I felt prepared for the famous French xenophobia. The French are not personal in their prejudice. They don’t like any foreigners. As a fading empire, all they have to hang on to is their language and their culture, both of which are quickly losing ground to MTV. In Paris, I probably experienced a little of what all immigrants go through. I had flashes of was like to be a Negro in America during the 50’s. What it must fee like to be hard of hearing, having to make people repeat themselves. Many times, I was cut adrift in the waves of spontaneous French conversation. In America, I can hold my own with sharp wit, easily adjusting to different strata of society. In Paris, I was dull-witted, child-like, and worse, stupid to an impatient, intolerant audience. In America, I am fairly sophisticated; in Paris, I am a tourist characature: not enough make-up, hair too long, and still too fat, (even though in America, my friends, by this time, thought I was anorexic). Is this an Air France ground hostess? Is my “can do” transatlantic attitude as naive as the French would have me believe? Could I really fool anyone? Put on an act? Could I pretend I didn’t come from Timonium, Maryland, where people eat crabs with wooden hammers and sticky fingers? Am I going for a job, or a part in a new movie, “Gidget goes to Gaul?”

But Air France did have one person that was not dripping with Channel No. 5, black eye liner, and a scowl. Her name was Nutan Bhinda, another Parisian immigrant who was one of those cosmopolitan people who don’t really belong to one country. She was born in India, brought up in England, spoke Italian and French flawlessly and she was my friend. She was also gorgeous. As we would go to lunch, Parisian men would trip over themselves looking at her on Avenue Montaigne. She had a mane of blue-black hair that rested thickly around her shoulders. With classic features and café‚ au lait skin, brown eyes that melted into black, she was a tropical delight.

One day at lunch, she mentioned to me that Air France was looking for a liaison agent to take care of American clients. I had not come all the way to Paris to spend my days arranging the travel for American tourists. The city was starting to have its influence on me. I did not want to hold their hands when the big, bad French people were nasty. I fought too long to learn how to cope. But Nutan insisted that I apply for the job. Maybe because I had learned how to cope that I should consider it.

Nutan not only helped me with the lengthy application form, where I used my teacher-style rounded writing, (the French employ experts to analyze handwriting) but she also coached me for the interview process. Apparently, the French–especially Air France, due to the stressful nature of the work–base much of their hiring on psychological tests, where the applicant draws pictures. They determine what personality is suited for the demands of the job. Nutan gave me a well-thumbed book, passed on to her by other Air France personnel, which showed how to beat the tests. Just for fun, I took some of the tests and found out that I was “withdrawn, melancholic, easily irritated.” I would have never landed the job, but then, how do most French people pass? They buy this book.

After studying the right way to draw a tree, and how to answer other vital questions, Nutan trained me for the interview itself. I was not to play with my fingers or move my hands, which I always do as an Italian-American. My fingers are my accompaniment to all discourse. Being the nervous type, I pick my cuticles, a 20th century phenomenon, I’m sure, when I am thinking or obsessing,(this word has recently bumped into the verb form–typical of the American dialect). I had to learn how not to talk with my hands, now with well-manicured digits. I tried to pretend that my hands were cemented together on my lap in order to give the impression that I was relaxed and unruffled.

No part in a play would be complete without a good wardrobe mistress. As a leftover from the 70’s comfort look. If you can’t sit on the floor with what you are wearing, then what are you wearing it for? You wear the clothes, don’t let the clothes wear you. This motto was an excuse not to spend an inordinate amount of time primping. Unlike most women, I hate to take the time to study if my shoes are the exact shade of my dress. I only care if clothes give me a feeling of freedom for my thoughts: flowing skirts, long enough so I don’t have to wear nylons; shoes that I can run in to catch the metro ahead of the crowd; lipstick that doesn’t look like I ate too many cherries; and hair that I can put my fingers through when I’m pensive or bored, (another thing Nutan told me is verboten, playing with your hair at the interview: cemented palms, that’s what I’ll have). I abhor hair that looks like a wig, or a helmet, that took more time to sculpt than The Thinker.

