When we got here, Josh called Madame Lehman, his boss at the Academie. He felt slighted when she told him, “I’m too busy to talk right now. Call back in ten minutes.” But when he called back, he got, “Let me see if I can help you—and does your wife want a job, too?” Of course I did! It means that I get to spend six hours a week with adorable French children, and someone else has to file my papers to get permission to stay in the country.
So, off to orientations, as language assistants and at the schools where we’ll be studying. Our language assistant orientation took place in Marseille. A forty minute bus ride away, the city is big, dirty, and wonderful. It sprawls over hills on the Mediterranean, with a deep blue jewel of a port, flanked by medieval fortresses, nestled in the heart of the old city. We used one of our lunch breaks to sit on the docks and watch white sailboat masts bob against the blue sky.
Most of our orientation involved sitting around filling out forms, waiting to fill out forms, or waiting to hand in the forms we’d just filled out. It gave us lots of time (but still not quite enough) to talk to the other assistants. There was something spectacular about being in a room full of people whose ideas had so closely aligned with mine that they had just made the same weird life decision. It was one of the best “meet‘n’greets” I’ve been to.
Madame Lehman (or, as Josh calls her, Monique) was the protagonist of the week. The “grande coordinatrice” of our program, she’s a US Marine, a grandmother, and MC Hammer rolled into one. When I first met her, I made my customary error of backing up in surprise when she went in for the “nice to meet you” cheek kisses. She grabbed me and planted them on. Many of my conversations with the other assistants were about something Madame Lehman had said or done. They went from, “Did you see her with the girl that was crying? She patted her on the bottom!” to, “I’d skip out on this orientation, but I’m afraid of Madame Lehman.”
And Madame Lehman had a special place in her heart for, as she calls him, “Jo-su-ah.” I had to explain to the other assistants why she called on him to do things like help her load a powerpoint presentation at one of our big meetings and to make announcements on the bus. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to tell them.
When Friday morning rolled around, we were prepared. We’d heard from second-time language assistants that at the big meeting with everyone there, Madame Lehman would call on a few of her “favorites” to come up and do various things in front of the assembly (speak Chinese, tell a joke, throw a football). It seemed like she was showing them off as representatives of how great she thought we all were (confirmation of this view: she had photographers roving around taking pictures of us). The humiliation part of the assembly would happen after the long and boring welcome speeches, but before the visit by the regional official (whose entrance would be preceded by trumpet music). Luckily we decided not to bail on the whole event. The first several welcome speeches came and went, each about forty-five minutes. A few of us assistants were called on to undergo public humiliation and answer questions asked too quickly in French. Another language assistant came out playing the violin, at which point the regional official came down the long flight of stairs from the back of the auditorium.
And then it happened. After the regional official finished his own welcome speech, Madame Lehman joined him at the front of the room. She took the microphone, and: “Josua?” Josh looked up from his reading. “Josua?” “Maybe it’s not you!” I whispered. It was him. “Ou est Josua?” He stood up. She called him to the front. He and the regional official exchanged some kind of communication unintelligible to the rest of us. He scurried back to his seat. The procedure was repeated with another victim (I mean language assistant). When he got back he told us what had happened: Madame Lehman had simply told him to “speak French.” She wanted the regional official to guess where he was from. He began by saying, “Bonjour” in the thickest American accent he could muster. He turned to Madame Lehman. Her face was stone cold. He proceeded to say something in his real, “French person French,” and then the regional official guessed that he was an anglophone. And then he was free.
Why are they doing this? We all asked each other. Our only guess is that this is the French idea of team building. Madame Lehman seemed to be enjoying it like a proud parent at kindergarten graduation.
Lest you get the idea that our orientation was not pleasant, let me give you a few details: bottles of wine set out for us on the college cafeteria tables. Patisserie and free meals every time we turned around. “Formacion pedagogique,” teacher training. And best of all, meeting the American consulate.
Madame le Consul had a special presentation for American language assistants to give us a welcome speech (surprise) and tell us what the consulate could do if we needed it. After years of French orientation, being “presented to” by an American was a relief. In fact, it felt nostalgically like our college orientations. And Madame le Consulate not only welcomed us with a speech. She welcomed us into her home. Thursday evening was crowned by a visit to the official consular residence. Sweeping seaside views from the terrace and delicious regional specialties awaited us. I had: provencal tabouleh, eggplant terrine with red sauce, two kinds of quiche, meatball stuffed tomatoes, frangrant grapes and cheeses, and meringue topped with sorbet and ice cream.
But best of all was Madame le Consul herself. She manages to seem, at the same time, like both your favorite aunt, and your gracious monarch. She has all the dignity and decorum of a head of state, but is down to earth enough that I bet she could talk about how much dog poop there is on the sidewalks here. The majority of students I talked to or overheard were completely in awe and suddenly planning careers in foreign service. Madame le Consul warned us that it takes years of difficult and demanding posts to earn a position as clutch as Consul in the South of France. I know that she’s managed to work her way through some pretty adverse situations (she spent years in the Middle East). But she never alluded to the part of the job I’m sure must be the hardest: thinking before she speaks. I know I could never do it, so I guess I’d better give up dreams of living in a seaside mansion and giving out emergency passports. I’m sure teaching English has its own perks.
One last brush with French office life: Friday afternoon, we were finally done, but I had one more paper to drop off. I went with two of the other assitants, Michelle and Julia (who’s from Central PA—woot, woot.). Julia just had to turn in a bank information card—A “RIB.” Banks print them out in sheets of three and you need them for most major financial agreements, like phone contracts, or to get paid by your employer. Julia had carefully torn one off the top of the sheet, and handed it to Madame le Office Person. There was a kerfuffle in French, after which Julia handed over the rest of her sheet of RIBs, and Madame le Office Person pulled out a pair of scissors to cut off a different one. When we were back outside, I asked an indignant Julia what that had all been about. “She didn’t want a ripped one! She actually said, ‘Is this the best you have to give me?’” “Can I put that on my blog?” “Please do.”