Sunday, 19 May 2013

Ruby slippers

Almost 5 years ago, I started work at a small Parisian company based in the Marais. On the first Monday, as on every subsequent Monday for the best part of four years, I sat at the circular marble table, très design, with my ten or so colleagues as we discussed projects and planned out the week. On that first Monday, during an absent-minded moment, I found myself looking under the table, at all our feet. There they were, 18 low-heeled black shoes, like the spokes of a wheel. Each of them chic and correct and comme il faut. Completing the circle of footwear, were my two pink Mary-Janes with a t-bar and contrasting tights. Quelle horreur. I was different, and it showed from my head right down to my fuschia pink toes. For the record, I was almost certainly wearing all black or navy from the ankle upwards, so I was never exactly punky, or even trendy or an all out dandy. But I was certainly une "Anglosaxone".

This had already been established at a previous company (a large French institution) where they interviewed me for a job and hired me, only to decide at the last minute that they weren't actually able to take on an "Anglosaxon" and had to find someone French. I'm pretty sure it wasn't "legal" to decide based on ethnicity, and to say so to my face, but the culture was not yet anything like the UK or the US where such fears would come into play. They could hire out the parts of the job that needed English to an outside freelance or partner agency. Luckily I found another company willing and actively looking to hire an English speaker.

At work as at home in my quartier, I felt slightly oppressed by our decision to try and 'go native' and fit in, not to seek out anglophones but to try and fully immerse ourselves into our adoptive city, language and culture. We saw only French films, or even, disastrously, English films dubbed into French. We read newspapers, books, magazines only in French, subjected ourselves to French television and even got hooked on Nouvelle Star. We saw only our pre-existing English friends and otherwise sought the company of only French speakers. We didn't go back to England for the first 6 months. It was lonely and a complete culture shock for me. It was hard to make friends, we saw some French cousins of OhPapa's, and some language exchange acquaintances, and we started to be friendly with a few neighbours and work friends. It was hard work to establish common interests, find shared references, and we felt a bit apart from life and lonely, and I lost heart for a long time.

Five years down the line, I know how wrong our approach was. Our unique selling point at work was being English, not competing with French candidates on their own territory. At work, our language, connections and perspective were useful because and not in spite of the fact that we were British, and in our daily lives and friendships we should have embraced that just as much. Befriending fellow expats has in fact led us to meet more French friends because they have an interest in meeting us for who we are, and we naturally met people with an interest in meeting foreigners. It helps too that the last five years have seen a real surge of "anglos" becoming leaders in various industries in France, opening doors and inspiring more interest in and acceptance of anglo culture. Some of Paris's trendiest restaurants and wine bars are run by "Anglosaxons", and now more than ever the wider impact of the non-francophone world is being felt. There is an increasing anglo community of people that are not afraid to show their roots and celebrate their differences. And Nathalie Portman's moving here! Call me! There are still huge cultural differences, and they are to be celebrated all the more as our world moves ever closer to homogeny. And they will of course form the basis of much of my ranting in this space! But my pink shoes are still going strong and I'm happy they are finding other colourful friends to hang out with.


  1. Hmmm...will helicopter mom Nat start catching on with French ways and let Aleph ride by himself?
    Will the Daily Mail catch her in the sandbox next?
    Must wait and see..
    The initial immersion period has meant a lot of radio soccer games and cherie FM. Tanks for Nouvelle.
    It's an interesting process though I haven't excluded any contact with other extra-terrestrials so far..
    Love your POW!

  2. Haha Carol, I love it, I for one will be ecstatic to be rubbing shoulders with Nat and Aleph in the sandbox! Cherie FM oh no, that brings back lonely times in the aisles of Franprix, Cherie and packet fondue were my life for at least a year!

  3. Glad the pink shoes are still going strong. Some things should never change!!!

    P.S. Glad to discover your blog!

    xoxo PARIS BEE kids blog