This image is all in the past for me. Instead, I had to learn, not only to put on lipstick with a tiny brush that I once used to use for miniature painting, but to draw a line all around my lips to give “definition.” I was thankful that I took Drawing 101, 102 at Towson State College. How others manage, I can’t imagine. Worst of all, I had to get that dreaded suit out of the cleaners. The one with the straight skirt. The one in which I walk like a Chinese girl who has had her feet bound. The one with a straight jacket, tailored to keep me from talking with my hands and waving my arms in punctuation. That one. The high heels, well, I knew they had to come out of hiding. Taller than most French women in stocking feet, I now looked like an Amazon warrior, prepared to lead the battle, except that I had almost forgotten how to keep my balance in heels.

The sun didn’t forget to rise on Friday. The mirror reminded me that I was 35 years old, almost too old to even apply for the job. The final interview was not at the airport after all, but at some office in the 16th arrondissement. As I entered the building, crowds of Parisian beauties had already filled the hall. They were slim as pencils, petite, simply tastefully dressed in magazine fashions that I only flipped through at the hairdresser’s. Someone called my Anglo-Saxon name, which I almost didn’t recognize because of the heavy French accent.

Once in the office, I faced three executive women, seated behind a long table. If the purpose was meant to intimidate, it was effective. They stared at me as if I were a strange, anatomical specimen for one of their research papers. The white-haired lady, with the petite, round face, was the psychiatrist. The personnel director was nondescript and made no impression on my memory, as is the wont of bureaucratic workers. The other lady wore her hair severely pulled from her face, showing off sharp features, made more pronounced with the indignity of age. She wore the typical uniform of the Parisian matron: Channel suit with gold buttons, lots of jewelry, scarf deftly tied as only a French woman can do with panache, and perfect make-up that masked her peasant ancestry.

After formal introductions where you “present” one another to one another, and other phatic pleasantries, the psychiatrist immediately asked why my hair was different than my photo which I had submitted. She interrogated me as to my ability to coiffure my own hair. I suppose this is a very important skill to have mastered if I am to get the job–not to do hair–but not to be intimidated. After answering, to head off the obvious question, I immediately thanked them for their patience with my French. As I rightly predicted, they seized upon this like a good piece of gossip and asked me how I would cope with the French passengers. Of course I gave the party line: I said that the French were a very friendly and understanding people and that in time I would improve. Neither one of us believed the statement but I passed the PR test.

Towards the end of this long, pedantic interview, the psychiatrist spotted on my application that I had performed and taught seminars on mime. Then she made a most unusual request for which Nutan did not prepare me: she asked me in very polite French, if I would mind performing for the panel. Understanding not just the French, but the implied command, I accepted. Off came the straight jacket and the high heels, but the straight skirt would limit movement from the waist down. My coiffure, secured only by a few bobby pins and a breath of hair spray, was precariously in danger of falling on my face, a mimic’s canvas for expression. Gratefully, I remembered a simple maneuver of pretending to be blocked by an invisible wall. Putting my palms straight up, perpendicular to the ceiling, (I’m glad I didn’t cement them to my lap after all), and keeping them rock still, I pushed my shoulders back and forth, to give the impression that I was, indeed, pressing against a wall. After a few minutes of pushing different sides of the walls which had me boxed in, and grimacing frustration that there was no way out, I produced a key from my pocket and unlocked one of the walls which now became a door. I had a big smile on my face and wiped the sweat off of my brow in relief. I then bowed to my audience who, like all French audiences for mime, clapped with glee. No one likes mime like the French. It turns them into little children watching Punch and Judy at the Tuilleries Park. Even the nondescript lady smiled broadly through her make-up. Two weeks later, in some obscure recess of the catacombs in Charles de Gaulle, I found myself being fitted for my navy blue Air France uniforms by another Air France employee, handbag and shoes to match.